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No. 30 SUMMER 2008
This edition of The Reader magazine is offered free for download. You are welcome to share it but please respect the rights of the contributors and do not republish any of the content without asking and being granted permission. Please consider making a donation to help fund the outreach work of The Reader Organisation at http:// thereader.co.uk/index.php?pid=341. You can buy a copy of the current print edition of the magazine, or subscribe here: http://thereader. co.uk.
Published by The University of Liverpool School of English. Supported by:
EDITOR DEPUTY EDITOR CO-EDITORS
Philip Davis Sarah Coley Angela Macmillan Brian Nellist Christopher Routledge John Scrivener Jen Tomkins Enid Stubin Les Murray The Reader 19 Abercromby Square Liverpool L69 7ZG email@example.com www.thereader.co.uk See p. 9 See p.124
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ABOUT THE READER ORGANISATION
Jane Davis, Director, The Reader Organisation
The Reader Organisation is a group of people for whom literature is a key way to understand and relate to the world. Through four strands of activity, we want to bring about a reading revolution, and put books at the heart of life: GET INTO READING is our fflagship social outreach programme, building community through shared reading. Groups meet weekly and books are read aloud. THE READER MAGAZINE addresses those for whom literature is already a muchloved activity, urging them to read more deeply, widely, or more demandingly. READER EVENTS bring readers – old hands and absolute beginners – together in new ways, from a Food for Thought working lunch to the Christmas Party that is The Penny Readings. RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT helps us to improve what we do, or to prove its value. We hope to create new ways of writing about reading and its effect on readers. In this issue I write about a new Reader adventure, Wirral Community Shakespeare (see page 97). OUR UNIVERSITY CONNECTION The Reader has operated within the School of English at the University of Liverpool since 1997. But in March 2008 the organisation constituted a legal entity in its own right: we have spun out! We now have legal independence, but the University remains our biggest supporter and continues to provide our Liverpool off ices, f inancial support, and lots of creative connections. The English Subject Centre, for example, has funded a project between the School of English and The Reader, training undergraduates to develop reading groups in community settings as part of Get Into Reading. The Reader Organisation’s Research Director, Dr Josie Billington, who also teaches in the School of English, is running ‘Remedies for Life: a literature course for Medics’ in Liverpool’s School of Medicine. We want to develop many more creative projects which will connect literature to the rest of the University. THE FUTURE ‘People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.’ Saul Bellow, Herzog We used this quotation in 1997 in the very f irst issue of The Reader. We believe that we have something real to offer the UK and we are seeking investment and support at a national level for our vision of a new large-scale social function for literature. The Reader Organisation is committed to making sure that this precious untapped resource (old stuff, classics, poetry, the great unread) gets out of the university and into the hands of people for whom it might be humanly valuable. This is a reading revolution!
Morgan Meis and friend Blake Morrison
7 9 Philip Davis ‘Def iant of Outcomes!’ Editor’s Picks
39 63 69 Philip Pullman The Storyteller’s Responsibility Morgan Meis Rivers, Boats, Bridges and the Sea Tessa Hadley Crying at Novels
18 20 37 59 76 Face to Face Les Murray’s Ten Favourite Australian Poets, Part I Stephen Sandy Phill Jupitus Matt Simpson
29 Adam Phillips Possibilities
10 Ian McMillan Letters to a Younger Self 77 Blake Morrison Books to Make Us Better
THE POET ON HER WORK
47 Myra Schneider
51 Melvyn Bragg Remember Me 125 Frank Wedekind, trans. John Lynch The Inoculation
13 Josie Dixon What is Happening to Our Bookshops? 103 Donna Coonan Thirty Years of Virago Modern Classics
Adam Phillips Myra Schneider Phillip Pullman
91 94 Enid Stubin Our Spy in NY The London Eye In Which I Am Thankful for being Disturbed 97 Jane Davis The Winter’s Tale in Birkenhead 101 Brian Nellist Ask the Reader
REVIEWS: NEW BOOKS
87 Good Books: short reviews Ryan Cunliffe on Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five Mary Knight on Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin 110 Brian Nellist On Vernon Scannell 117 Sarah Coley on Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia
THE BACK END YOUR RECOMMENDATIONS
88 Readers Connect Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 90 Letters page Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘Like Truthless Dreams’ 115 Marion Leibl on Russell Hoban, A Bargain for Frances 108 Brian Nellist The Old Poem 120 Prize Crossword By Cassandra 121 Buck’s Quiz 122 Quiz and Puzzle Answers 123 Contributors
photograph by Tom Ashley
‘Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart Could have recover’d greenness? … And now in age I bud again, After so many deaths I live and write.’
‘DEFIANT OF OUTCOMES!’
t was the re-opening of the beautiful Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool and The Reader was asked to provide a panel for the occasion. Members of the audience would be invited to submit a problem and the panel was supposed to suggest a book that would help with it. If on the day of the event you had offered me the choice between going ahead with it or sticking pins in my own eyes, I might well have chosen the pins. It is not that I believe in art for art’s sake alone. I hate the idea that literature must not sully its beauty or diminish its autonomy with the thought of human usefulness. But equally I don’t suppose that books offer direct solutions or utilitarian cures. Literature is not a set of practical self-help books – ‘How to Overcome Depression’ is the sort of user-friendly book that makes me depressed in the first place. But I was wrong: it turned out to be a surprisingly serious and rather moving event. I’ll give you just one example, because it was the one I mucked up. A quiet man in his late sixties said that a few years ago he retired after a lifetime spent being a mechanical engineer. Now he found that not one of the firms he had worked hard to maintain existed any more. Unlike someone who wrote books, he said, he had outlasted his work and had nothing to show for it all. Of course, stupidly, it was only afterwards that I remembered what I should have said. I should have directed him, specifically, to the account of Daniel Doyce, the great neglected inventor in chapter 16 of Dickens’s Little Dorrit. Nobody will listen to Doyce; it is hopeless trying to get civil servants to pay attention to an invention that actually would benefit the whole nation. Wouldn’t it be better to give up, says his friend Arthur Clennam. ‘A man can’t do it,’ says Doyce:
You hold your life on the condition that to the last you shall struggle hard for it. Every man holds a discovery on the same terms.
Says Clennam: ‘You are not finally discouraged even now?’
‘I have no right to be if I am,’ returned the other, ‘The thing is as true as ever it was.’
I wish I had remembered this in time. There is in it something rightly defiant of outcomes. What the retired engineer said was sad but admirable. It made me feel oddly proud that what he spoke of was not just his problem: nothing we do may outlive us. Here is another quotation I only thought of later. I found it years ago in Norman Mailer’s account of a notebook of his in which he wrote down the good things he had read. One of the literary passages which that wild man of American literature had noted down was this – unlikely though it may seem – from the work of the Edwardian English gentleman, John Galsworthy, author of The Forsyte Saga:
He still knew that he could help her no longer, nor could anyone else, for she had come now into that domain where her problems were everyone’s problems, and there were no answers and no doctors.
This is the territory literature inhabits: that holding-ground for human thought which exists in between a writing that is merely arty at one extreme and a writing that is merely message-bearing at the other. This issue of The Reader takes its sub-title ‘I live and write’ from George Herbert’s great poem ‘The Flower’, on a seemingly miraculous recovery from depression. ‘Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart/ Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone . . .’ It is dated 1633 and we read it at the Bluecoat. But one of the things that stopped me turning the car back on my way there was hearing a popular broadcaster on a local radio station airing his views concerning literature (not all things are perfect in Liverpool). He said, ‘The Classics! They’re for the students and the posh.’ This issue is about the relation between living and writing, living and reading, for those who may be neither students nor posh, the freshness of old things coming back to new life as they did for Herbert: ‘I once more smell the dew and rain, / And relish versing.’ This is why, as well as publishing new writing, we have created a series defiantly called ‘The Old Poem’ and re-designed our Readers Connect section to feature a jury of different readers offering a verdict on a World’s Classic. It is also why we in The Reader are thinking of starting a national campaign petitioning TV’s Richard and Judy to include old books as well as new in their promotion of reading. We launch our Shipping Lines literary festival here in Liverpool 7–9 November of this year: the lines are poetry’s connecting the world as the great Liverpool ships and their engineers once did. Let’s invade Richard and Judy’s London studio.
In this living and writing issue, two novelists – Tessa Hadley and Philip Pullman – discuss what writing and reading the novel means to them. Read excerpts from Melvyn Bragg’s new novel and have the
privilege of seeing some of his earlier drafts, showing something of how a novelist does it. As requested by many, there is a longer version of the article Blake Morrison published in The Guardian on the work of The Reader Organisation in its outreach programme. Our new section ‘Book World’ concentrates on the world of publishing and booksselling. Our old friend the poet Les Murray introduces the first in a two-issue presentation of his favourite Australian poets of all time: five in this issue, five in September. Our new young friend Morgan Meis writes from America on the bridges of the world. Matt Simpson is one of the many distinguished poets here in Liverpool. From Vermont Stephen Sandy has sent us a poem to launch our Shipping Lines literary festival: our editor first met Stephen when interviewing him on his memories of Bernard Malamud. Two other pieces arise from the more geographically limited wanderings of the editor. The interview with the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips is a continuation of the conversation between Adam and Phil at the Radio 3 Live Thinking Festival held in Liverpool last year. At about the same time, comedian Phill Jupitus came to The Reader office to record material for a Radio 4 programme he was doing on little magazines. We got these poems out of him before he got out of the door: look for the reference to his colleague Russell Brand.
Shipping Lines Literary Festival
(Liverpool 7–9 November 2008) For more information or to register for regular updates please email: firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Renée Hemmings at The Reader Office (University of Liverpool, 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG).
The Reader genuinely welcomes submissions of poetry, fiction, essays, readings and thought. We publish professional writers and absolute beginners. Send your manuscript with SAE please to: The Reader Office, 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG, UK.
LETTERS TO A YOUNGER SELF
Ian McMillan hosts the hit weekly show The Verb on BBC R3. He invites you into his crowded house.
or a while, a couple of years ago, our house was bulging like a fat bloke’s waistcoat; me and my wife, my oldest daughter, my middle daughter with her little lad, and my son all crowded into the house. We got the loft converted and moved beds around and put a cot here and a chair there and then of course, as ever, there was the problem of what to do with the books. Never mind the kids and the grandchild: where are the books going to live? The bookshelves were full and double-stacked. The cupboards in the loft were full of books. There were books in the conservatory and leaning towers of paperbacks and hardbacks beside our bed. And still the books arrived, jiffy bags tumbling through the letterbox like little parcels of promise and delight and serendipity because, as readers of The Reader, we all know that the next book we rip from the jiffy bag or the next book we grab from the library shelf or the next book we liberate (for money, of course) from the bookshop pile might be The One, the best we’ve ever read, the desert island companion that will see us through to the end of our days. Of course, presenting a weekly language and literature show like The Verb on Radio 3 every week means that the books just keep arriving and I keep reading them, marking my place with train tickets or more eccentric objects like plastic spoons or leaves, and then stacking them up in any available space. Then, starting about a year ago, the number of people in the house
began to shrink; my eldest daughter went to live with her boyfriend in Barnsley; my middle daughter took herself and her little lad Thomas to live in Grimethorpe, and my son went to Lancaster University to study (what else!) English and Creative Writing. My eldest daughter reads what people with sneers in the voices (the same people who sneer when a shopkeeper puts an apostrophe in Tomatoes: Ooh, look: I’m cleverer than him and I’m a guardian of that breakable vase we call language!) call Chick Lit, so all the Chick Lit flitted when she did; little Thomas loves books of all kinds, and a number of his stacks followed him to Grimethorpe: piles of lovely old Topsy and Tim books including my favourite (and Thomas’s), Topsy and Tim’s Foggy Day, when the twins brave it through the fog to Miss Maypole’s School and the two of them and their mate Tony Welch are the only ones who get through the gloom and the impossibly glamorous Miss Maypole rewards them by letting them sit and watch films and eat chestnuts roasted on the fire. Bliss! My son took some of his poetry books: the ones he was studying, like Tony Harrison and the poet known (in our house anyway) as Famous Seamus, and some of the ones he reads anyway, like the oddly addictive D. S. Marriott and Brian Turner, the American soldier poet who writes very movingly about his time in Iraq. The house suddenly felt lighter; all those books flown away. It felt like my head feels when I’ve been to Mad Geoff’s for a haircut. So now I’ve got a room that I call The Book Room, even though my wife calls it The Spare Room, and I go into it every day to unpack the jiffy bags and take books out to read, and sometimes a tottering pile tumbles over and I see books at the bottom that I’ve not read yet or that I’ve read before but not read for a while so I want to read them again. So here’s my current reading, sitting in the book room in the afternoon sun, some of it for The Verb, some of it because of those ripples The Verb reading starts off; it’ll be out of date by the time you read this, unless you want to use this piece to begin a philosophical debate about the meaning of that phrase ‘out of date’; top of the pile is the new book by the mighty Australian poet John Kinsella, Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful, which is a set of variations inspired by Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. To précis in an almost nursery-school way, Burke believed that the beautiful was just that, whereas the sublime was more dangerous and (to use a phrase that Burke would have shook his head at because he didn’t understand it) ‘left field’. Kinsella is a truly remarkable poet, writing work that, almost uniquely, is admired by readers from both pub rooms of English poetry: the snug of traditional, well made verse, and the shouty tap room of the high modernists. Kinsella’s ecological anger drives his work, and yet from subjects as unpromising as factory farming, as in
this short extract from his poem ‘Sounds of the Wheatbelt’:
The grasshopper roar is almost the locust roar though not quite a swarming, just holding off an issue of damp and dry, though intensity of insect traffic as three-dimensionally tense as eardrum of the paddock strains and a barking dog is hoarse against the rustling electric scrum...
This is dense and allusive work, worth spending a long time with. It sent me back to Doppler Effect, the huge book of mainly experimental work that Kinsella published with Salt a few years ago, and also to his fat Bloodaxe volume of Selected Poems from 1980–1994. Life could almost be too short to try to take in a vastly prolific poet like Kinsella, but it could also be too short not to. As always, though, with my Verb reading, it takes me back to the book room and to the tottering piles. There’s someone that Kinsella reminds me of, and I can’t quite decide who. I stare at spines for a while and to be frank that’s not helping. I need to get the books down and read them, if I’ve got time. Ken Smith? Maybe. Roy Fisher? Perhaps. Then at the back of a low shelf I come across a couple of old volumes of Penguin Modern Poets; Number 9, featuring Denise Levertov, Kenneth Rexroth and William Carlos Williams, and Number 24 with Kenward Elmslie, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler. Number 9 was 25p, and Number 24 was 45p, and I can remember buying them both at Grass Roots Books in Manchester in the early 1970s. So now I put Kinsella aside and I plunge into these old friends, ostensibly looking for echoes of what I’ve just been reading but really just up for a good time. I sit and grin at Rexroth’s delightful versions of old Japanese poems:
When I went out in the Spring meadows to gather violets, I enjoyed myself so much that I stayed all night
and then I rush from the room to share one of Kenward Elmslie’s exquisite prose poems with the only person in the house available for listening, my grandson Thomas. ‘Gordon makes abusive telephone calls. Uncle Charles pulls over to the side by an inn. He gets out of the car and dies. Gordon comes to the funeral and walks in the garden but does not set foot in the house. Ken takes up the crusade!’ Thomas isn’t impressed. He prefers Topsy and Tim. Hey, I’m writing like Kenward Elmslie!
WHAT IS HAPPENING TO OUR BOOKSHOPS?
t all started with the collapse of the Net Book Agreement. In retrospect it was an extraordinary arrangement – established on 1st January 1900, the NBA worked effectively as an industry-wide cartel, to fix the minimum price of books across the retail spectrum, with controlled exceptions for bookclubs and remaindering. Whether you bought the latest Booker Prize winner in W H Smith or your local independent bookshop, the price was the same. By the mid1990s, this situation – unique in consumer retailing – was becoming untenable, as the power of the major bookselling chains increased (and arguably that of publishers diminished). As Smiths, Dillons – remember them? – Waterstone’s and others squeezed ever larger discounts from publishers in return for their high-volume sales, the pressure was growing to compete for commercial advantage by sharing these discounts with the customer. Eventually, the NBA, like the Berlin Wall a few years before it, fell remarkably quickly – once the first stones were dislodged, the edifice turned out to be a pretty fragile one. In September 1995, a year after the Office of Fair Trading announced a review of the NBA, several major trade publishers, including Harper Collins and Random House, withdrew from the agreement, and the Publishers’ Association (who had previously policed any breaches from rogue booksellers) decided that it could no longer defend it in court. To all intents and purposes it collapsed there and then, and it was something of a formality when in March 1997 the Restrictive Practices Court judged the NBA to be
no longer in the public interest and it was declared illegal. A century of consensual price control evaporated as we burst into a brave new world of discounting and innovative pricing strategies, with bookselling rapidly becoming as competitive as any other retail sector. The most widespread predictions for the industry were from doommerchants forecasting the demise of independent local booksellers at the hands of the all-conquering chains. Inevitably some have gone, though arguably this has had as much to do with the rise of internet bookselling as with the power of high street retailers. ‘Look at America!’ said the pessimists. ‘Yes, look at America!’ said the optimists. The land of free trade, unsurprisingly, had both extremes on offer. On the one hand you could point to cities in the deep south whose 15 bookshops – 12 Christian and 3 ‘adult’ – run the gamut from A to B, or the campus bookstores where you have to fight your way through the T-shirts, baseball caps and slogan-bearing coffee mugs to find any books at all. On the other, there is clearly much to recommend the country that can boast City Lights Books in San Francisco, or the Chicago Seminary Coop Bookstore, not to mention second-hand emporia like the Strand in New York, with its astonishing 18 miles of books. In the event, the most obvious influences of American retailing have proved to be the arrival of superstores like Borders, and the advent of in-store coffee shops (which some would argue is less of a cause for lament). Overall, although the number of stockholding bookshops in the UK has decreased slightly, the amount of retail space devoted to books has risen spectacularly, and consumer spending on books has risen year on year since 1996. In so far as there have been more legitimate concerns about a decline in UK bookselling, most of these revolve around the diminishing range of titles which it is now commercially viable to stock, in an era which has become dominated by discounting bestsellers and pressure on ‘stockturn’ per square foot of retail space. For academic and specialist book sales there has been real cause for concern as booksellers increasingly moved away from the kind of speculative stocking which encouraged freedom to browse and serendipitous purchases, relying instead on just-in-time fulfilment of customer orders which never touch the open shelves. This has affected not just the high street chains, but campus stores and even flagship academic bookshops. While Blackwell’s in Oxford remains as fine a bookshop as you are likely to find anywhere, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the glory days when the Norrington Room in Broad Street seemed to be an unofficial warehouse for their international library supply business, stocking an apparently limitless range of specialist titles on every subject imaginable. This simply isn’t feasible in today’s bricks-and-mortar bookshops (something had to give, to make way for the coffee shop), but, as I
wrote in my last piece for The Reader, internet bookselling has made a rapid and triumphant leap to fill this gap. The rise of Amazon has been the most obvious success story, but the internet has been equally important for specialist bookselling businesses of every sort, from small niche markets to the trade in second-hand, out-of-print and antiquarian books through wonderful sites such as Abebooks. One of the toughest factors for bookshops in having to compete with the likes of Amazon is the fact that their internet rivals have vastly lower overheads, with no retail premises or shopfloor staff, and a relationship with wholesale suppliers which means that they don’t actually have to stock the books (even on the sale-or-return basis which is now more or less universal in the rest of the retail booktrade), thus eliminating the biggest risk factor and financial burden in one fell swoop. In this context, competing with Amazon’s levels of discounting is a formidable challenge, and has largely taken the form of offering incentives for multiple purchases to raise the volume of sales: Waterstone’s 3 for 2s, W H Smith’s ‘Buy one get one half price’ etc. Beyond these, bestsellers are inevitably the main focus of discounting battles between retailers, with competitors now including supermarkets, garages and even vending machines. The price wars over the latest Harry Potter moved discounting into loss-leader territory. Asda’s controversial, headlinegrabbing price of £5 (set against a recommended retail price of £17.99) had booksellers working harder than ever to keep their customers, with early ordering incentives, midnight opening and other in-store events to celebrate publication. Children’s bookselling is in fact a good case to illustrate the ways in which our bookshops are getting it so wrong, and yet sometimes triumphantly right. As a parent of two small children who are fanatical consumers of books, I am amazed by the number of booksellers who hide their children’s section upstairs in shops without a lift, thus making it impossible to negotiate with a pushchair. The best children’s sections are those which are made most accessible in every sense, with real freedom to browse – some Borders stores include a play area and feel more like a children’s library: the books are there to be tried out in situ, even if the odd one does get a bit too battered for sale. But for all the vital joys of browsing, internet bookselling has a great role to play for children’s books too. I am a devotee of the Red House (originally a book club, now a mail order and online business, with no compulsory purchase and free delivery), perhaps because it began life as an offshoot of the Red House bookshop in the nearest town to where I grew up in the Oxfordshire countryside. This was where I made my first purchases with pocket money or book tokens, and once debated with myself long and hard as to whether I dared spend a school prize on the fabulously grotesque Fungus
the Bogeyman Pop-up Book, solely for the pleasure of having it solemnly presented by the visiting dignitary at the annual Speech Day prize-giving ceremony (alas, I did not). Consumer loyalty of this kind may have its basis in oddly sentimental impulses, but if booksellers continue to earn our custom, they can keep it for generations. The mission to inspire this kind of fidelity by identifying with a sense of community spirit is central to ‘Love Your Local Bookshop’ – a national marketing campaign for independent booksellers launched in the autumn of 2007, funded by key wholesalers and the Booksellers’ Association’s Small Business Forum, with support from a number of major publishers. The enterprise is clearly conceived in retaliation against the growing power of chains and superstores, and declares as a central item in its mission statement the aim to ‘engage booksellers and their customers in a positive, celebratory campaign about independence’. Keith Smith, owner of Warwick Books, characterises the campaign as ‘a national literary festival brought to a local level’, with book awards based on sales through the independent sector and voted for by their customers. The first week in July of this year will see the launch of ‘Independent Booksellers’ Week’, with a PR campaign that will be both national and regional; the aim is to establish it more permanently on the calendar alongside events like World Book Day. The regional element is key to the thinking behind this enterprise: it’s not only about the independent status of small bookselling businesses, but also about resisting publishers’ London-centric assumptions – a national marketing strategy has to mean more than adverts on the Tube. Since the type of point-of-sale promotional materials we are used to seeing rolled out in the chains and superstores are all too often beyond the budgets of small independents, a central element of the campaign is to provide these free for participating booksellers to give their marketing more oomph. Watch this space in your local bookshop to see the results in 2008. In a competitive market, the issue of retaining customer loyalty is by no means restricted to independent booksellers, and cropped up repeatedly when I asked Euan Hirst, stock development manager for Blackwell’s in Oxford, for his views on current trends in bookselling. While the seismic changes wrought by the demise of the NBA and the rise of internet bookselling have challenged the traditional set-up of the trade, he points to ways in which they have also helped to ‘professionalise’ its operations – a word he associates with the exemplary German concept of bookselling as a ‘proper trade’. Yet the biggest challenge remains how to keep profit and cash generation at the right level to invest in retaining the best staff, increased stock levels, new technologies, and the highest levels of shopfitting and presentation. This means convincing customers that value is not simply equated with the biggest
bargains, building instead a more service-based loyalty. This is his pitch for what distinguishes our best bookshops from the ‘bland, processdriven’ style of the superstores; he contrasts their drive for efficiency, increasing discounts and cutting costs to the bone, with the more elevated commitments of bookshops with ‘soul’. It’s a fragile concept in a consumer-driven culture, and yet it’s hard not to respond to his sense of what constitutes ‘passion’ in bookselling, citing the ‘inspirational’ example of Waterstone’s, Deansgate in Manchester in the mid-‘90s for its imaginative stockholding and promotion. Euan’s answer to what the booktrade can learn from internet bookselling is to point to the value of backlist, and what has become known in the trade as ‘the long tail’ – extending the sales of the most durable titles far beyond the three-month flash-in-the-pan shelf-life associated with much general, consumer bookselling. Here he points not just to the academic end of the trade, but to the new breed of quality independent that specialises in translated fiction. Will some forms of bookselling – e-books for instance – remain the natural province of the online trade? In those sectors where books are vehicles for information, learning and scholarship, rather than for culture or leisure, Euan believes that e-books will change the face of the trade, and that traditional booksellers will have to find or create a role for themselves in this new environment. It’s a theme which is evidently preoccupying others in the industry, as a glance at the seminar programme for this year’s London Book Fair makes clear. While sessions like ‘Electronic Trading: Saving Time, Money and the Planet’ suggest the aim may be linked to larger environmental issues concerning sustainability, the more urgently entitled ‘Why Bookshops must go Digital’ implies that it is booksellers’ own survival that may be at stake. Euan’s predictions for change in the coming decade are otherwise based on the increasing need for booksellers to focus on which market sector they can most effectively reach. Here he foresees a split in the trade between small but responsive bookshops that are integrated fully into the community they serve (a clear role for the independents, whether their constituency is defined geographically or in terms of subject-specific niche markets), and very large stockholding bookshops like Blackwell with a national and international customer base. These alternative models are clearly applicable to both bricks-and-mortar and online bookselling, so perhaps the two are in some respects destined to converge after all. It has become impossible to imagine a world without either, but in a volatile consumer environment the question of retaining our loyalty remains key to any bookseller’s survival, on the High Street, or on the net. So, if Harry Potter makes a comeback after all, where will you buy your copy?
FACE TO FACE
What do you see from where you are?
What do you see?
I’m in a business lounge at Heathrow looking at logos of wireless internet services.
What book or poem would you like to have written?
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. I never realised that Carroll was a logician – it seems delightful that a logician would come up with such imagery..
Your own best work?
I see East Mountain where snow still clings, above Baptist church steeple with its electric cross and picket guard of plastic owls around it failing to threaten the flock of pigeons roosting there.
Brave, smart, and in love.
I surprised myself when I wrote the play Waiting For Alice. I felt like a grown up.
In three words describe your ideal reader.
Tibetan Marches by Andre Migot; Peter Levi, The Light Garden of the Angel King: Journeys to Afghanistan.
Featured on page 37
Open. Chatty. Hungry.
I just finished Born Standing Up, Steve Martin’s account of how he became a stand up. Very revealing…
Featured on page 59 Stephen Sandy
What do you see?
What do you see?
Billy Marshall Stoneking
What do you see?
Papers, folders, notebooks, dictionaries, books and dust and remind myself that within the chaos are organised areas!
Your own best work?
A computer screen and piles of books and papers.
Like to have written?
Always the last poem which I feel has been some kind of successful breakthrough.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, Keats’s Odes.
Your own best work?
Morning on Hen and Chicken Bay and Wareemba Beach, looking west towards a broken line of clouds hovering over the Blue Mountains.
Like to have written?
Your own best work?
I am deeply suspicious of being pleased with anything I write.
I have just finished Ian McEwen’s On Chesil Beach. His writing is accomplished and the story poignant and yet I felt, as I always do with his work, that a dimension is missing. I have just started On Skirrid Hill, Owen Sheers’ second collection. He’s a talented poet with an authentic voice.
Featured on page 47
My collection of poems, Singing the Snake. And my play about Ezra Pound, Sixteen Words for Water.
Featured on page 76
An empathetic adversary
Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward; Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse.
Featured on page 25 Billy Marshall Stoneking
FAVOURITE AUSTRALIAN POETS PART I
great many Australian poems are favourites of mine, but The Reader asked for ten, so here is a selection from the riches. Eight of them were first published in the twentieth century, while those of Robert Gray and Ashlley Morgan-Shae are very recent. Similarly, eight of the poets are or were Australian-born, while two have been domiciled in Australia. One of these is New Zealander Jennifer Compton, long resident in New South Wales. The other, Billy Marshall Stoneking, has returned to the USA and reclaimed his American citizenship, but his poem is a unique case. As a young immigrant teacher from West Virginia in the Sixties and early Seventies of the last century Billy Marshall as he was then known worked in schools in remote inland Australia. There he became friends with initiated Aboriginal elders who passed along elements of their belief and custom to him – their sacred lore, as we might say, though they would call it their Law, and mean no pun by that. In the manner of another white poet, Roland Robinson, a generation earlier, Billy Marshall took what had been told to him in a mixture of indigenous language and contact-English and transported it into a more dignified form, in line with Western literary practice. In the traditional Aboriginal world, all poetry is sung; what Marshall worked from was ‘Outside’ accounts, so called, intended for an uninitiated man, in this case a friendly foreigner. His versions came out in the early 1980s in a fine book titled Singing the Snake, published
by the venerable firm of Angus and Robertson, but much that underlay that book didn’t belong to the Western calendar at all. Interestingly, in the same period and in the desert region, the renaissance of Aboriginal non-figurative painting which has since gone round the world was just getting started. Much of that painting, of course, is done as it were in code, to protect sacred content. We on the outer delight in the intricacy, the sumptuous colours, the haunting gesture and design, yet nothing is really given away. Our critique is baffled and kept at an essential remove. Taking that hint, and from much gloomy experience, I have become gun-shy of ever seeing poetry on the same pages as critical commentary. Or even in the same magazines. For this reason, I offer no more apparatus with this mini-anthology. Not even potted biographies: those can be got from Google, if wanted. Now enjoy the reading, and feel free to cough.
Bones in a Pot
Little Billy Button Said he wanted mutton; Miss Betty Bligh Said she wanted pie; But young Johnny Jones Said he wanted Bones – Bones in a pot, All hot!
I’m like all lovers, wanting love to be A very mighty thing for you and me. In certain moods your love should be a fire That burnt your very life up in desire. The only kind of love, then, to my mind Would make you kiss my shadow on the blind. And walk seven miles each night to see it there, Myself within serene and unaware. But you’re as bad. You’d have me watch the clock And count your coming while I mend your sock. You’d have my mind devoted day and night To you, and care for you and your delight. Poor fools, who each would have the other give What spirit must withhold if it would live. You’re not my slave; I wish you not to be, I love yourself and not your love for me, The self that goes ten thousand miles away And loses thought of me for many a day. And you love me for loving much beside, But now you want a woman for your bride. Oh, make no woman of me, you who can, Or I will make a husband of a man! By my unwomanly love that sets you free Love all myself, but least the woman in me.
The blacksmith’s boy went out with a rifle and a black dog running behind. Cobwebs snatched at his feet, rivers hindered him, thorn-branches caught at his eyes to make him blind and the sky turned into an unlucky opal, but he didn’t mind, I can break branches, I can swim rivers, I can stare out any spider I meet, said he to his dog and his rifle. The blacksmith’s boy went over the paddocks with his old black hat on his head. Mountains jumped in his way, rocks rolled down on him, and the old crow cried, ‘You’ll soon be dead.’ And the rain came down like mattocks. But he only said I can climb mountains, I can dodge rocks, I can shoot an old crow any day, and he went on over the paddocks. When he came to the end of the day the sun began falling. Up came the night ready to swallow him, like the barrel of a gun, like an old black hat, like a black dog hungry to follow him. Then the pigeon, the magpie and the dove began wailing and the grass lay down to pillow him. His rifle broke, his hat blew away and his dog was gone and the sun was falling. But in front of the night the rainbow stood on the mountain, just as his heart foretold. He ran like a hare,
he climbed like a fox; he caught it in his hands, the colours and the cold – like a bar of ice, like the column of a fountain, like a ring of gold. The pigeon, the magpie and the dove flew up to stare, and the grass stood up again on the mountain. The blacksmith’s boy hung the rainbow on his shoulder instead of his broken gun. Lizards ran out to see, snakes made way for him, and the rainbow shone as brightly as the sun. All the world said, Nobody is braver, nobody is bolder, nobody else has done anything to equal it. He went home as bold as could be with the swinging rainbow on his shoulder.
Billy Marshall Stoneking
The Seasons of Fire
There is Law for Fire, singing for Fire, dancing for Fire – Fire Dreaming. You have been there, you have seen it. You know all the names of Fire; signal fires, hunting fires, sleeping fires, fires for light, fires for cooking, for ceremonies, healing fires of eucalyptus leaves – Fire is medicine, magic. Fire gave Crow a voice, flying away in pain. Fire brings old quarrels to an end. On top of Uluru, do not drink At the rockhole of Warnampi unless you take Fire or the snake will bite your spirit and drought will follow. Fire can protect you from the dead ones. You have been there, you have seen them. You know all this Fire. The penis is Fire. The vagina is Fire. Fire is inside the bodies of animals. The woman hands a firestick to the boy and he becomes a man. There is a time for every fire. The fires of January are different from the fires of June. In the cold time, a small nudge before sleep will keep the flame alive all night. The right ash, the right heat, the right position of wind, dune and saltbush: a technology of Fire. The knowledge.
You have been there, you have watched. You know all the seasons of Fire. Hawk stopped Bush Turkey throwing Fire into the sea. Fire cannot be stolen now; it lives Everywhere – inside the spinifex and dry wood. All this is Law. ‘The smoking days’ – Buyuguyunya – come every year. The air is full of smoke. The smoke comes first, then the fire, and then the smoke. All this is Law. Hot is more than two sticks rubbed together; and no chopping – take only what you can drag: green wood for shelter; dead pieces for waru. The wind from the mouth works kindling. Fire makes grass seed. It finds the kangaroo and chases him to the hunters. All this is Law. The burning off and the gathering together are one. You have been there, you have seen it. You know all the seasons of Fire.
Among the Mountains of Guang-xi Province in Southern China
I had been wading for a long while in the sands of the world and was buffeted by its fiery winds, then I found myself carried on a bamboo raft (I am speaking literally now), poled by a boatman down the Li River. A guest in Beijing at the Central Academy of Arts, brought to the countryside, I’d wandered out alone. A sheen on the night and across the ranks of water, and close mountains that joined smoky earth and sky. When I saw the landscape around Guilin city and realised it was the same as the painter Shi Tao had known it I felt suddenly exalted, as though I were riding in the saddle of a cloud. The mountains’ outlines were crowded one behind another and seemed a wild loosening of the brush, a switchback scrubbing, rounded or angular, until the last fibres of the ink had been used up, again and again. Those narrow blue mountains make endless configurations. They are by far the main crop the province bears. Chuang Tzu said that a twisted tree is not useful and so it can survive for a thousand years. A lead star plunged behind the mountains as if the galaxy were crumbling more quickly than them. How to convey the strangeness of this region? I thought of migrating whales that break together, almost upright, out of the sea.
That suggests their power, but not their stillness. Some mountains reminded me of tall-hatted mushrooms, some of veiled women, among a laden caravan, but all had a corroded edging of trees. We drifted by a few other rafts and their lanterns. At times I saw rhinoceros horns, or a blackened cathedral; at times the beauty of an old carnivorous jawbone. One place was as dramatic as a vertical wind-sock. There was a broken palace in a fog-bound wilderness. The next day we travelled to the village of Xin Ping and found there drabness and squalor, a terrible indifference and listlessness. Worst of all, the poverty in people’s faces, the smallness of those lives. Everything was the colour of dust and of smoke. How can they not be embittered, and millions with them? They see the comfort of cities, each night, on the communal television, just hours off, and behind a stone door. Earth could not bear the waste, were they to have a fraction of what they know. We who’d alighted there, for a few days, could love nature because of its indifference, and found our freedom in that. To do so, one must be secure. The same type of mountains were at Xin Ping but I saw in them the sadness of eternal things.
Adam Phillips in conversation with Philip Davis
By the time a bright spark turns on the voice recorder, Adam Phillips and Philip Davis are deep in a discussion of American Jewish writers, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow. The main characters of their books are very different individuals. A typical Malamud hero is trapped in tight circumstances that he fights against, with all the odds against him. Over his head, however, the reader glimpses the possibility that limits are what give him strength. On the other hand, a typical Bellow hero explodes in his world with lifetransforming aspiration. Plot and matter give way to his will as well as to his luck. Adam and Philip first met at a Radio 4 ‘Live Thinking’ event in Liverpool in November 2007: this is a continuation of the conversation they began in public back then, following Adam’s now having read Philip’s biography of Malamud.
[PD] You said Malamud made you think things that you hadn’t wanted to think. [AP] When I read Roth and Bellow, I feel their power and exuberance and their energy, and a kind of indomitable quality. When I read Malamud, I’m reminded of a certain kind of grimness, of pared-down, lowered expectation. I have a temperamental aversion to a wailing wall version of Judaism, which is a combination of grandiosity as in ‘the chosen people’, and also the grandiosity of victimhood – the sense of having come from an impoverishment that would cripple the generations and leave one overwhelmed and undone by sadness and/or terror. Roth and Bellow are Emersonian. They believe in the possibility, not of non-assimilation but of non-compliant adaptation. Whereas Malamud is dauntingly realistic. The sense I get from him, or rather from his char29
acters and indeed from his prose, is that there’s a terrible struggle here, and that being seen to struggle can’t be avoided and is masochistically enjoyed. I think I’m frightened of that kind of poignancy, and when I read Malamud there’s a poignancy which is very powerful and that I think is both the most important thing going and therefore something I am suspicious of… I’m slightly depressed by the depression that causes you! I think that sometimes, in Roth’s desire to break out there’s an act of will going on, and to a degree in Bellow too, and that that’s OK but it is temporary. It is late adolescent. I know that readers can get an almost electric surge of energy in reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays: thought abruptly made big by a single sentence. ‘On History’, for example: ‘All public facts are to be individualized, all private facts are to be generalized.’ The point for me is not exactly that this act of will is late adolescent but that whatever late adolescence holds is peculiarly difficult to sustain, but may well be worth sustaining in terms of the imaginative possibilities created. In other words, we really never know what’s possible. The risk for me of the Malamud ethos is that he has too certain a sense of the reality principle. Bellow and Roth heroes by contrast think that the reality principle is to be defied or tested: they think it is a set-up invented by people who want to thwart them. Malamud is full of inspiringly strong people, and Dubin’s Lives is a very good example of this, but his people don’t ever believe in bravado, and I want the opportunity to believe in bravado. It scares me! I feel as if in Malamud there’s potentially a sort of inertia or black hole, or a giving up of possibility. I don’t want to be melodramatic about this but I’m aware that reading some of Malamud creates an anti-Emersonian mood. This is interesting and it reminds me of Marion Milner saying there were books ‘to keep my heart up’. Tell me a bit about your involvement with her: you said when we last met that you knew her towards the end of her life. She was a psychoanalyst who wrote those books to expand herself – A Life of One’s Own and An Experiment in Leisure… She has a belief in the potentiality of the self. Psychoanalysis is part of a project that does not simply disclose to you the way your past has delimited you, but is committed, in the tradition of the psychoanalyst Winnicott, to the sense of unknown and unknowable individual potential. Analysis is not re-parenting, of course, but it offers an opportunity for forms of recognition that might offer new roads that couldn’t have occurred to you. It’s as though, in any given life, parenting is aesthetic, selective. You have originally a range of developmental potentials which are inevitably selected out by virtue of your family. One of the things
analysis can do is show the way in which certain options were preempted or made too fearful, and that is why I want to have Emerson and Freud in the British tradition in psychoanalysis. I would have said that Malamud had a strong sense of possibilities within what looked like small, timid openings, but the more you live with him in time, the more those apparently little openings become important. You begin to forget the scale. My slight quarrel with what you’re saying is whether you’re asking for something big early… to keep your mood up. One of the things I thought your biography of Malamud was brilliant in talking about was his building of sentences. Malamud works in a way that is rigorous and scrupulous, and determined and so on, but actually produces wonderful releases and liberations and astounding sentences. I want to believe, and do believe, in inspiration – the thought that we don’t know where the astounding things come from. What Malamud represents for me, whether or not it’s true about him, is a kind of doggedness that I fear doesn’t necessarily issue in anything. In your Malamud it clearly works and he is a great advertisement for the virtues of letting yourself be bogged down and seeing what comes of it. (Beckett is much funnier about this necessity not being a virtue.) It’s not that I want the big themes in there right from the beginning, but I do want the possibility of them and my money is on unconscious work. That doesn’t mean sitting around waiting to be inspired, but it does mean there’s a limit to what you can consciously contrive. Over-starkly, the difference we have between us is reality principle versus inspiration. Though it’s wrong to think of oneself as a character in a novel, as if there’s an omnipotent novelist who knows the external truth, nonetheless, in any situation in which I find myself, I do think that there is an external truth, even if I never get to it or know it. It can be inhibiting but without that sense of an external reality or truth in which I am placed adventure becomes adventurism. There are hard facts of life that are not changed by being re-described – and one of the things psychoanalysis is valuable for is to show what can’t be changed by re-description. Having said that, it is amazing what people can call up in each other and also what people can inhibit in each other. That is to say, what I’m capable of thinking and feeling in some people’s presence is really quite different. One of the things this suggests is that I might for all sorts of defensive reasons want to translate the idea of a reality principle to a too-omniscient knowledge about myself… It’s as if one is saying to oneself, ‘This is the character I am’. And indeed, if for example I were to start believing that I wasn’t a shy person, or that my shyness was a way of protecting myself from my
wish to show off, there would be a catastrophe. I suppose what I’m interested in is not whether or not there’s a reality principle, but how the idea of a reality principle is exploitable. Say some more, because the one thing I’m not sure the reality principle could be is ‘exploitable’. It’s very important to me that I’m first of all a creature, not a creator. Insofar as I ever get to a form of creation, it’s on the second move as an act of selfreflection. One of the reasons I like Malamud is that he is only, from your point of view, half-creative: an ordinary man using extraordinary means to remain still ordinary. The position of oneself within the world is partly what this is about… What needs to be acknowledged in the middle of this is one’s absolute dependence on the recipient. For me that’s the model. So that I must write from within my creaturely locale, but I’m not the absolute or final authority on what this is that I’ve written. It’ll be sent out and it’ll be received and returned back in various forms, and my belief is that I can’t say, ‘No you’ve got this wrong’. What I can acknowledge is that you will receive this thing that I’ve written or said, and you will metabolise it it in your own way, and something will come back. There’s a sense in which we are inter-dependent rather than soloists. Doesn’t the author know – and rightly know – if he or she is being misunderstood or unrecognised? I would want to promote the idea that it’s impossible to be misunderstood. That when one feels misunderstood, what you’ve stumbled upon is the fact that there are other people in the world. In a way that is the most interesting thing. The better world would be one in which I wouldn’t be sitting there feeling outraged and scandalised at being misunderstood; I would be thinking, ‘That’s really interesting’. I would be interested, in that moment, in seeing what’s coming through, rather than wanting to blow the system apart by my rage. There are affinities in this acknowledgement of difference that I think are better than the outrage if people don’t understand me. I think that rage is adolescent. We shouldn’t want to be understood, we should want to be redescribed. Samuel Johnson said it’s very difficult to be friends with people who hold views directly opposed to your own… It’s not that I think ‘How fascinating it is that there are other people’. What reassures me or makes me feel better is the fact that I don’t have to respond with violence, as a reflex, to the person with the opposed view. This is not a liberal point – clearly there’s a point at which the unacceptable is unacceptable. Morality is based on that. But I do think the thing we are likely to be affronted by is the thing with which we
have some affinity. And there’s a loss of energy in the repudiation of the opposing view. Because your enemy, so to speak, has something profoundly in common with you. The model you don’t like is one of anger and enmity whereas what I think I am talking about is more to do with the feeling of disappointment when people don’t understand your work, and then a sort of indifference that then comes upon one… There may well be another subject matter you can have with that other person, and that usually means giving up on your thing and looking for their thing. What of the possibility that sadness and indifference is a transformation of violent anger? Unconsciously, your first experience is ‘I want to murder this person’. This is obviously terrible and impossible and you’ll be in prison, so you can’t do that. This anger turns into indifference, boredom, sadness. In other words, you’ve had a resignation and faced the fact that there’s no meeting here. I would want more of the violence to be available for conversation without it being enacted. I do believe in conflict as a form of affinity, rather than conflict being the problem. There are connections, says Wordsworth, finer than those of contrast. Though I appreciate your argument that the sadness is a version of the anger, I think there is some terrible truth in a shamed and reluctant sense that everything is potentially disappointing. That’s my biggest fear. And that would exactly be in the area of what we were talking in reading Malamud. Let’s imagine that disappointment is a useful refuge, so that once you feel disappointed you know where you are. This is one version. The other version is that there’s a life organised to avoid the possibility of disappointment. And then the question would be, what’s the big problem with disappointment? You could think disappointment is integral to being human so you had better start learning about it in order to be able to take risks. I would not want my children not to do things for fear of disappointment. I’d want them to be attentive to the moments when they take flight into disappointment as an avoidance of something else. Because I think disappointment is extremely consoling. Yes, agreed: I do associate disappointment with those forms of ageing that give up and I do want to resist it. There’s also a sense in which hope can be poisonous… I think it would be better to bring up our children, from early on, with the idea that there is a question whether life is worth living for any given individual at any point in their lives. For some people, it is a real question and one of the things we can do, thank God, is to kill ourselves. That should be a serious option built into our education. Why are you tolerating pain? I would prefer to start from the position of asking the question whether
life is worth living, whether certain kinds of pain are worth suffering. You’re more ‘sixties’ than I am. For me, suicide is a sin against life. There’s a poem by Wordsworth called ‘Argument for Suicide’ where he talks about: ‘the magic circles / Drawn round the thing called life. Till we have learned / To prize it less, we ne’er shall learn to prize / The things worth living for’. Until we begin to contemplate the thought of suicide we won’t be able to find the things worth living for. You have to go to some brink. But I don’t think it has to be the brink of suicide. There are two checks traditionally. The first is the thought that we ought to live it through and to bear it, as if one has an inbuilt hero myth. The other though is one’s parents and one’s children. The reason one can’t commit suicide is because it’s the ultimate act of hatred and rejection of one’s parents, and it’s the ultimate act of betrayal of one’s children. Those seem to be as close to laws that make suicide a sin as possible. But I think it’s important to have in the picture the possibility that things can happen that make one’s life literally unbearable. I don’t think we should start from the assumption that we can bear anything, because life is harder than that. And I don’t think we should let ourselves be supervised by our children; it is a terrible burden for them. I agree, though I don’t believe that staying it out is a vision of the heroic as such. I think it’s a vision of the non-heroic. But let’s talk about specifics, Primo Levi for example. It’s a sad narrative – to have survived the concentration camps and finally years after to kill yourself as he did is awful. I agree. Yet the question is whether he’s let himself down, or us. I can see why we would want him not to have done it, but I can imagine that for him not to have done it might have felt like self-betrayal. Levi was a representative, however unfair that burden was on him: a representative of survival. And that wasn’t just our vicarious imposition on him. I was thinking of Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Representative of Planet 8 where one lone figure at the end has to see life through to its final extinction on the planet without giving in – because he is the representative of the human lifeforce and no longer simply a frail and frightened individual; because the genetic memory of what he stood for may live on as a result somehow. So in Malamud’s The Fixer, Yakov Bok is only a Jew in so far as he is arrested as a result of antisemitism. He doesn’t believe in Judaism. But increasingly he comes to be the representative of the Jews, because he is being persecuted as one of them. And that makes him feel less lonely, less a single person. We stand for something and are not just ourselves. I believe the Jews think they’re the chosen people because they have such a profound apprehension of their contingency that they know
that no one is chosen. But we don’t need to be self-important or think we matter in special ways in order to live and live in a morally good way. Indeed I think there are certain ways in which we are educated to think we matter that distract us from being able to think at our best. I’d like to drop the mattering and start talking about morality. In a certain mood I would feel almost exactly as you describe about Yakov Bok and responsibility. In another mood, I’d be thinking this is the most absurd anthropomorphism. This is a universe in which all these creatures have evolved of which we are one. We’re nothing special. We have lasted a long time. We may or may not be able to bear and feel that our lives are worth perpetuating, and we probably won’t have any choice. How does your own writing – those essays about every possible topic from being tickled to the status of need, making everything a possible subject-matter – relate to this sense of life? I haven’t got theories, I write sentences. I don’t want you to come out with what Phillips thinks about x, y and z. I’d like you as reader to have an experience. I’ve just written these essays and they seem to have this effect and the effect makes sense to me. I read a lot of philosophy – not because I understand it but for the odd sentence. I get bored with books which are trying to give me loads of evidence to prove something. I identify in a sense more with poets and novelists, but only insofar as I don’t have theory. I don’t have characters either. All that I’ve got are sentences, and often I can’t see the join in them, I can’t see how the sentences link up. When I read most people I think ‘Who are they? What’s the autobiography?’ That’s my characteristic way of doing it. There’s a difference between the thought and the thinker but I think some of what the thought is, is how the thinker has it. But reading you it is a quicker ‘out of the corner of the eye’ sort of read, and it doesn’t feel so autobiographical I love the experience of writing more than anything else about it precisely for that reason. The rest of it is very secondary. It’s thrilling to me, the process of doing it. But I don’t know what it’s founded on. As an experience it seems to come out of nothing.
In the junk shop stood an old wood chest, patina of ships and the sea, use and years; the box heavy, empty, forgotten, set apart. On the lid stenciled in bulky black a sort of tattoo, the legend read JOHN SLATE / LIVERPOOL. I wanted to ask but never found out, was Slate out of Liverpool or bound for it? Down one end small letters read E. S. Liverpool. Is that his son or did that have to be another? Watch by the sea, I think, stand there till an aura grows clear like some maritime koan, or a bottle, frosted and cracked holding a slip of paper, riding the tide.
is appearing at
Liverpool Literary Festival 7-9 November 2008
THE STORYTELLER’S RESPONSIBILITY
hat is the relationship between art and society? Can art do anything to make the world better, or is it quite useless? This is an old puzzle, and no-one has solved it yet. At one end of the range of possible answers lies the Soviet idea that the writer is the engineer of human souls, that art has a social function and should produce what the state needs, and at the other end is the declaration of Oscar Wilde, in the preface to The Picture Of Dorian Gray, that there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book; books are well written or badly written, that is all. However, Wilde wasn’t consistent about this: elsewhere, in The Critic as Artist, he wrote ‘All art is immoral’; and it’s notable that The Picture Of Dorian Gray itself is one of the most firmly moral stories ever written. I hesitate to disagree with Saint Oscar, whatever he said, but I’ve been telling stories for many years now, and in the course of that experience I’ve come to see a few things more clearly than I used to. I take it that art, literature, children’s literature, does not exist in a special realm apart from society. I take it that storytellers are inextricably part of the whole world, and that one way of thinking about the relationship between art and society is to approach it by considering the responsibilities that follow from this.
First, whether or not responsibility begins at home, it feels as if it does. Our first responsibilities are financial: the need to look after our families and those who depend on us. What this means is that we should sell our work for as much as we can decently get for it, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to say so. Some tender and sentimental people, especially young people, are rather shocked when I tell them that I write books to make money. They like the idea of the artist starving in the garret so much that they think poverty must be a necessary condition in which to make art. But worry – constant, unremitting anxiety about bank statements and mortgages and bills – is not a good state of mind to write in. It drains your energy, it weakens your concentration. If we decide to try and make a living by telling stories we have the responsibility – the responsibility to our families, and those we look after – of doing it as well and as profitably as we can. Then there is our responsibility to the medium in which we work. You can tell a story in mime, or in pictures, or in music; but language is the medium for most of us, and once we become conscious of the way language works, we can’t pretend to be innocent about it. We can’t maintain that it’s something over which we have no influence. If human beings can affect the climate, we can certainly affect the language, and those of us who use it professionally are responsible for looking after it. This is the sort of taking-care-of-the-tools that any good worker tries to instil in
“There’s fast-food language, and there’s caviar language”
an apprentice: keeping the blades sharp, oiling the bearings, cleaning the filters. That means, for example, making sure of the meaning of words by looking them up in a good dictionary. And not only that: words have a history, a flavour of their origin, as well as a contemporary meaning. We should acquire as many dictionaries as we have space for, out-of-date ones as well as new ones, and make a habit of using them. Taking care of the tools also means developing the faculty of sensing when we’re not sure about a point of grammar. We don’t have to know infallibly how to get it right so much as to sense infallibly that we might have got it wrong, because then we can look it up and get it to work properly. Sometimes we’re told that this sort of thing doesn’t matter very much. If only a few readers recognise and object to unattached participles, for example, and most readers don’t notice and sort of get the sense anyway, why bother? I discovered a very good answer to that, and it goes like this: if people don’t notice when we get it wrong, they won’t mind if we get it right. And if we do get it right, we’ll please the few who do know and care about these things, so everyone will be happy.
When it comes to imaginative language, to rich and inventive imagery, those of us whose readers include children have to beware. But what we have to beware of is too much caution. We must never say to ourselves ‘That’s a good image – very clever – too clever for this book, though – save it up for something important.’ Someone who never did that, someone who put the best of his imagination into everything he wrote, was the great Leon Garfield. Here’s a passage from one of my favourites among his books, The Pleasure Garden:
Mrs Bray was the proprietress of the Mulberry Garden … Although a widow for seven years, she still wore black, which lent her bulk a certain mystery; sometimes it was hard to see where she ended and the night began. Dr Dormann, standing beside her, looked thinner than ever, really no more than a mere slice of a man who might have come off Mrs Bray in a carelessly slammed door.
There’s fast-food language, and there’s caviar language; one of the things adults need to do for children is to introduce them to the pleasures of the subtle and the complex. A good way to do that, of course, is to let them see us enjoying it, and then forbid them to touch it, on the grounds that their minds aren’t ready to cope with it, it’s too strong, it’ll drive them mad with strange and uncontrollable desires. If that doesn’t make them want to try it, nothing will. The aim must always be clarity. It’s tempting to feel that if a passage of writing is obscure, it must be very deep. But if the water is murky, the bottom might be only an inch below the surface – you just can’t tell. It’s much better to write in such a way that the readers can see all the way down; but that’s not the end of it, because you then have to provide interesting things down there for them to look at. Telling a story involves thinking of some interesting events, putting them in the best order to bring out the connections between them, and telling about them as clearly as we can; and if we get the last part right, we won’t be able to disguise any failure with the first – which is actually the most difficult, and the most important. Next in my list of responsibilities comes honesty, emotional honesty. We should never try to draw on emotional credit to which our story is not entitled. A few years ago, I read a novel – a pretty undistinguished family story – which, in an attempt to wring tears from the reader, quite gratuitously introduced a Holocaust theme. The theme had nothing to do with the story: it was there for one purpose only, which was to force a particular response and then graft it on to the book. It’s possible – difficult, but possible – to write an honest story about the Holocaust, or about slavery, or about any of the other terrible things that human
beings have done to one another, but that was a dishonest one. An emotional response from the reader is a precious thing. Stories should earn their own tears and not pilfer them from elsewhere. When it comes to the craft of saying what happened, the responsibilities become technical, and more and more fascinating. The playwright David Mamet said something very interesting about this. He said that the basic story-telling question for a film director is ‘Where do I put the camera?’ I’ve found that to be a very rich metaphor for the first big problem you have to solve when you start to tell a story: where am I seeing this from? Whose voice is telling this? To judge from their work, it seems that the great directors, the great storytellers, know immediately and without thinking where the best place is to put the camera. They seem to see it as clearly as we can see that leaves are green. A good director will choose one of several goodish positions. A bad director won’t know, and will move the camera about, fidgeting with the angles, trying all sorts of tricky shots or fancy ways of telling the story, and forgetting that the function of the camera is not to draw attention to itself, but to show something else – the subject – with as much clarity as it can manage. But the truth is that great directors only seem to know the best place at once. The notebooks of great writers and composers are full of hesitations and mistakes and crossings-out; perhaps the real difference is that they keep on trying till they’ve found the best place to put the camera. The responsibility of those of us who are neither very good nor very bad is to imitate the best, to look closely at what they do and try to emulate it, to take the greatest as our models. Next, I think that we should keep a check on our self-importance. We who tell stories should be modest about the job, and not assume that just because we’ve thought of an interesting story, we’re interesting ourselves. A storyteller should be invisible, as far as I’m concerned; and the best way to be sure of that is to make the story itself so interesting that the teller just disappears. When I was in the business of helping students to become teachers, I used to urge them to tell stories in the classroom – not read them from a book, but stand up and tell them, face to face, with nothing to hide behind. The students were very nervous until they tried it; they thought that under the pressure of all those wide-open eyes, they’d melt into a puddle of self-consciousness. But some of them tried, and they always came back next week and reported with amazement that it worked, they could do it. What was happening was that the children were gazing, not at the storyteller, but at the story she was telling. The teller had become invisible, and the story worked much more effectively as a result. Of course, you have to find a good story in the first place, but we can
do that. I’ve said before that the great collections of British folk-tales, by writers such as Alan Garner, Kevin Crossley-Holland, and Neil Philip, should be treated in two ways: first, they should be bound in gold and brought out on ceremonial occasions as national treasures; and second, they should be printed in editions of hundreds of thousands, at the public expense, and given away free to every young teacher and every new parent. And stories make themselves at home anywhere. Nowadays a storyteller in Ireland can learn Australian stories, an African storyteller can tell Indonesian stories, a storyteller in Poland can pass on Inuit stories. Should we storytellers make sure we pass on the experience of our own culture? Yes, of course. It’s one of our prime duties. But should we only tell stories that reflect our own background? Should we self-righteously refrain from telling stories that originated elsewhere, on the grounds that we don’t have the right to annex the experience of others? Absolutely not. A culture that never encounters any others becomes first inward-looking, and then stagnant, and then rotten. We are responsible – there’s that word again – for bringing fresh streams of story into our own cultures from all over the world.
“Easy cynicism is no more truthful than easy optimism, though it seems to be so to the young.”
High on any list of the storyteller’s responsibilities must come a responsibility to the audience. Those of us whose books are read by children are not in danger of forgetting it, actually. Some commentators – not very well-informed ones, but they have loud voices – say that children’s books shouldn’t deal with matters like sex and drugs, or violence, or homosexuality, or abortion, or child abuse. Taboos change over time: only a couple of generations ago, it was rare to find a children’s book that confronted divorce. Against the keep-them-safe argument, I’ve heard it said that young readers should be able to find in a children’s book anything they might realistically encounter in life. Children do know about these things; they talk about them, they ask questions about them, they meet some of them, sometimes, at home; shouldn’t they be able to read about them in stories? My feeling is that whatever we depict in our stories, we should show that actions have consequences. A few years ago, Melvin Burgess’s Carnegie Medal-winning novel Junk created a storm among the professional fusspots, because it dealt among other things with the life of young drug addicts. But Burgess was showing exactly the sort of responsibility I’m talking about. It’s a profoundly moral story, because it
shows that temptation is truly tempting, and that actions have consequences, and that when people make a mess of their lives, they have to deal with the results. Some writers of children’s books feel that they shouldn’t take too bleak a view of the world; that however dark and gloomy the story they’re telling, they should always leave the reader with a glimpse of hope. I think that has something to be said for it, but children can deal with the fact that tragedy is uplifting, too, if it shows the human spirit at its finest. ‘The true aim of writing,’ said Samuel Johnson, ‘is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.’ Children need both those kinds of help, just as grown-ups do. What’s true about depicting life in general is true of our responsibility when it comes to depicting people. There’s a sentence I saw not long ago from Walter Savage Landor which is the best definition of this sort of responsibility I’ve ever seen: ‘We must not indulge in unfavourable views of mankind, since by doing it we make bad men believe that they are no worse than others, and we teach the good that they are good in
“When I say I am the servant of the story, I say it with pride.”
vain.’ Easy cynicism is no more truthful than easy optimism, though it seems to be so to the young. In depicting characters who struggle to do good or be brave, and succeed, or who are tempted to be weak or greedy, but refrain, we the storytellers are providing our readers with friends whose own good behaviour, and whose high valuation of the courtesy or steadfastness or generosity of others, provides an image of how to behave well; and thus, we hope, we leave the world at least no worse than we found it. Almost the last in my list of responsibilities is this: we have to pay attention to what our imagination feels comfortable doing. In my own case, for reasons too deeply buried to be dug up, I have long felt that realism is a higher mode than fantasy; but when I try to write realistically, I move in boots of lead. However, as soon as the idea comes to me, for example, of little people with poison spurs who ride on dragonflies, the lead boots fall away, and I feel wings at my heels. For many reasons (which, as I say, are beyond the reach of disinterment) I may regret this tendency of my imagination, but I can’t deny it. Sometimes our nature speaks more wisely than our convictions, and we’ll only work well if we listen to what it says. But now I come to the last responsibility, which is one that trumps every other, and before which our duty to the audience, to the language, to our family, to society as a whole has to bow gracefully and
retreat; and that is the storyteller’s responsibility to the story itself. I first became conscious of this when I noticed that I’d developed the habit of hunching my shoulders to protect my work from prying eyes. There are various equivalents of the hunched shoulder and the encircling arm: if we’re working on the computer, for example, we tend to keep a lot of empty space at the foot of the piece, so that if anyone comes into the room we can immediately press the key that takes us to the end of the file, and show nothing but a blank screen. There’s something fragile there, something fugitive, which reveals itself only to us, because it trusts us to maintain it in this half-resolved, half-unformed condition without exposing it to the harsh light of someone else’s scrutiny. A stranger’s gaze would either make it flee altogether or fix it in a state that might not be what it wanted to become. It feels as if the story, before it’s even taken the form of words, before it has any characters or any incidents clearly revealed, when it’s just a thought, just the most evanescent little wisp of a thing – as if it’s come to us and knocked at our door, or just been left on our doorstep. Of course we have to look after it. What else could we do? We have to protect it while it becomes sure of itself and settles on the form it wants. Because it knows very firmly what it wants to be, even though it isn’t very articulate yet. It’ll go easily in this direction and very firmly resist going in that, but I won’t know why; I just have to shrug and say ‘OK – you’re the boss.’ And this is the point where responsibility takes the form of service. Not servitude; not shameful toil mercilessly exacted; but service, freely and fairly entered into. This service is a voluntary and honourable thing: when I say I am the servant of the story, I say it with pride. And as the servant, I have to do what a good servant should. I have to be ready to attend to my work at a regular time each day. I have to anticipate where the story wants to go, and find out what can make the progress easier – by doing research, that is to say: by spending time in libraries, by going to talk to people, by finding things out. I have to be unobtrusive, and not push myself and my own opinions in front of the story’s attention. I have to keep myself sober during working hours; I have to stay in good health. I have to avoid taking on too many other engagements: no man can serve two masters. I have to keep the story’s counsel: there are secrets between us, and it would be the grossest breach of confidence to give them away. And I have to be prepared for a certain wilfulness and eccentricity in my employer. All the classic master-and-servant stories, after all, depict the master as the crazy one who’s blown here and there by the winds of impulse or passion, and the servant as the matter-of-fact anchor of common sense; and I have too much regard for the classic stories to
go against a pattern as successful as that. So, as I say, I have to expect a degree of craziness in the story. No matter how foolish it seems, the story knows best. And finally, as the faithful servant, I have to know when to let the story out of my hands. I suppose our last and most responsible act as the servant of the story is to know when we can do no more, and when it’s time to admit that someone else’s eyes might see it more clearly. To become so grand that we refuse to let our work be edited is to be a bad servant, not a good one. I have always been lucky in my editors – or rather, since I’m talking about responsibility here, my stories have been fortunate that they’ve had me to choose their editors so carefully. And now I see that I haven’t even begun to answer the question I opened with. I know no more now about the relationship between art and society than I ever did. But I do know that there is a joy in responsibility, in the knowledge that what we’re doing on earth, while we live, is being done to the best of our ability, and in the light of everything we know about what is good and true. If we do it well, we might be able to bring our work to the condition of that mysterious music described by Caliban, the sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not; and there’s something to be said for doing that. Maybe that’s all we can say.
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THE POET ON HER WORK
Once it was crossing the unmade road to sing to wet mouths that chewed, stare at the sway of udders soft as babies’ heads, sniff milkiness, glimpse emerald wings on cracked dung; was nibbling grain from ripe heads of rye, picking clovers, the pink and mealy white, was thistles prickling legs, lying among featherhead grasses that tickled as they brushed the sky; was the night the carthorses raced round driven by an electric storm’s purple slashes, their madness spilling into my excitement, drops of light next morning glistening the ground; was climbing the Downs and letting out the fears penned in my head, was walking a stubble field to a blackened mill that stood defiant as it whirled cloud and sun, roared its energy into my ears. Now, field is the sweep below the spinney in the park. Its glorious grasses stand unpawed by city, smell of hay and are rarely mowed. Here, carwhirr is muffled, collies plunge into jungles of pungent stalks, tortoiseshells flitter over ragwort. Ragged lines of geese flap darkly across the setting sun’s fleece and utter warnings that day is paling out. Here is fade, fall and rot till willows begin to green and signal the white surprise of spring: blossom on blackthorn knobbles, scatters on longwinged anemones. And where dandelions hold up their gorgeous yellow crowns, stinging nettles herd and cunning spiders hang their threads, where beetles scarper, slithery worms bed, who knows what could sprout, run wild?
THE POET ON HER WORK
he image of field is significant to me. It summons up my childhood and the freedom I felt playing or walking in the fields opposite our house above the Firth of Clyde. When I was twelve we moved from Scotland to South London and I desperately missed the fields, the moors and the sea. I have lived all my adult life in London but I still miss the open space of fields. However, there is a saving grace. We have a park behind our house where I walk every day and the grass on one of its slopes has been allowed to grow wild. This slope is my ‘field’ with its long grass, summer buttercups, clover and patches of thistles, and the nettles and hedge parsley that line the banks of a nearby stream. It keeps ‘field’ alive in my head as a living changing thing, not a remnant of childhood which I am holding onto. The first jottings I made for this poem were in my notebook in April 2003. When I looked these up a few days ago I was struck that I had written a heading: ‘sequence in short tight parts.’ Why had I decided in advance I was going to write a sequence, I wondered. It must have been because the word had so many associations for me that I believed this exploration of them would be a way to convey the quintessence I was searching for. I had also underlined: fields of now and of the past and the idea of field but I remember that what was in my head was a potent feeling, a sense that I had something to discover, rather than an idea. The headings were followed by detail about the sensation of lying in long grass, about a field in the village of Ayot St. Lawrence which I’d walked in some years before and how that reminded me of childhood. I ended with some memories of childhood fields. Ten days later I made another note with more descriptions which I thought would help me pinpoint what fields meant to me. At the end of July I sat down at the computer with my notes. I excluded the Ayot St. Lawrence field but nothing else. The intention
THE POET ON HER WORK
to write a sequence was now firmly fixed in my head – I think I believed that the build up of material would in itself carry the significance I wanted to convey. As I transferred the notes and fleshed them out I organised them for four poems. The first was to be about the sense of being in a field with grasses and flowers, the second about different childhood memories of fields, the third about what fields meant to me in adolescence and the last about the field-like slope in the park. The progression seemed logical and I was pleased because the middle sections included some material from previous poems which hadn’t worked. As I sifted through the notes to shape each poem I picked sharp images of key moments, wanting to re-create my impressions rather than paint pictures of fields. Unfortunately for the poem, though I didn’t recognise it at the time, I had too many impressions of fields in my past. As I drafted the sequence the first and last poems seemed to fall naturally into rhyming quatrains, the others into tercets. I enjoyed tracing the path through my memories, allowing each the space it wanted, before moving into the final poem which particularly excited me as it found its way to the mysterious and the unnameable. But the feedback I received was mixed and I began to question the first poem, whether it was too long an introduction and whether it pre-empted later material:
I want to lie down on uncut grass nibbling grain from heads of rye, stroking fescue whose feather tips tickle me as they brush a harebell sky. I want to gather flowers in a field: both clovers – the pink and the mealy white, stitchwort, ladies’ stockings, poppies with skirts flyaway as sounds from a flute. I want field to root in my head: a space for quiet leafery to green, for a flowering that’s rampant, wordless, as if easy riches will always be mine.
I considered opening with the second poem which began: ‘Out and running across the gravelly road’ but this seemed too bald. In any case removing the first poem would distort the shape of the sequence. The more I looked at it, the more certain I became that something was intrinsically wrong and that at two and a quarter pages it was too long. I put the poem into the abandoned poems file together with my typed notes. The writing process, of course, is a journey into the unknown via notes, drafts, revisions, and it sinks into or rises out of the slough of despond so I didn’t feel I had necessarily abandoned ‘Field’ for good.
THE POET ON HER WORK
I can’t remember what made me look at the poem again in 2006 but as soon as I read it I saw the first section was a mistake and the whole needed to be re-focused as a single poem in which the present had as much weight as the past. By writing a group of four poems I had given myself permission to include any material I felt like from the past, and I felt ashamed because I’d long been aware how easy it is to be beguiled by vivid early memories. I cringe now when I read the ‘poetic’ poem quoted above and I find it hard to believe I hadn’t seen then how it muddied the whole poem. The first thing I did was to cross it out. I then went carefully through the rest of the original version underlining what struck me as essential. The whole of the last poem about the slope in the park was not only the best written but also the most crucial material and I knew at once that the memory section needed to balance it in length, that the poem turned on juxtaposing past and present. I don’t know what instinct led me to the syntax in which I used a repeated ‘was’ to hang together in one sentence everything I decided on for the first half of the re-envisioned poem. It set a pattern and helped me to shape the poem which seemed to ask to be fitted into rhyming quatrains. I kept two lines from the original first poem and cut some of the detail from the second and third poems. I also omitted two verses at the end of the second poem about the fields opposite our house being dug up for a housing estate (material which was a diversion and was needed, in fact, for a different poem). I hardly altered a word of the fourth poem. The new poem was written quickly and when I’d finished it I saw I had retained all the central material of the sequence and yet it was less than half its original length! The journey had been a difficult one. It was also a warning not to fix the shape of a poem too quickly but the final result was very satisfying. I was amazed by the flow in the re-structured poem, by the way the details now seemed to shine through. The poem seemed to me at last to carry that potency of field which I wanted to express: a sense of childhood freedom and my love of wildlife, its beauty which is untamed, scary, unfathomable, full of possibility. I was amazed that the ‘real poem’ had been there buried in the original until I had found a way to pull it out.
‘REMEMBER ME, BUT AH! FORGET MY FATE’
Remember Me, published by Sceptre in April of this year, is Melvyn Bragg’s fourth novel in an imaginatively transmuted autobiographical sequence that takes his alter-ego, Joe Richardson, from a working-class Cumbrian boyhood and adolescence in The Soldier’s Return (1999) and A Son of War (2001), through the class-shift of a place at Oxford in Crossing the Lines (2003) and, in this volume, to a life in London, combining the writing of fiction with work at the BBC. It tells the story of a youthful marriage that ends devastatingly with the suicide of the wife, Natasha. She is a painter and writer whom Joe thought rescued from her earlier insecurity and depression by their relationship. In an interview with Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times Bragg said that a friend had told him it was the book he had been working up to for about 35 years. It went through seven or eight drafts over five years, the final draft approved by Bragg’s daughter – without whose acceptance (Bragg told Peter Kemp) he would not have published the book. In the three extracts that follow, Melvyn Bragg shares with The Reader tiny details from some of the later drafts, given in footnotes with dates of composition, to show the workings of the novelist’s mind in process. The first extract, given below in its final version, concerns the ambitious young Joe who, seeking to establish himself, is making a documentary on the work of a young woman artist. Jessica, a miner’s daughter from his native Cumberland, paints the mountains of the Lake District as if under the influence of drugs or illness or nightmare. Here, after filming, the newly married Joe and Natasha have drinks with Jessica and the cameraman, Alex, who hopes to bed the painter. Jessica begins a boozy discussion on the idea that an artist must always be
unhappy, Joe violently dissents, and a row erupts as Jessica turns on Joe’s denial, trying to humiliate him.
Chapter Seven of Book Two (26.10.06): finally published as chapter 20
‘You’re unhappy but you won’t admit it,’ said Jessica, whose slender body was fortified and steadied, it seemed at this stage, by alcohol. She swept back the second brandy. ‘Beddy byes?’ said Alex, his hopes of a conquest deflated. ‘You are very, very unhappy,’ said Jessica and she held his eyes in her gaze as intensely as a hypnotist. ‘And until you admit it you’ll write nothing any good.’ ‘Admit what?’ The bravado in his tone alerted Natasha. ‘Admit it,’ said Jessica sotto voce. ‘We’re twins, Joe. And polar opposites. Admit it.’ ‘Admit what?’ This time it was more of a plea and Natasha remembered that her best friend and bridesmaid, Frances,1 now in America, had spoken of seeing the ‘shadows’ around Joseph and she had dismissed the insight as merely part of Frances’ psychic indulgence. But undoubtedly,2 now, the shadows were gathering3 over him.4 He was losing something of himself. It was unlike anything she had seen in him before.5 ‘Confess the suffering. Admit the pain.’6 Jessica beat her hands on the arm of the chair. Natasha saw a face of Joseph which was new to her. It had loosened. There was some7 fear in it and an unmistakable violence.8 Even his voice had changed, thicker toned, coarser. ‘It’s not fair,’ he said, picking out the monosyllable with great care. ‘I mean – it’s not true.’
1. 9.01.05 draft: name undecided, known in note as ‘BARMAID’ 2. undoubtedly [added 19.02.05] 3. gathering [27.09.06]: ‘clouding’ [8.02.05] 4. ‘She could see that’ [deleted 22.08.06]; ‘She saw that with concern.’ [deleted 19.02.05] 5. It was unlike anything she had seen in him before [9.03.06]; He was unlike anything he had been before [9.01.05] 6. Confess the suffering. Admit the pain [22.08.06]; Admit the suffering. Confess the pain [8.02.05] 7. some [added 22.08.06] 8. violence [9.03.06]: ‘slyness’ [9.01.05]; ‘even delinquency’ [deleted 19.02.05] 53
But as he spoke a swayboat of fracturing memories lunged9 through his mind and he was infested again by the distress of adolescent years imprisoned in panic,10 distraught11, and his consciousness12 drifted uncontrollably away from his body and took away the life of him.13 He looked at Natasha, puzzled, holding on, breathing in shallow gasps, mouth slackening: he looked at Natasha.14 ‘I can see…’ ‘No!’ Natasha held up her hand to Jessica and pushed it towards her as if she were physically warding off a curse. ‘No!’ They held each other’s look. Suddenly Jessica relaxed. A sweet and gentle smile transformed her face to innocence. She blew Natasha a kiss. ‘Come to my room,’ she said to Alex. ‘Bring brandy.’ And with another blown kiss to Natasha and a triumphant look at the downcast lolling head of Joe, she left them, quickly15 followed by a greatly confused Alex bearing brandy. The barman came across with a large glass of water. Natasha nodded her thanks and indicated he should retreat. She waited for Joseph16 to look up. She knew something now that she had not previously known about him. She knew the fear that was all but suffocating him.17 When he did look up, so helpless, so ashamed, she could have wept. This was another Joseph, this was a different man, stripped bare.18
9. lunged through his mind [22.08.06]: ‘swung up into his mind’ [9.01.05] 10. imprisoned in panic [22.08.06]: ‘imprisoned in fear, overwhelmed by panic’ [9.01.05] 11. distraught [8.02.05]: ‘distraught in his mind’ [9.01.05] 12. ‘his soul, whatever it was’ [deleted 22.08.06] 13. and took away the life of him [8.02.05]: ‘and took with him all life and hovered on the temptation of an abyss which if taken would have paralysed or destroyed him.’ [9.01.05] 14. ‘pleading’ [deleted 22.08.06] 15. quickly [added 22.08.06] 16. Joseph [22.08.06]: Joe [9.01.05] 17. She knew something now that she had not previously known. She knew the fear that was all but suffocating him [22.08.06]: ‘She sensed now what she had never known about him and she knew also the shame which was all but suffocating him.’ [9.01.05]; ‘She knew something now that she had not precisely known about him and she sensed also the pain that was all but suffocating him.’ [8.02.05] 18. This was another Joseph, this was a different man, stripped bare. [27.09.06]: ‘This was another Joseph, this was a different man, exposed in his homeland’ [19.02.05]; ‘So this was another Joseph, this was a new man, revealed in his homeland’ [8.02.05]; ‘So this was Joe. This was another Joe, revealed in his homeland’ [9.01.05]
A Son of War described Joe’s teenage breakdown, the scars of which are revealed again here. But Natasha from their first meeting had always preferred to call him ‘Joseph’. The next devastatingly short passage finds Joe deep in trouble with the marriage. It reaches a culmination one evening as he travels home from the BBC by tube. It seems to mark the return of that earlier breakdown, now in a different world.
Chapter Six of Book Four (30.08.06): finally published as chapter 36
The first time it hit him with its full force was on Shepherd’s Bush underground station. He had been to see friends at the BBC to discuss the possibility of working on a new arts magazine programme. Lunch in the bar had been noisy, beery, full of gossip with19 old pals, worlds away from his solitudes.20 He envied what he might have been had he stayed in the BBC and left the bar cheerful at the prospect that he might in some way rejoin that communal21 part of his past. Shepherd’s Bush Central Line station was all but deserted on the autumn afternoon. He did not have long to wait for the train. As he heard it come closer through the tunnel it was as if a massive magnetic force began to pull him towards the edge of the platform, drawing him towards the track, overwhelming his resistance,22 and as the noise grew louder the strength of the23 pull grew and he found himself swaying, helpless,24 about to be taken fatally25 forward by it and then the train broke out of the tunnel and charged towards him. He backed away, he had to push himself back, against nothing but air but it took all his will, all his might26 to back away until he met the wall and pressed himself against it as the train braked loudly to a stop. The doors opened. He could not move. The doors closed. He waited until the train had gone. Keeping close to the wall he found the exit and took the stairs.
19. gossip with [30.8.06]: ‘greetings from’ [24.07.05] 20. ‘away from the solitudes, the [specialist focus] and what Joe thought of as the luxury of his present life.’ [deleted 2.08.05] 21. communal [added 30.08.06] 22. overwhelming his resistance [added 30.08.06] 23. the [30.08.06]: ‘that’ [24.07.05] 24. helpless [added 2.08.05] 25. fatally [added 30.08.06] 26. but it took all his will, all his might [2.08.05]: ‘as he strove with all his might’ [24.07.05] 55
The grey light of day made him blink. He would find a bus. He looked around at the strange world which was the same as the world before he had gone underground.27 That was how it began.28
As this final interwoven extract makes clear, Remember Me is written many years after to Marcelle, the grown-up daughter of the failed marriage. At this point Joe and Natasha, having moved to a new house to try to make a new start, find they can no longer really talk to each other. Joe is drinking hard. Natasha is increasingly insecure and depressed.
Chapter Nine of Book Four (28.10.06): finally published as chapter 39
‘We were so blind to each other at that crucial time,’ Joe wrote to their daughter. ‘How in God’s name had we come to that pass?’ *** ‘We squabble,’ she said, ‘like old people who have nothing to say to each other but find some comfort in constant complaints.’ ‘Sometimes silence is better proof of…’ ‘Can’t you complete the sentence?’ Joseph raised his glass and took too big a sip, she thought. ‘When we moved here you said there would be people like us we would meet and make friends with. Where are they?’ The shot of whisky had restored the anaesthetic effect. ‘It takes time,’ he said. ‘You don’t just march up and say “be my friend”.’ ‘We could have a party.’ ‘I hate parties. I hate people coming into our house.’ ‘You used to love them. In Kew you loved them.’ ‘It’s as if you licence people to break into your home. Just to roam around and gawp. To spy everything that you are. It’s voyeurism! No!’ ‘Joseph.’ She uttered his name with such despair that he was compelled to dismount from the alcohol-fuelled ride to stupor.
27. which was the same as the world before he had gone underground [30.8.06]: ‘which was the same as before’ [24.07.05] 28. That was how it began [30.8.06]: ‘And that was the beginning of it.’ [24.07.05] Cf ‘Thus the thing began’ in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (book 1 chapter 5). 56
She looked pale and there was about her a pain he did not want to acknowledge29 because he had so much of his own and yet he knew he ought to reach out to her. His name, her chosen version of his name, was a cry he could not recognise, or would not, afraid perhaps that a full knowledge of her suffering30 would crush him and so he flinched away, turned tail like an animal evading danger. There was nothing he could say and his name hung in the silence. * * * ‘Your mother called my name and I made no answer,’ he wrote to Marcelle. ‘It would not be too much to say that my silence has run down the years and has come back time and again as an accusation.’
This last extract is two hundred pages on from the first one. But the name ‘Joseph’ calls across them in memory amidst all the other cries and noises in this novel. Remember Me (the cry of Dido to her deserted lover at her death in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas) is full of such tiny echoes and quietly explosive details. These are worked for throughout the drafts by unflinching changes such as ‘sensed’ to ‘knew’, or ‘know’ to ‘acknowledge’ (footnotes 17, 29) or ‘resistance’ added only to be overwhelmed (footnote 22), and attempted certainties disturbingly removed (footnotes 4, 5, 18, 27). It is a process described by Natasha herself when she thinks of her own writing:
From chapter 37
What most fascinated her were the little flashes of light – illuminations of memory or traces of insight, elusive, puzzling, each one a will-o’the-wisp; a sheaf of lavender, the black swans in full sail, her father laughing with Isabel; but most of them so fleeting they did not even bring an image with them, mere pulses between the stars she could recognise, messages from the dark, infinitely small particles of energy which she longed to grasp and felt that once known could complete the puzzle of herself. *
29. acknowledge [27.09.06]: ‘know’ [30.08.06] 30. ‘he could feel like hail in his face’ [deleted 27.09.06]
He Loves You
My nerves jangled and heart strangled As I made my way towards the man who sang Hey Jude Holding paper grasping pen Going over lines again As I approached the knight who gave us Blackbird He stood alone his Hofner bass in hand Deserted by his makeshift mega band Of Pirates, Purples and Pink Floyds The boy from Penny Lane As I drew near the mop-top smiled Before him stood the little child Who sang She Loves You with his mum Yeah Yeah Yeah My nerves increased Sir Paul at peace Calmed me down with a friendly ‘I know you, you’re off the telly…’ And without thinking I replied ‘And I know you mate You were in the fucking Beatles!’ It feels like Yesterday No, No, No
Watching The Skatalites With John Hegley
The venue is located in a modern shopping centre Approximate to a book shop Which may be why they called it The Academy Not a hallowed hall of learning But a shallow gallery of drinking and dancing As the deejay played Uptown Top Ranking We were Upstairs not skanking From the empty balcony We looked down upon The frail rock steady legends playing Guns Of Navarone Me and Mark and Mark and John So we took ourselves downstairs And in the crowd consumed by joy We let the beat instruct our feet And danced As best we could For four white boys Which meant we swayed and shuffled And nodded roughly in time Hegley somehow felt it more Throwing shapes Upon the sticky floor That we could but aspire to Arms swirling legs akimbo Lost in music When the concert ended And the gods of ska had bowed and gone I realised for the last half hour I’d just been watching John Afterwards in quiet delight Ears ringing hearts singing limbs aching John and I sat in a gay pub Grinning over brimming pints of cider Blending in with the regulars Like two trees in a pod Not gay Not built that way But two men full of love
The scruffy genius sighs Rolls his rheumy eyes And stares into his pint of bitter He lifts Takes a sip and licks his lip Then staring into the middle distance Silently counts to ten Then sighs again Across the table His friend idly bothers a gin and tonic Looks into the weary wiry face And asks ‘What’s the matter Albert?’ Einstein shrugs and shakes his head Drinks Thinks Then finally says ‘You know my theory of relativity?’ ‘Yes Albert.’ ‘E equals M C squared?’ ‘I know the one Albert.’ ‘Twenty five I was…’ ‘I know mate… remarkable…’ Einstein looks down and picks Three tiny bobbles of wool Off of his jumper Drops them on a beer mat Then looks up Tears running down The lined brilliant face ‘They got completely the wrong idea!’ ‘Tell me about it!’ Says his drinking companion Who by a complete coincidence Was the man who invented love…
Carry On Crow
Driving home after work Well, not driving but sitting The driver drove I idly pondered on my hate For hollow shallow Russell Not a rock star but he dresses like one A half-life of smoke and mirrors I began to fantasise smiling on his demise Public failure then shame finally death All incredibly slow… Until We passed a shiny dead crow On the hard shoulder Head to one side Wondering no more Ebony blue wings folded Pointlessly fluttering Hopelessly beautiful Sightless eyes that saw through me A petty spiteful fool My black heart Unmasked by a crow’s demise Then I thought I bet that Russell ran it over…
RIVERS, BOATS, BRIDGES AND THE SEA
f you want to talk about boats and bridges you have to talk about rivers and if you want to talk about rivers you have to talk about the sea. The sea is a big thing and throughout human history it has often taken up the role as the ‘unformed’, as the limit of civilization. The birth of what we currently consider Western civilization happened mostly around the borders of the Mediterranean, which was both the sustenance for that civilization as well as a constant threat to it. You never knew what was going to come of the sea. You never knew what was going to come of its waters or across its expanses and you never knew what was going to happen to you if you left the land. An ongoing theme in ancient literature is that heading out to sea is necessary in order to achieve something beyond the ordinary, and simultaneously a fundamental act of hubris that will almost certainly be punished. In one of Western civilization’s Ur-texts, Hesiod’s Works and Days, Hesiod denounces his ‘foolish’ brother Perses for his desire to buck the natural order of things and to seek his fortune in seafaring. Still, Hesiod can’t help mentioning that he once took to the waters in order to reach Chalcis where he took a prize in poetic competition. If you want glory, or riches, or simply one fate rather than another, you’re going to have to brave the sea. Hesiod knew that well enough, he was just of two minds about it and he wasn’t above lecturing his little brother. Everyone knows that rivers and streams do the flowing that they do in order, eventually, to get to the sea. They are little parts of the sea, incursions into the kingdom of land that provide both the nourishment of water and the inherent danger of the formless sea. Rivers rage, they
separate chunks of land and they are the right arm of flood, the primary surrogate by which the sea takes its revenge on the dry land. When that happens, men get knocked about even without having dared the sea. Sometimes it seems as if mankind is simply a pawn in the games being played between the sea, the land, and the sky. I suppose myth spins itself out from the possibilities of that basic thought. Within this grand schema, mankind’s contribution has rarely risen beyond the pathetic. In the face of the greatness of the sea, we have offered the boat. Storm tossed in the meanest gale or forlorn on the placid expanse of a wine-dark infinity, the boat has never exactly inspired confidence. From Hesiod to the Titanic it is the symbol of a barely concealed anxiety. Our deepest anxiety, because it is existential. Will we make it at all? Civilization has often been compared to a ship and the fear encapsulated in that thought is that our fate as a people and a civilization is just as uncertain as any boat’s. The land’s answer to the boat is the bridge. It is the opposite solution to the boat in that the river below moves, the bridge stays still. But the basic relationship is similar. The bridge does its modest job to tame
the absolute divisions offered up by the river. It leaps over the expanse of water in a moment both of daring and of fragility. It is so small in contrast to what it challenges. But bridges also do something big in their littleness. They stake a claim against the sea and the river. They eke out an arrangement between bits of land on mankind’s terms. Bridges
tend to get built when a series of smaller human settlements are being stitched together into a more sustained and sustainable community. Enfolded in every bridge is a dream of the city, the metropolis. Hart Crane was obsessed with bridges, I think, for exactly that reason. He knew that bridges were the site of our terrestrial triumphs, modest though they be. His poem, The Bridge, with its homage to the Brooklyn Bridge, has often been remarked upon for its modernity. Here is a man writing poetic odes to human triumphs in industry and technology. Here is a man brave enough to attach his poetic gift to something beyond the mute sublimity of nature. Crane wrote beautifully of the bridge and of the urban landscape of cinemas and subways and traffic lights that struck him as being as worthy of versification as any verdant hill or shimmering dale.
Performances, assortments, resumes— Up Times Square to Columbus Circle lights Channel the congresses, nightly sessions, Refractions of the thousand theaters, faces— Mysterious kitchens… You shall search them all.
Crane saw the city in the bridge and vice versa. But it ought to be noted also that Crane was excited about bridge things because he was also excited about sea things. The last stanza of the proem to The Bridge goes backward across the exact territory we’ve just covered. Crane goes from the bridge to the river to the sea. Always the sea. He writes of the bridge:
O sleepless as the river under thee, Vaulting the sea, the prairies dreaming sod, Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
For all its city-centrism, Crane’s poetry is thick with sea talk and water references. His mind had a persistent tendency to slide back to the sea. In the end, he did too. On April 27th, 1932, on a ship called the Orizaba sailing from Mexico to New York, Crane made his way to the railing, slipped off his robe, and went over. That was that. Back to the sea. Forget the Brooklyn Bridge, forget all the bridges. In the end he wanted to be subsumed in the fathomless waste of the sea. And that’s what is so disturbing about bridges. They are our solution of sorts, our own hard work against the tyranny of the sea. At the same time, they don’t solve anything. Melville’s got the same damn problem. The first chapters of Moby-Dick are as wondrous a description of human things as you’re going to find. There are rapturous words. Words of the
city, of the streets, of the milling mix and the crowd. But in Melville’s eyes the entire city of New York is water-directed, straining toward the ocean in spite of itself. Of its denizens he says, ‘Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in.’ Melville throws it all away. He can’t bear it somehow. The city is too solid, the world is too solid, the bridge is too fixed. He heads for the whaling harbors and the ships of the open sea. He goes back out from something toward nothing. He explains, ‘And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.’ Narcissus, Melville, Crane: the city achieved and then denied for the inchoate doom of the ocean’s depths. Auden thought he had hold of this problem and laid it out in a series of lectures he gave in 1949 published later as The Enchafèd Flood. He says:
The sea, in fact, is that state of barbaric vengeance and disorder out of which civilization has emerged and into which, unless saved by the efforts of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse. It is so little of a friendly symbol that the first thing which the author of the Book of Revelation notices in his vision of the new heaven and earth at the end of time is that ‘there was no more sea’.
But we are drawn to that same disorder and barbaric vengeance, Auden thinks, when we are confronted by the reciprocally stifling order and lawfulness of civilization. The revenge of the sea works itself out as a trick by means of the bridge. The bridge tames the river, but in doing so tames us. Although the sea is the end of life, its limit, the great overarching threat to life, it is also its beginning, its primordial source. The bridge lifts us up from the slime, but then away from what matters. We go back to the sea as going back to the source. Speaking explicitly of Melville’s Ishmael, Auden writes, ‘The only outside “necessities” are the random winds of fashion or the lifeless chains of a meaningless job, which, so long as he remains an individual, he can and will reject. … So he must take drastic measures and go down to the waters.…’ So reasons Auden. And he’s not wrong in reasoning so. Still, I wonder if that opposition is too simple. If Crane and Melville (and others like them) finally reject the city, they do so in the mood of the lover more than that of the adversary. More importantly, the fascination with the
bridge and the boat isn’t really an opting either for civilization or its other. Melville may feel the yearning for the sea, but the real story of Moby-Dick is the story of the Pequod, that city-in-miniature within which the crew makes its world. The love of bridges is the love of suspension. You’re nowhere in particular when you’re on a bridge. You’re above the rushing water below, held by a tenuous arm-length extension of the city that has thrown its thin span over the void. There is a terse and beautiful novel by Thornton Wilder called The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It purports to tell the story of an odd book written by Brother Juniper in Peru at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Brother Juniper has witnessed the collapse of a woven bridge between Lima and Cuzco that threw five individuals to their deaths. The Brother decides to investigate the lives of these five individuals in order to tease out a divine will that, in the manner of Leibniz’s ‘best of all possible worlds,’ would choose to take these five people at this particular time. His book becomes, instead, a testament to the impenetrability of any cosmic plan and the Brother and the book are burned in the town square years later. The final words of the novel are the following. ‘There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.’ Picking apart the sentence for a moment we come up with an intriguing thesis. The land of the living means nothing in and of itself. The land of the dead means nothing in and of itself. ‘The only survival,’ ‘the only meaning,’ is in that spot where they touch one another. That’s the meaning-generating spot and it’s where the artist instinctively wants to be. It is the nexus point between the world as it has been given to us and the world as something we are shaping of our own volition. It’s the shaky place where bridges and boats are. It’s the place where you have a glimmer of a chance of glimpsing ‘the unfathomable phantom of life.’ Some (Narcissus, Crane, Ahab) cannot hold the line very long. They succumb to the abyss on the other side. But the point is to hold fast on the bridge or the boat for as long as you can. Or maybe there isn’t any point. It is just that certain kinds of minds will always be bridge and boat minds. Some people will get as close to rivers and the sea as they can. They will seek the edges where two things meet, with the idea that a kind of truth is there. But there is no escape, no transcendence. The truth to be found is only a small one, a quickening of the pulse when we reach the very center of the bridge or that place on the ocean where there is no land yet to be seen from either shore.
CRYING AT NOVELS
hesitate to put a name to exactly what kind of writer Inga Clendinnen is, but perhaps ethnographic historian will do. Her subjects are very various: she has written about sixteenth-century Mexico, Nazi Germany, and also Tiger’s Eye, a narrative of her serious illness and her experiences in Australian hospitals in the 1990s. Across all this range there is a common enquiry. Examining in the minutest detail the rituals surrounding Aztec warrior training and blood sacrifice, or a massacre of Jewish villagers in Poland by an inexperienced German police battalion, or the ‘chemistry’ inside the makeshift community of a hospital ward, she asks: ‘What did it mean, that people lived like this? What did they think they were doing? How did they understand themselves?’ In Clendinnen’s own words, events such as these are ‘morally and intellectually baffling … “unthinkable”’. Nonetheless, her purpose in all three books is to try and find a vocabulary and kinds of analysis to bring them inside the boundaries of the imaginable. Discussing representations of the Holocaust in art, Clendinnen offers what is for her a fundamental distinction between the uses of history and fiction: Each establishes quite different relationships between writer and subject, and writer and reader. Had I discovered the nature of Humbert Humbert’s secret joys in real life, I would have had him locked up. I may have tried to ‘understand’ him,
but only after I had destroyed his happiness. Snug between the covers of the fiction called Lolita I can revel in his eely escapades, his delirious deceptions; weep with him when his child slave escapes; yearn with him for her recapture. Through giving me access to the inner thoughts and secret actions of closed others, fiction has taught me most of what I know, or think I know, about life. The fictional world, however, contains a curious absence. The reason for its exhilarating freedom is that it is a kind of game, a circumscribed place of play. Once inside I have no responsibility beyond my responsibility to respond to the text. I may tremble for its people, I may weep for them – but I want to relish their anguish, not heal it. I do not want Anna reconciled with Karenin and living to plump and comfortable grandmotherhood. I want her dead under that train. I want Emma Bovary to dream her dreams, to act them out, increasingly shabbily, and then to drink prussic acid and die in agony. I have no human responsibility towards these people. Although they may be more intimately known than my most intimate actual others, although they may often seem very much more ‘real’, in the end my compassion is a fiction too, because I know they are fictions. Contrast this with what happens when I read a story which claims to be true. I will know very much less about the protagonists. There is no creator to strip away their veils, so they will be somewhat opaque to me. Nonetheless I engage with them differently because I stand in a moral relationship with these people, because they are my fellow-humans, whose blood is real and whose deaths are final and cannot be cancelled by turning back a page.
That distinction between the responsibility of history and the irresponsibility of fiction isn’t one Clendinnen means to apply only under the special circumstances of writing about the Holocaust. She talks of it again in Tiger’s Eye, where she describes how she began to write stories, and to record her experiences in hospital and also memories from her past, to help cope with what she was going through, diagnosed with acute liver disease, dealing with distressing symptoms and coming close to death. These fragments eventually went to make up Tiger’s Eye – a composite of a hospital memoir, an autobiography, and a musing reflection on writing and life, including some fictional short stories. She reports that writing the short stories was wonderfully effective therapy. This passage comes just after a powerful account of her overhearing a woman die on a hospital trolley in the middle of the night:
Now for the first time I felt the desire to write fiction. I wanted to feel I could change this inexorable place, these lonely, shapeless deaths, even in imagination: fiction as defiance of exigency. I also wanted to memorialise the woman on the trolley – to make her a story about a more fortunate mortal who was able to choose his death in a place a world away from hospitals… Being able to make a story from nothing instead of concocting it out of elusive memories made me happy. It also relieved my fear of being trapped ‘inside’. My labelled body might be lying on my labelled bed, but my mind could be anywhere, keeping whatever company I chose. I also discovered that fiction can make its own claims to truth; that I believed in fabricated Noah more completely than I believed in my account of myself as a girl. Fiction began to offer a balm for the obstinate opacities, the jagged inadequacies of memory. I wrote more stories. I discovered what surprising company the people who grow from the tip of your pen can be, and how pleasurable it is to map the small, curiously complete, artificial worlds in which they live – worlds where madness and death, even murder, is a fiction.
We could not want Clendinnen account of her time in hospital to be any different, including her account of her experiences of writing fiction. Tiger’s Eye is intriguing, illuminating; it reads like the truth of an experience, many experiences. It has the open-endedness – the dialogism – that makes it possible for a reader roused by the power of the writing to argue with some of what the writing asserts without refusing the whole work. And I want to argue with this subordinate role she assigns to fiction (‘balm’) beside history, or ‘reality’. She is wrong, I am sure, in her account of what fiction is and does. What fiction does, can do, should do, is much more like the passage that precedes the story, where the woman dies on the hospital trolley. The ‘story’ itself, about an Australian surfer choosing to die out in the water, is rather glib and factitious; all the ‘stories’ in the book, the self-conscious short fictions, fail. They fail in exactly the ways one might expect of a fiction writer who thinks that writing has nothing to do with ‘the obstinate opacities, the jagged inadequacies of memory’; who thinks fiction is shaped ‘in defiance of exigency’, to change ‘inexorable’ things; and that its worlds are ‘small’ and ‘curiously complete’. In Madame Bovary Flaubert also expresses some anxieties about the irresponsibility of novels which are relevant to this argument. Emma Bovary’s unfulfillable desires and her delusions are explicitly related
to the romantic novels that she reads, in a Girardian modelling interestingly close to the way advertising works. She wants fine dresses, excitements, a lover, because the women in the novels she reads have them, and she wants what they want in a spiralling mimetic rivalry. Flaubert doesn’t finally show whether the novels create her restlessness, or engage with an unappeased need that is ‘really’ already there. After the consummation of her relationship with Rodolphe in the woods her satisfactions are complex in their reflexivity. ‘I have a lover, I have a lover,’ she repeats over and over, looking at herself in the mirror, as if the
“What we stubbornly can’t help thinking of as the real”
satisfactions can’t become real until she sees herself, or ‘reads herself’, having them. What would have happened if Emma Bovary had been able to read Madame Bovary, her own novel? Would that have broken the Girardian cycle of deluded imitation? Or would it simply have deepened the sophistication with which she ‘read herself’, through new layers of self-reflexiveness? On Anna Karenina’s train journey from Moscow to St Petersburg, before her fateful encounter with Vronsky in the snowstorm, she is reading an English novel, cutting the pages with her paperknife as she goes. The experience of reading the novel agitates her in a specific way reminiscent of Emma: Anna finds herself wanting to be inside the scenes of the novel, wanting to be faced with the dilemmas of the heroine, experimenting with the idea that her life might be another life than the one it is. It is a dangerous moment for Vronsky to find her out (and of course she is reading like this in order to be found out, to prepare herself for the encounter she is expecting, even if she doesn’t know she is). Again, we feel a complex interaction between Anna’s ‘real’ unappeased needs and the ones which her novel makes her imagine she might have (though the balance between those does not feel the same as in Madame Bovary). Tolstoy is suggesting in embryo some of the problems which he will develop in the late eccentric writings rejecting the illusionism of European ‘high’ art. Like Flaubert he seems concerned that the characteristic culture of his era, and novel-reading in particular, has a tendency to produce a false excess of sensibility, of mimetic dreaming and wanting, which has nowhere to go in the ‘real’ world, and whose energies have to spin ‘outside’ instead, into an intensified sexual passion that can’t actually, in either case, sustain the weight of the want or the sheer extravagance of the dreaming. Flaubert and Tolstoy seem to share Clendinnen’s suspicions of fiction and its functions. And there are, certainly, characteristics of the novel form which give grounds for such suspicions. The novel form grows out
of a European culture which is literate, sophisticated, increasingly prone to cultivating the sensations of subjectivity, and preoccupied with the details of the private life. It’s a complex interaction in which the habit of novel reading promotes, develops, even brings into existence the ways of being which novels describe. J. Paul Hunter in his book Before Novels, on the ‘cultural contexts of eighteenth-century English fiction’, discusses the kinds of readers and expectations that the emergent novel form depended upon, and he notes among the characteristics of the form its emphasis upon ‘individualism and subjectivity’ as well as ‘empathy and vicariousness’. ‘The subjectivity of the novel,’ Hunter writes, ‘involves not just a raised status for the individual self but an intensified consciousness, individual by individual, of what selfhood means’; and also, ‘novels typically give readers a sense of what it would be like to be someone else ... readers of novels regularly report that they “identify” or “empathise” with the heroes and heroines of novels’. Novels give readers at one and the same time an intensified awareness of being themselves and, inseparable from that, an awareness that they might be someone else, of what it might feel like to be someone else. Is it possible that those experiences, the self-knowing and the otherknowing, might actually diminish and threaten some pre-existing more ‘authentic’ self, undreamed and unimagined and simply lived? For Flaubert, the authentic self-unknowing is the semi-oblivious old woman at the country fair in Bovary receiving her medal for long service, or the devoted servant in ‘Un Coeur Simple’. He recoils from their brute unawareness even as it fascinates him by resisting his sophisticated ironies. For Tolstoy, more enamoured, the self-unknowing peasants can teach the agonised aristocrat, incapacitated by reflexive doubt, how he might live. Novel-reading alone cannot be held responsible for the diminishment of authentic selves, of course. But the modes of awareness and imagining that it entails are entangled deeply in the cultural projects that the novelists are both part of and suspicious of (the bourgeoisliberal ethos for Flaubert, Western enlightenment for Tolstoy), which they fear promote inauthenticity even as they make their art possible. The novel form is so good at illusionism. In its relative shapelessness and appearance of ‘naturalness’; in its fullness, its sheer extension over so many pages and so much story; in its contemporaneity; in its room for so much change and even for forgetfulness of itself; in its space for such a bulk of substantiating detail; even in its inevitable longueurs and its redundancies, reading a novel bears a significant mimetic relationship to the experience of living itself. We inhabit these days a culture so habituated to that fictional illusionism that we have to make very deliberate artistic efforts to undermine it if we don’t want it. For a whole complex of reasons, there has never been, despite Joyce, despite
modernism, despite so many learned pronouncements of the death of narrative, a comparable revolution in novel-writing to the one that obtained in the visual arts against making pictures ‘look like life’. J. M. Coetzee describes postmodern novelists as ‘children shut in the playroom, the room of textual play, looking out wistfully through the bars at the enticing world of the grownups, one that we have been instructed to think of as the mere phantasmal world of realism but that we stubbornly can’t help thinking of as the real.‘ The novel thrives on its ‘lifelikeness’ (despite the even superior illusion-making powers of film and television). Every time we open up a novel to begin, we negotiate over again as we cross its threshold our consent to its pretences, our willingness to believe. ‘Frances is loitering by a second-floor window of the High School in Hanratty, on an afternoon in early December. It is 1943.’ Or: ‘A bird cried out on the roof, and he woke up. It was the middle of the afternoon, in the heat, in Africa; he knew at once where he was.’ Or, for that matter: ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed’. Clendinnen’s argument is that as we cross that threshold into fiction, we leave behind not only our disbelief but also our responsibility. ‘The reason for its exhilarating freedom is that it is a kind of game, a circumscribed place of play. Once inside I have no responsibility beyond my responsibility to respond to the text… I have no human responsibility towards these people.’ She is right in as far as we do indeed ‘want’ Anna Karenina to end up under the train and Emma Bovary to swallow the arsenic: a different responsibility obtains, obviously, than towards real suicidal women in real life. This argument about fictional irresponsibility seems to me connected to the argument about ‘inauthenticity’. Both are concerned with the dangers of confusion between ‘real’ life and ‘imagined’ life. Clendinnen’s implication is that while the fictional play is delicious, it is for moral children (or adults in their ‘time-off’) who must at some point grow up and read the ‘real’ things – history, ethnography – which do engage the reader’s responsibility outside the text. Just so, late in his life Tolstoy forswore the seductions of illusionism and its dangerous play for the more ‘authentic’ narratives of an oral folk culture, whose forms were traditional and non-realist and whose purposes were unashamedly didactic. In those last years, however, alongside the folktales and the translations of the Gospels, he couldn’t help himself writing Resurrection and ‘Hadji Murat’ and all those other late writings, where the old magic of the great ‘illusion-maker’ can so bind us in its spell of ‘seeming real’ that we find ourselves half-persuaded while we are reading of the most disconcerting and improbable things, such as that sexuality is in itself an evil (‘The Kreuzer Sonata’), or that we would be happier if we
lived like peasants without the freedoms and the material wealth of the privileged (‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’), or that the very forms of European civilisation which brought forth this possibility of illusionism that enchants us are also destroying our authentic selves (‘Hadji Murat’). It is this last point that seems to me best to answer Clendinnen’s difficulty with the ‘curiously complete, artificial worlds’ of the novel, the ‘circumscribed place of play’. That novels are artificial is a tautology; but they are not complete, and of all art forms they are perhaps the least circumscribed. Novelists are, as we have seen, able to argue about the dangers of novel-reading inside novels. Just as the novel imitates life so effectively, with its air of casual improvisation and the apparent contingency of its discoveries, so it is especially and generically capable of whatever openness to doubt is intrinsic to the life it represents. When writer Alice Munro, for example, builds into her narrative style her habit of worrying whether as a writer she has the authority to describe what she wants to describe (‘And they may get it wrong, after all. I may have got it wrong’), she is making explicit that in-built self-questioning reflexivity which is a crucial aspect of the novel’s ‘lifelikeness’. When novelists sit down to write – to invent, to choose what will happen and whether their characters will be happy and how they will die – they do not delude themselves that they are responsible in the way they would be responsible for ‘real people’ in their care. They may well, nonetheless, feel themselves answerable to something beyond the words: and to the very difficulties in fact that Clendinnen wants to leave out when she starts to ‘make up stories’. Writing in hospital, she wants to ‘change’ an ‘inexorable place’ and transform ‘lonely, shapeless deaths’; she wants to use ‘fiction as defiance of exigency’, ‘a balm for the obstinate opacities, the jagged inadequacies of memory.’ But good writing, writing that aspires to represent what is real, will not want to write in spite of those things: it will want to write, as she indeed wants to write in all the other parts of her book, about them.
Three Chocolate Soldiers
Wondering what hell’s in store for them back in France, they pose for this, a just-in-case gawky photograph, in sepia like their battledress, tell the fuss-pot photographer to write in his best hand the words Three Chocolate Soldiers in ornate scrawl across their upper abdomens, where the image is deliberately faded out. Here, fixed in time, stand three old pals – each one a giddy nineteen – who, an hour before, had shuffled, blinking, grinning, out of a smoke-filled flea-pit, from a fluttery silent operetta, and joked ‘That’s us! The Chocolate Soldiers! Chocolate ammo gets the girl!’ They’re melting upwards, consumed by thick white smoke, confronting us, as if till doomsday cheeking it out.
Note: a silent film of Oscar Straus’s operetta The Chocolate Soldier, based on Shaw’s Arms and the Man, was made in 1915
BOOKS TO MAKE US BETTER
n a community centre in Birkenhead, a group of readers – nine women and two men – are looking at Act 1 scene 2 of The Winter’s Tale, in which Leontes and his wife Hermione urge their guest, Polixenes, not to rush off back to Bohemia. They’re finding some of Shakespeare’s language difficult to grasp. What’s meant by ‘He’s beat from his best ward’? Or ‘We’ll thwack him hence with distaffs’? But thanks to the promptings of the group leader, Jane Davis, head of the Reader Organisation at the University of Liverpool, complex meanings are slowly unlocked, and discussion ranges widely over the various issues the passage raises: jealous men, flirtatious women, royal decorum, and what to do with guests who outstay their welcome. The rise of book groups is one of the most heartening phenomena of our time, but this group is an unusual one, including as it does Val and Chris from a homeless hostel, Martin who suffers from agoraphobia and panic attacks and hasn’t worked for 15 years, Brenda who’s bipolar, Jean who’s recovering from the death of her husband, and Jan who has Asperger’s. Some of the group are avid readers but for Chris, for example, it’s his first experience of Shakespeare since school, and though the scene leaves him wanting to know what will happen next he’s also baffled. ‘It’s like music you’ve not heard before,’ others reassure him, ‘it’ll get easier.’ They know what they’re talking about, having read The Tempest last year and then gone to a production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. For Carol it was a life-changing moment: ‘We came out at the interval and stood at the bar discussing the characters, and I thought: My God, here I am, me, in the bar of a theatre, discussing Shakespeare – maybe I’m not so thick after all.’
Blake Morrison by Mark Gerson
Under the umbrella of Jane Davis’s Get into Reading scheme, there are now around 50 groups like this across Merseyside: groups in care homes, day centres, neurological rehab units, acute psychiatric wards, cottage hospitals, sheltered accommodation and libraries; groups for people with learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s, mental health problems; groups for prisoners, excluded teenagers, looked-after children, recovering drug-addicts, nurses and carers; groups up to a maximum of ten people, since any more and there’s no real intimacy. The educational background of the participants varies widely but there’s no dumbing down in the choice of texts – The Mayor of Casterbridge, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Rebecca, Great Expectations, Adam Bede, Sherlock Holmes, Jane Eyre, Of Mice and Men, Kes, even (phew) Robert Pirsig’s The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance among them. In most groups a complete book will be read aloud, cover to cover, at weekly sessions, which for a group spending an hour a week on a Dickens novel can mean six months devoted to a single book. Nobody is pressured to read aloud, but if and when they do the boost to their confidence can be striking. The word ‘confidence’ is one that kept coming up when I talked to group members: ‘Books make you think about big issues, and prepare you to face them, and that helps your confidence’ was a typical comment. But for Jane Davis and her fellow project manager Kate McDonnell, reading groups aren’t just about helping people feel less isolated or building their self-esteem. Nor are they merely a pretext, in an area of high unemployment, for giving people the experience of working together as a unit. More ambitiously, they’re an experiment in healing, or, to put it less grandiosely, an attempt to see whether reading can alleviate pain, stress or mental health problems. For Kate, who has suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis for 30 years, the answer is clear: ‘Reading pushes the pain away into a place where it no longer seems important. No matter how ill you are, there’s a world inside books which you can enter and explore, and where you focus on something other than your own problems. You get to talk about things that people usually skate over, like ageing or death, and that kind of conversation – with everyone chipping in, so you feel part of something – can be enormously helpful.’ Others say the same: ‘I’ve stopped seeing the doctor since I came here and cut down on my medication’; ‘Being in a group with other women who have what I had, breast cancer, didn’t help me, but talking about books has made a huge difference’; ‘The group mends holes in the net you would otherwise fall through’. Medical staff involved in the scheme (doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, speech therapists) tell stories of the remarkable successes they’ve seen: the neurological patient who sat in a group saying nothing for months, then after a reading of a George Herbert poem launched into a 10-minute monologue at the end of which he announced ‘I feel
great’; the brain-damaged young man whose vocabulary significantly increased after he joined a book group; the husband caring for his disabled wife whose exposure to poetry has proved not just a respite but a liberation. To outsiders, the outcomes might seem small, but to the staff and patients concerned they’re huge breakthroughs. If it were merely a matter of being in a group, crochet or bridge might serve equally well. But as Judith Mawer of the Merseycare Health Trust explained, focusing on a book is the decisive factor: ‘People who don’t respond to conventional therapy, or don’t have access to it, can externalise their feelings by engaging with a fictional character. And dementia patients can be soothed by the rhythms of poetry, which generate alpha waves in the brain and create a restful state. Healthcare is about treating the whole person, and there are things you find out about people through literature which you wouldn’t in any other way.’ ‘One sheds one’s sicknesses in books,’ D. H. Lawrence once wrote, and the people I met on Merseyside agree with him that books – good books, anyway – are a form of therapy. ‘Prose not Prozac’ is the prescription. Literature not lithium. A talking cure in the presence of Keats, Dickens or Shakespeare rather than a psychiatrist. * Bibliotherapy, as it’s called, is a fast-growing profession. A recent survey suggests that ‘over half of English library authorities are operating some form of bibliotherapy intervention, based on the books-on-prescription model’. That’s to say, an increasing number of people are being referred by their GPs to the local library, where they’ll find shelves or sections or ‘reading pharmacies’ set aside for literature deemed relevant to their condition. Lapidus, an organisation established in 1996 ‘to promote the use of literary arts in personal development’, has played a key role in bringing together writers and health professionals; as has the current chair of the Poetry Society, the poet Fiona Sampson. Bibliotherapy might be a brave new word but the idea that books can make us better has been around for a very long time. Matthew Arnold and Dr Leavis temporarily hi-jacked it when they argued that great literature – ‘the best that has been thought and said in all the world’ – can make us morally better, by kindling ‘our own best self’. That idea disappeared with the Holocaust, when immensely civilised and well-read men, brought up on Schiller and Goethe, proved capable of the most barbarous acts. But the idea that books can make us emotionally, psychologically and even physically better goes back to the ancient world. Plato said that the Muses gave us the arts not for ‘mindless pleasure’ but ‘as an aid to bringing our soul-circuit, when it has got out of tune, into order and harmony with itself’. It’s no coincidence that Apollo is the god of both poetry and healing; nor that hospitals or health sanctu80
aries in ancient Greece were invariably situated next to theatres, most famously at Epidaurus, where dramatic performances were considered part of the cure. When Odysseus is wounded by a boar in the Odyssey, his companions use incantations to stop the bleeding. And the Bible has the story of David calming Saul: ‘And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him’ (1 Samuel, 16, verse 23). By the Renaissance, the idea that poetry and song could ‘banish vexations of soul and body’ was well-entrenched – to the point where George Puttenham argued, in The Art of English Poesie, that the poet must ‘play also the physician and not only by applying a medicine to the ordinary sickness of mankind, but by making the very grief itself (in part) cure of the disease’. What Puttenham meant was that the writer should use ‘one dolour to expel another’, the sad cadence in a line of poetry allaying the burden of pain or depression in the reader, ‘one short sorrowing a remedy of a long and grievous sorrow’. The image has a hint of homeopathy about it – like curing like – and just as homeopathy is regarded with suspicion in conventional medicine, so bibliotherapy is bound to strike sceptics as a form of quack medicine. But considerable research has been carried out over the past 20 years which seeks to demonstrate the healing capacity of the arts in general and literature in particular. A study in Alabama demonstrated how depressives treated via bibliotherapy have less chance of relapse than those given medication. An experiment with human cell cultures at Ohio University claimed to show that music was capable of retarding the growth of cancer cells, at least in vitro. At King’s College, London, Gillie Bolton has explored the use of writing with a range of palliative care patients and teenager cancer sufferers. Other studies have explored the links between involvement in the arts and longevity; between ‘verbally revealing it all’ and fighting off infections; between the generally calming effect of books – relatively few of which are so bad that we want to hurl them across the room and/or go out and murder the author – and lower levels of cardiovascular disease. An Arts Council report of 2004 cited 385 references from medical research on the positive effect of the arts and humanities in healthcare, among them ‘inducing positive physiological and psychological changes in clinical outcomes, reducing drug consumption, shortening length of stay in hospital… and developing health practitioners’ empathy’. Of course, the scientific evidence is far from conclusive; indeed the author and Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester, Raymond Tallis, dismisses most of it as ‘equivocal findings in fourth-rank journals’, adding: ‘I have been a medic too long to be easily persuaded of the wider role of literature in healing. No-one sends out
for a poet when they are seriously ill.’ In fact in earlier times, people did, more or less: ‘Throughout Spain,’ the physician Rodericus a Castro wrote in 1614, ‘whenever anyone falls seriously ill, it is usual to summon musicians.’ Still, Tallis is surely right to say that given the choice between a pain-relieving drug and a terrific poem about bone metastases, few of us would choose the poem. However, even he concedes that ‘my last boss before I became a consultant was hugely helped in his last weeks by reading War and Peace, when he was attached to a diamorphine pump.’ Moreover, Tallis acknowledges that reading might be therapeutic in a variety of ways, not least in easing depression: ‘the pleasure of escape into a parallel world; the sense of control one has as a reader; and the ability to distance one’s self from one’s own circumstances by seeing them from without, suffered by someone else and gathered up into a nicely worked out plot – somewhere around here is the notion, also, of the Aristotelian purgation and Sartre’s idea of “the purifying reflection”.’ Perhaps the most convincing argument for the effectiveness of bibliotherapy comes from writers themselves. There’s the case of George Eliot, for example, who recovered from the grief of losing her husband George Henry Lewes by reading Dante with a young friend, John Cross, who subsequently married her. ‘Her sympathetic delight in stimulating my newly awakened enthusiasm for Dante did something to distract her mind from sorrowful memories,’ Cross later wrote. ‘The divine poet took us to a new world. It was a renovation of life.’ John Stuart Mill enjoyed a similar renovation after the ‘crisis in my mental history’ which he describes in his Autobiography, a crisis that began in the autumn of 1826
D. H. Lawrence: “One sheds one’s sicknesses in books.”
when ‘the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down [and] I seemed to have nothing left to live for.’ A sense of ‘dry heavy dejection’ persisted through ‘the melancholy winter’. Then one day ‘a small ray of light broke in upon my gloom. I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s Mémoires, and came to the passage which relates his father’s death… A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my being grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone.’ What cured Mill was an account of death; what eased Eliot’s mourning of her husband was a journey through Dante’s Inferno. If books are to be therapeutic, it seems, it’s because they take us to dark places rather than bright ones. As Thomas Hardy recognised, ‘If way to the better there be it exacts a full look at the worst.’ Hence Jane Davis’s preference for classic texts which address existential concerns, not
anodyne pep-ups. Medical staff attached to her scheme have occasionally worried that such and such a poem or passage might ‘make things worse’. But what does ‘worse’ mean when you’re talking about people on a psychiatric ward? One elderly patient burst into tears during a reading Burns’s ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ – but insisted on staying there, through the tears, and professed herself ‘much better for it’ afterwards. Hardy’s famous quote comes from a sequence of three poems, ‘In Tenebris’, which he wrote in 1896–97, when his spirits were brought low by the excessive optimism of his peers. To Hardy, hell was other people being cheery – ‘the blot seems straightway in me alone… / one born out of due time, who has no calling here’. And yet he derives consolation from the very pessimism or ‘unhope’ that weighs him down:
Wintertime nighs; But my bereavement-pain It cannot bring again: Twice no one dies.
Each of Hardy’s ‘In Tenebris’ poems has an epigraph from the Psalms. And far from being a simple glorification of God, the Psalms are often engulfed by despair: ‘my heart is smitten, and withered like grass’; ‘attend unto my cry; for I am brought very low’. Yet reading the Psalms or Hardy or Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘terrible sonnets’ can be cathartic. By attending to the cry of another, we articulate our own cries, frame them, contain them, and feel better for it. Hector, in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, puts it beautifully when he describes how, in the presence of great literature, it’s as if a hand has reached out and taken our own. ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,’ Hopkins writes, in his anguish:
What hours, O what black hours we have spent This night! What sights you, heart, saw, ways you went! And more must in yet longer light’s delay…
Though Hopkins plumbs the depths he writes so searingly of his torment that the poetry becomes a cauterising iron to burn away our own pain and to ‘leave comfort root-room’ in which to grow. Hopkins knew that not everyone will have experienced the ‘cliffs of fall, / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’ which he describes: ‘Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there’. But even those of a sunny disposition will find his sonnets illuminating, an insight into the mind of a fellow creature, and an expansion of their own empathic powers. This is surely the other great therapeutic power of literature – it doesn’t just echo our own experience, recognise, vindicate and validate it, it takes us places we hadn’t imagined but which, once we’ve seen them, we never forget. When literature is working – the right words in the right place
– it offers an orderliness which readers can shore up against the disorder, or lack of control, that afflicts them. Most misery memoirs fail in this respect – they invite readers to be prurient rather than to identify, exaggerate where no exaggeration is necessary, and are too clamorous to grant the reader space to contemplate and withdraw. At best, books take us out of the world, so we lose track of time and space. They seem to take us out of ourselves as well, but in reality the best literature is surreptitiously taking us inside ourselves, deeper than we expected or might have chosen to go. In The Prelude Wordsworth speaks of certain ‘spots of time’ – ‘scattered everywhere’ – which have a special place in each man and woman’s life, and which it’s our task to recover: not as an act of nostalgia but because they help repair and (the word John Cross used) renovate us if we find them:
There are in our existence spots of time That with a distinct pre-eminence retain A renovating virtue, when, depressed By false opinions and contentious thought, Or aught of heavier and more deadly weight, In trivial occupations, and the round Of ordinary intercourse, our minds Are nourished and invisibly repaired; A virtue by which pleasure is enhanced, That penetrates, enables us to mount, When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen...
The most consciously renovating or therapeutic writer I know is Ted Hughes – surprisingly, perhaps, since in his lifetime he seemed to friends, and accused himself of being, a man in denial. But he not only considered individual works of his medicinal – ‘It is a story intended to cure the mentally sick,’ he said of his children’s book The Iron Man – but defined poetry as ‘nothing more than a facility for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction – whether our own or that of others whose feeling we can share. The inmost spirit of poetry, in other words, is at bottom, in every recorded case, the voice of pain – and the physical body, so to speak, of poetry, is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world’. Or again: ‘Almost all art is an attempt by someone badly hit (but almost everybody is badly hit), who is also unusually ill-equipped to defend themselves internally against the wound, to improvise some sort of modus vivendi with their internal haemophilia’. When Hughes describes poetry as consisting of ‘things we don’t actually want to say’ but ‘desperately need to share’, he is talking as a writer, not a reader. But whether we’re expressing the emotion ourselves, or having it expressed for us by someone else, the articulation of it on
the page – the shared experience – is what renovates. Proust acknowledged the inseparability of reading and writing when he described the book as a ‘sort of optical instrument which the writer offers to the reader to enable the latter to discover in himself what he would not have found but for the aid of the book.’ An optical instrument. Or a mirror in which we see our own reflection. Or a lamp shedding light on something we hadn’t seen before and perhaps didn’t want to see – this is what literature can be, the work of an Other in which we locate the Self. * The self can get help from a book, then. But the best kind of help doesn’t necessarily come by way of self-help books. Nor are the books which make us feel good usually feelgood books. That’s the problem with most of the bibliotherapy schemes that have been set up in the UK so far. It’s commendable that Kirklees, Calderdale, Neath and Ayrshire – to name just four such initiatives – should have thrown their weight behind bibliotherapy. But too often the prescribed ‘literature’ in local libraries consists only of leaflets, or references to useful websites, or books written by ‘eminent therapists or former service-users’ which are worthy, practical-minded and dull. There’s no recognition that people in trouble need more than the right labels. As one of the reading group in Birkenhead explained: ‘I would never have gone into a library and asked for a self-help book on depression. I was feeling bad enough as it was, and that would have made me feel worse. It’s being in a group and talking that helps.’ And, of course, using imaginative literature – poetry and fiction, not self-medicating pamphlets. Jane Davis would like the scheme she’s created on Merseyside to be adopted throughout the country. With 2008 designated the Year of Reading and Liverpool the 2008 European Capital of Culture, it’s an opportune moment for that to happen. As the founder and former editor of the quarterly magazine The Reader (which she runs with her husband Phil, author of a recent biography of Malamud), she has already established her credentials. And if she’s evangelical in the cause, that’s because of the quasi-religious role which books have played in her own life – notably, Doris Lessing’s novel Shikasta, reading which, as a feminist and anarchist, pushed her ‘into something like a nervous breakdown. I felt so disturbed by it that I wrote to Doris, care of her publisher, blaming her and asking for help. She wrote back telling me to read more and offering me money to buy books if I needed it. “I am not your teacher but you need to read,” she said. I was a single mother living on Social Security but in the end I decided what I needed wasn’t Doris’s money but a public library. It was like a first experiential lesson in being a moral person. And, for me, it was a life-saver.’ Books can do many things: entertain, educate, enthral. But often the
best of them never make it beyond the syllabus, classroom and lecturehall, and have no impact on everyday life. Of course, books don’t always save lives: writing about the Holocaust didn’t prevent Primo Levi from ultimately committing suicide; and the reading or misreading of The Satanic Verses led to the deaths of innocent people. But literature’s power to heal and console outweighs its power to do damage. And it’s the beneficial effects that Jane Davis is putting into practice. Before I leave, she takes me to meet some of the elderly long-term patients in the Hoylake Cottage Hospital. A book group meets here every Thursday, and a hard core of half a dozen eagerly look forward to it, including Pat, a woman whose voice is so frail that I have to lean in to catch what’s she’s saying. Many times the nurses have given her no chance of making the session but, however ill, she always gets there. ‘Why? Because it’s tedious in here, and it’s the one thing in the week that’s different. You never know how people will respond or what they’ll like and the ones who come aren’t necessarily those you’d expect. We always begin with a poem, and lot of memories come up, especially of the war – both wars – which the men in particular like to talk about.’ No one in the Hoylake Cottage Hospital is going to get better. No one is not going to die. But poetry gives Pat and the others a language in which to remember the past, face the future and feel better about the present. They don’t want false cheer but nor is the knowledge that everything and everyone must decay oppressive, if a poet puts it well enough. And sometimes, as George Herbert’s ‘The Flower’ conveys, hope and happiness can bud in the most unlikely places:
Who would have thought my shrivelled heart Could have recovered greenness? It was gone Quite underground; as flowers depart To see their mother-root, when they have blown, Where they together All the hard weather, Dead to the world, keep house unknown
And now in age I bud again, After so many deaths I live and write; I once more smell the dew and rain, And relish versing….
A shorter version of this article was published first in The Guardian (January 5,
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Monarch Notes: Reissue edition (1986)
ISBN 978-0671009205 Between February 13th and 15th 1945 over 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices were dropped on the baroque city of Dresden. 35,000 people perished in the ensuing firestorm. Kurt Vonnegut, the recently deceased author, was being held as a prisoner of war in the deep cellars of an abbatoir known in German as ‘Schlachthof Fünf’; saved by a slaughterhouse. His experiences became the catalyst for the novel named after his refuge, Slaughterhouse Five. The narrative follows Billy Pilgrim, who has become ‘unstuck in time’; we follow as he skips between his experiences as a prisoner of war, a suburban optometrist and a human specimen in an alien zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. The story brilliantly captures the feelings of an individual caught up in the machinery of tumultuous historical events. Ryan Cunliffe
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Serpent’s Tail (9 May 2006)
ISBN 978-1852424671 Is it possible, is it conceivable that a child can be a mass murderer? This epistolatory novel is a book that you won’t put down but it will chill you to the heart, to the very bone. Kevin’s mother Eva tries to understand what went wrong with her boy, and how early the damage began. She tries to be honest, but inevitably she is not objective.
OXFORD WORLD’S CLASSICS
ANNE BRONTë, THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL
Published in 1848, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the least well-known of the Brontë novels, but it is a very great account of a woman trapped in a marriage she would not leave save for her fear of the moral influence of her drunkard husband on their son. Even within the marriage she feels like a single parent, while the father spoils their child, even offering him sips of alcohol. ‘It is hard that my little darling child should love him more than me.’ Here is an example of her lonely confession to herself in her diary, the long almost unshaped sentences reflecting her mess:
“I am too grave to minister to his amusements and enter into his infantile sports as a nurse or a mother ought to do, and often his bursts of gleeful merriment trouble and alarm me; I see in them his father’s spirit and temperament, and I tremble for the consequences; and, too often, damp the innocent mirth I ought to share. That father on the contrary has no weight of sadness in his mind – is troubled with no fears, no scruples concerning his son’s future welfare … therefore, of course, the child dotes upon his seemingly joyous, amusing, ever indulgent papa, and will at any time gladly exchange my company for his. This disturbs me greatly; not so much for the sake of my son’s affection (though I do prize that highly, and though I feel it is my right, and know I have done much to earn it), as for that influence over him which, for his own advantage, I would strive to purchase and retain, and which for very spite his father delights to rob me of, and, from motives of mere idle egotism, is pleased to win to himself, making no use of it but to torment me, and ruin the child.” (Chapter 37)
Jo Cannon is a Sheff ield GP and short story writer. Toxic love. Valiant self-control. A marriage, then a man, disintegrates. I was gripped by the intricate, timeless emotions. Helen’s precision of speech was enviable. Suspense and a feel-good ending make Tenant a great read.
Lynne Hatwell (dovegreyreader) is a Devon-based community nurse This book places Anne Brontë deservedly centrestage: alcoholism, gambling and drugs and the resulting emotional and physical abuse will keep you turning the pages and reflecting on its uncanny parallels to life for many even today. *** Drummond Moir, once of Edinburgh, works for a London-based publisher I wasn’t sure about this – the plot’s quite slow. If you already love Victorian fiction and want something off the beaten track, this is definitely worth a try. * Tom Sperlinger directs English courses for Lifelong Learning at Bristol University Tenant gives a compelling account of living with someone in the grip of an addiction. Helen is charmed by her husband before marriage, but then feels shame, fear, guilt, and resignation at his behaviour. A richly imagined, grimly moving book. *** Sarah Turvey runs reading groups in London prisons Marital breakdown, alcohol addiction, and theological questions of salvation and damnation are daring themes for a nineteenth-century woman novelist. But overall the novel is awkwardly structured, and the characters never quite come alive. ** STAR RATINGS ***** one of best books I’ve ever read **** one of the best I’ve read this year *** highly recommended ** worth reading * not for me but worth trying 0 - don’t bother 89
I was so inspired by Angela Macmillan’s essay on reading groups [Reader no. 28] that I decided I should start my own. The last one I attended was a boozy affair with a lot of discussion about whether the sex in the novel should / should not have taken place etc. The nail in the coffin was when someone suggested Victoria Beckham’s autobiography would be a good read. I didn’t go back. I have told my friends that we will be taking inspiration from The Reader and thought it would be useful if we had a list of books which have been reviewed/recommended in back copies if such a thing exists. My aim is that they will feel they are having a say in the choice of books without anyone being able to suggest something I personally couldn’t waste my time on (but without me looking like a fascist dictator).
Regards Maria Tierney
—Maria, we’ll put a list up on the blog.
I was delighted to read Howard Jacobson’s piece ‘Know Thine Enemy’ [Reader no. 29] – it was like biting into a ripe olive, sharp and tangy, literally witty and wise. I’m sure Mr Jacobson is right in suggesting that Professor Dawkins with his myopic view of religion is a sure-fire recruiting agent for the very thing he despises in all we lesser mortals, our curiosity or faith in what we cannot understand and which cannot be ‘scientifically proved’. But, I wonder whether Mr Jacobson has ever considered that the Prof. may well be a ‘closet Christian’, for ‘methinks he doth protest too much’. On the other hand there is no doubt that in reducing the odds against God, or ‘higher intelligence’, Dawkins is banking on banking. There is no surer way of making loads of money than by denigrating received wisdom or shooting at ‘unholy’ cows. I read Mr Jacobson in a hospital waiting room and laughed out loud, making others smile, which can’t be bad. In a context of suspended disbelief, Richard Dawkins is entertaining in a perverse way but you get the feeling he’s not the world’s greatest exponent of laughter, which surely has its own curious and life-giving place in human evolution!
Kind regards, Maggie Goren
OUR SPY IN NY HOW I GOT GOOD AT GRIEF
aving grown up in a posthumous household, I have some sense of what it’s like to live with loss and among ghosts. My mother died young, leaving a bewildered gentleman of business and three children to negotiate the abyss of her absence. As the youngest child, I remember her as the lead character in a series of pleasing if distant vignettes: a rainy day on Mott Avenue, the business hub of Far Rockaway, tucked into a diner booth with her and my father’s cousin Monia while I contemplated the tactile and olfactory delights of a new pinkand-white-striped vinyl raincoat; standing on one of the dinette chairs pulled up to the stove, spoon in hand and hovering over a frying pan, dribbling pancake batter in a Jackson Pollock carboscape as she hauled me back from danger by tugging at my apron strings; chatting matily in the bathroom and asking her where she was going (to the dentist) and wondering if I could come along (no) and why (no answer). Three days later she was dead, and it was an abandonment from which no one quite recovered: not my aunts, who set up shrines alongside their beds, a studio photograph of my mother and brothers and me; not various landsleit, people who were not quite family but who hailed from Chizev, the town in Poland where my parents were born; not, most poignantly, my brothers, aged eleven and thirteen, just at the age to feel such a loss most keenly and to be expected to handle it most stoically. At four, I knew that something sad had happened, but then, life was sad in our scrubbed and austere apartment on Beach 73rd Street.
More to the point, we’d inherited sorrow in the aftermath of The War: no extant grandparents, and uncles not quite right in the head were excused by dint of their tenure in Auschwitz. All of her clothing and personal items had been cleared out, expunged: even the bottom drawer that had held a crocheted shawl was emptied, the exotic paisley motif of a challis blouse vanished, no remnants of her much admired taste available besides the two sets of dishes and a small bust of Lincoln. One of the only pretty things that remained was a box of get-well cards, bursting with color and bearing affectionate message and signatures in Palmer script, the approved method for teaching penmanship in the New York City public schools. The greeting-card industry must have been booming in the late 1950s, because the box yielded over a dozen versions of the botanical trope, ‘Pansies Are for Thoughts’. I remember the companionable bustle of the shiva – and the gorgeous haze of the amber cellophane that shrouded the wicker fruit baskets, studded with the tiny faux-ivory forks that I hoarded with a miser’s obsessiveness. But then everyone went away, my brothers took to the playground and beach for the games they thrived on, and it was a lonely and empty flat. Perhaps weary of my listlessness, my brothers took upon themselves the task of teaching me how to read: formally setting up a chair in the middle of the barren room, they put a copy of Tom Sawyer in my hands and hovered over me until I began to pick out words, phrases, sentences. Pleased by their success, they escaped outside to their jock realm, while I waded through their big-boy books: Guadalcanal Diary and God Is My Co-Pilot, alongside the Little Golden Books that tenderhearted visitors brought: The Golden Goose and an improbably wacky parable of greed and responsibility called The Baby Bunny – “‘Wonderful, wonderful!’ the farmer cried. ‘The baby bunny has eaten all the carrots!’” None of this is unfamiliar territory to The Reader’s readers – a solitary child consoling herself with books. It might do for a frontispiece; look what it did for Charlotte Brontë. But the comfort of words ‘after so many deaths,’ in Herbert’s phrase, endures, maybe because it’s all we’ve got. If there is nothing to say, there is also everything to say – tactless, unfeeling, sanctimonious, but also precise, luminous, evocative. I came of age loving those books that told so well of loss: James Agee’s A Death in the Family was part of the public-school canon, but a novel I adored for its re-creation of the Depression Lower East Side, Hurray for Me, was written by an author, S. J. Wilson, of whom I have lost track. My friend wrote a most extraordinary book, a biography of his novelist father, a suicide, because he’d grown up, he says, with a book instead of a father. To reclaim that father by imagining him into a book of his own is an act of immeasurable grace and generosity, and Shade of the Raintree is a work of vast, sympathetic imagination.
In a much cruder tone, I got good at knowing what to say in the face of death. Months before her adored mother would die (I was crazy about Marion and so refuse to type ‘lose her courageous battle with cancer’), a friend asked me to write her eulogy. Warming to the task, I interviewed my accessible subject, scribbled pages of her aperçus and regrets, her quiet wit and ready rage at what was happening, the loss of control, the daughters she would be leaving. I put the speech into my friend’s voice, for her to deliver at the service, as a gift for her mother. This little skill served me well as cousins and teachers died and I had something to write about them at a time when no one wished to hear anything but the right words. By an indirect train of contacts, a stranger paid me to compose a eulogy for her mentor, the head of a laboratory at an important hospital. The heavy hitters, the fundraising machers, would also be speaking at the memorial, she told me. ‘And you don’t want to sound like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,’ I finished. The deal was struck, and after a sixtyminute interview, I had enough of her affectionate and irreverent memories to compose three pages that apparently went down a treat at the five-hundred-seat auditorium. Capturing her appreciative and witty voice was gratifyingly easy and worked out well. Sometimes I think about the hagiography that sprang up around my mother: not just her cooking, her cleaning, her all-around excellence but her authority: if you needed to buy a dress or find a remnant of carpeting to unroll in the foyer or were getting calls from the school administrators about your rotten kid, you consulted Edith. And here am I, good at the business of grief, attentive to but inured to loss and so resistant to despair, competent but not officious, solicitous but not maudlin, a regular Polonius of funerary talents. This is where the little black dress meets the road, where showing up isn’t 60 but 90 percent of the job, where a friend, waiting with her husband and partner in that limbo between imminence and certainty, announces, ‘Your assignment is to distract and amuse us.’ It’s the best job in the world.
THE LONDON EYE
IN WHICH I AM THANKFUL FOR BEING DISTURBED
rossing the Embankment bridge to the South Bank at night is one of the quintessentially ‘London’ experiences. I usually seem to be doing so in a hurry, running late from work, but it’s always worth stopping in the middle of the bridge to see the waterfront spread out on either hand. It’s only on the bridges that you can really see the size of the city, and from the Embankment the lights look particularly spectacular, with the National Theatre lit in shocking pink, the blue lights around the trees and the orange lights on the river, and the majestic dome of St Paul’s in the distance. The view brings Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ into my mind, although this is completely incongruous – the wrong bridge and it is a sight less touching than gaudy; riotous rather than calm and still. But there’s something mighty about it all the same that somehow imposes a reflective mood. I’ve stood there with friends and we’ve found ourselves talking about careers, whether we want to live in London in years to come, the future. Sometimes this experience can set the tone for the rest of the evening but never more so than on one particular night recently as I crossed the bridge to attend a talk at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. This was a discussion between the novelist A.S. Byatt and the neurobiologist Steven Rose, chaired by John Carey, on the subject of ‘memory’. A.S. Byatt has recently edited an anthology on this subject with Harriet Harvey Wood (Chatto & Windus). It’s an unusual book to be published by a trade publisher, I think, even one as literary as Chatto. It’s an openminded multidisciplinary anthology, with contributions from a wide variety of writers of poetry and prose, past and present, so I was interested to discover what sort of debate was going to take place.
John Carey opened the proceedings by introducing his two fellow guests, and he spoke briefly about what had interested him most in the Memory anthology; he had been ‘disturbed’, he said, by the discovery made by writers and scientists alike that our memories are constantly being revised, and consequently don’t reach as far back into our pasts as we might think. When we recall an event in childhood, we are actually recalling the last time we remembered it. Our memories, and our sense of identity therefore, are precarious and unreliable. It’s perhaps good to start a discussion with some contentious point, but I felt confusedly disheartened, for some reason. A.S. Byatt spoke about memory in literature. I liked the way she sat bolt upright in her chair and stared straight in front of her. She seemed to be listening and speaking with her whole mind and body. And then Steven Rose spoke, on what he considered the great importance of literature for scientists like himself, who are attempting to discover the mysteries of how the brain works – any exploration of how or why memories are formed and recalled should be accompanied by the other, more indistinct knowledge, of how it actually feels to remember. By this time, fifteen minutes into the talk, my unaccustomed brain had had a thorough work-out, and all sorts of memories of the last time I had been made to think so hard were rising to the surface. Two particular writers had been mentioned, St Augustine and Wordsworth, who were very important to me as I struggled to write my dissertation in my final year of university, though the feeling of their importance to me remained past any knowledge of the argument of this dissertation, or exactly how they fitted in to it. This is what St Augustine says about memory, and what the scientist Steven Rose found thrillingly, alarmingly exact:
Great is this force of memory, excessive great, O my God; a large and an infinite roominess: who can plummet the bottom of it? Yet it is a faculty of mine, and belongs unto my nature; nor can I myself comprehend all that I am. Therefore is the mind too strait to contain itself… A wonderful admiration surprises me, and an astonishment seizes me upon this.
As I read this later, eager to re-understand its significance to me, I realised why my heart sank at John Carey’s opening remarks, fascinating though they were: he seemed to imply that this turning-round-of-themind-upon-itself was disturbing because it made the memory, and a sense of self, evaporate into nothingness. These blanks of memory, its vanishing and re-appearing acts, seemed like tricks played on us, and not part of us at all. St Augustine is describing that same kind of giddiness, the same wonder at his own lack of knowledge of a faculty which is part of himself. But for him this is a source of wonder and admiration,
as it implies that the mind is larger than itself. Centuries after St Augustine was writing, Wordsworth wrote, again with gratitude, of the strange places our minds can find themselves:
… I raise The song of thanks and praise; But for those obstinate questionings Of sense and outward things, Fallings from us, vanishings; Blank misgivings of a Creature Moving about in worlds not realised, High instincts before which our mortal Nature Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised.
When the talk finished, bumping back down to the reality of filing out of the theatre, saying goodbyes with a buzzing brain, I took with me a valuable feeling of well, surprise, I suppose, at having my daily mental sphere suddenly widened. To keep my mind buzzing and to help it recover old lines of enquiry, I went home to the books that had last surprised me like this. One was the novel Fugitive Pieces by Canadian poet Anne Michaels, and, read most recently, Breath, by Michael Symmons Roberts. As well as the feeling of ‘moving about in worlds not realised’ that these books give, they connect that intense inner thinking to the outside, physical world. Michael Symmons Roberts’ novel is full of wonder and gratitude for ‘the gift’ of breath itself, and constantly evokes the physical manifestations of breathing, the fragile, arboreal structure of the lung, to make the invisible tangible. In Fugitive Pieces, the narrator is eventually saved from the ghosts of his past by sheer physicality, ‘power lines of blood… cables of tendons… forests of bone in wrists and feet.’ This inward/outward contact happened often in the Memory talk itself: A.S. Byatt would talk about how it was almost painful to put a pre-verbal memory from her childhood into words, and Steven Rose would attempt to explain the scientific side, what might be going on in her brain. To his credit, he refused to supply a definitive answer, although he was speaking as an expert in his field, and he would not allow the talk of synapses and dendrites to eclipse the original feeling. Walking over the bridge and looking down through the sudden opening in the city imposed by the thick, black, tar-like river, I think the books and writers who create these disturbances are so surprising and valuable because, rather than lifting you up to a cerebral higher level, their enforced openings into the 9-to-5 jog trot of life in a big city make you feel more like being returned to earth again.
Do you want more of this good giddiness? A. S. Byatt will be appearing at the Shipping Lines festival in Liverpool this November.
BELIEVE IT: THE WINTER’S TALE IN BIRKENHEAD
irkenhead Park, the first urban park and model for New York’s Central Park, has recently been restored, thanks to a Heritage Lottery grant and a great deal of concentrated effort from its Friends. For a very long time the place had seemed dead and done for, but someone must have believed that the process of urban decay could be arrested and indeed reversed. Years passed: I looked up and it had newly restored railings and plantings: it had come back to life. In August this year The Reader Organisation will lead a group of partners in a community production of The Winter’s Tale in the outdoor performance space in the upper park. What larks! The Winter’s Tale is a story of personal restoration, of serious adult life going wrong and yet ultimately being (more or less) fixed. ‘More or less’ because damage is done and things cannot be put back together as they were (‘Hermione was not so much wrinkled’, says Leontes, when his apparently dead wife is restored to him after 16 years). And the beloved ones, Mamillius and Antigonus, who really do die, cannot be brought back. Yet the survivors live on, re-learn happiness, and they find that time does sometimes heal. It seems the ideal play for adult readers because this basic story is one with which we all have to come to terms. And where else will we find a play that makes so much of middleaged women? Paulina, the play’s centre and engine, represents ordinary real-life women keeping families together, managing their husbands, partners, sons, bosses, visiting nursing homes, carrying home the shopping, holding down (probably part-time) jobs. Let them get a little older and they become the women David Constantine writes movingly about in his poem ‘Shoes in the Charity Shop’:
Noblest Were those worn shoes of women queuing at the bus-stop … No feet on earth after theirs would have fitted them.
A little younger and they are Dorothea Brooke, the great ordinary heroine of Middlemarch, a woman who found no vocation. Let them be embroiled in a career and they become something else again – Lady Macbeths of the Civil Service, a little bonkers, a bit too controlling. Or let them not have a career to use up their energy. OK, these women can be bossy, and fussy, and that’s why younger writers tend not to love them (see the young Doris Lessing heap scorn upon them in Martha Quest, or the Brontës make them merely conventional, or fussy or obedient). George Eliot and Charles Dickens, the most feelingful of novelists, know that the growing good of the world depends upon them, and offer us loving warts-and-all portraits in Aunt Trotwood, Mrs Poyser, Mrs Bagnett and even daft Mrs Tulliver. But it is in Shakespeare, perhaps surprisingly, that we find the greatest middle-aged woman, Paulina. With something of a god-like power, she is a priestess of life: she creates a future, a family, by believing in it so powerfully that it comes to be. The Winter’s Tale is the story of a man who wrecks his own life. As Leontes’ madness takes hold, it affects not only a man but a king and the courtiers can’t contest the effects of his madness, however devoted to his interests they are. They can’t fight it from within the court. In Shakespeare’s other family-based play, King Lear, honest Kent resists the madness of the king, by giving up his place and identity to remain at Lear’s side. But in The Winter’s Tale, the role of loving truth-teller is given to a woman who more than anything reminds us of a mother-in-law. Paulina has no courtly or political power, only a sort of domestic or personal energy that cannot be refuted. Although the characters are royal, everyday personal relationships are at the play’s heart, and what this brusque and demanding woman believes is what gives the play its magic. Her position outside the court’s power structure gives her a freedom not available, for instance, to Leontes’ very sane advisor, Camillo. There is no safe option for him: the King ‘in rebellion with himself will have / All that are his so too.’ But for Paulina, coming from a different angle, the case is different: the King is a human being and a father, and must be made to feel like one: [PAULINA] I dare be sworn
These dangerous unsafe lunes i’ the king, beshrew them! He must be told on’t, and he shall: the office Becomes a woman best; I’ll take’t upon me:
If I prove honey-mouth’d let my tongue blister And never to my red-look’d anger be The trumpet any more. Pray you, Emilia, Commend my best obedience to the queen: If she dares trust me with her little babe, I’ll show’t the king and undertake to be Her advocate to the loud’st. We do not know How he may soften at the sight o’ the child: The silence often of pure innocence Persuades when speaking fails.
It is not long before she is plainly telling Leontes that he is mad, a traitor to himself: [LEONTES] I’ll ha’ thee burnt. [PAULINA] I care not:
It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t. I’ll not call you tyrant; But this most cruel usage of your queen, Not able to produce more accusation Than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savours Of tyranny and will ignoble make you, Yea, scandalous to the world.
Oh, there should be one in every family! Some people find the ending of The Winter’s Tale a problem. Where has Hermione been for the 16 years it takes Leontes to return to reason? That never bothers me. The play offers a sort of X-ray of how life’s patterns work, and while that doesn’t look like kitchen-sink realism it is deeply true and realistic. We see this X-ray reality in flashes – for example in the recognisable pride of Paulina’s husband Antigonus, who takes a steady, amused stance as the husband of a powerful woman: ‘When she will take the rein I let her run; / But she’ll not stumble.’ But the play’s truth-telling goes deeper than this straightforward observation. For me, the most realistic thing about it is the same thing so many people find odd – the sixteen-year absence, or apparent death, of Hermione. A person in any deeply untenable situation may absent themselves psychologically. The wife of a madly violent and dangerous man may ‘go away’ in all sorts of ways – see Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors. Or less obviously, and more ordinarily, our real life may go underground almost without anyone noticing (think of Matthew Arnold describing that mechanism in his poem ‘The Buried Life’). It’s that sort of thing that has happened to Hermione, and Shakespeare includes a real death in the play so that we have a benchmark against which to judge Hermione’s apparent death:
[Servant] O sir, I shall be hated to report it! The prince your son, with mere conceit and fear Of the queen’s speed, is gone.
[LEONTES] How! gone! [Servant] Is dead. [LEONTES] Apollo’s angry; and the heavens themselves Do strike at my injustice.
Those two words ‘is dead’ seem the heaviest words of the play, and they can’t be undone by any sort of magic. It is those words which finally cause brave, dignified Hermione, on trial for her life, to swoon and fall, and that is the last time we – and Leontes – see Hermione for 16 years. What is required to bring her back? In Paulina’s chapel (or gallery), as in our Birkenhead Park, it is belief in the possibility of restoration:
[PAULINA] It is required You do awake your faith. Then all stand still; On: those that think it is unlawful business I am about, let them depart. [LEONTES] Proceed: No foot shall stir. [PAULINA] Music, awake her; strike! ‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach; Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come, I’ll fill your grave up: stir, nay, come away, Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him Dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs:
At this most magic of theatrical moments we have one of Shakespeare’s greatest lines: ‘It is required you do awake your faith’, actually a sort of everyday law. In life faith is always what is required. Not much happens if we don’t make it awake.
Wirral Community Shakespeare will offer volunteering/participation opportunities to everyone: come and read the play with us, or print tickets, set out deck chairs, sell ice-cream, or sing, play the bear, be part of a crowd-scene, or audition for a role… or be the audience: Birkenhead Park, Friday 29th and Saturday 30th August 2008. Bring your picnic. Wirral Community Shakespeare is supported by Arts and Culture Fund, Birkenhead Sixth Form College, GIRTY, University of Liverpool, Wirral Primary Care Trust and CSIP, and Wirral Borough Council. Contact Estelle Condliff at The Reader Organisation for more details (email) email@example.com, (tel) 0151 794 2830
ASK THE READER
The Reader used to carry the message ‘A magazine about writing worth reading’ and I am glad it no longer insists on that. Despite its witty ambiguity it carries a value judgement and yet you still by implication assume that what a reader reads is literature. Reading is how we understand menus, bus timetables, newspapers, blogs, posters, cereal packages, etc. To be true to your title surely it is the whole phenomenon of print that should be your remit.
Your own argument is not value-free, I would point out, since by relegating the novels of George Eliot to the same reality as the writing on a packet of corn-flakes you deny them not simply special status but any existence at all. The commercial product along with the other writing you mention carries information, however selective and slanted by the agendas of the writer, but Paradise Lost or Dombey and Son do not exist to offer the reader data that they didn’t already possess. If all you are going to do with such works is to analyse the silent prejudices and assumptions that underline them, you treat them like a leading article in, say, The Daily Telegraph, not as literature. We need literature at the least for the health of the English language itself. The forms of writing you mention are all simple; the detection of prejudice in a newspaper is not a complex business. But great imaginative writing is not tossed off to a daily schedule. It demands from the reader attention to nuance, to the precise implication of each word. It keeps the language on its toes not as an analytical instrument as in scientific writing but as a means to register the richness of our mental and emotional experience as nothing else can. There is a difference between the Latin of the Vindolanda tablets and the use of the language by Virgil and
Horace even though the details of social life in those letters from Hadrian’s Wall may be more historically revealing than The Aeneid. You are wanting I know to make literature just a part of Cultural Studies, that academic study of the last twenty years or so, but that makes all writing a kind of specialism within a branch of Sociology. Though literature, especially the novel, may be useful to the sociologist, I’m less sure of the contrary case. In the medieval university theology was Queen of the Sciences but ‘humane letters’, as they used to be called, survived as part of the syllabus in the guise of rhetoric. If we are not careful, sociology can become a more exclusive mistress than ever divinity was in the fourteenth century. I recommend to you a recent book by Rónán MacDonald, The Death of the Critic. He argues that there has always been a division between the critic’s desire to describe what is valuable in a given work and his or her self-consciousness about the basis of those judgements. Notoriously, the critic is ill tempered not simply about literature but about other and earlier critics, as Coleridge is about Johnson, for example. The judgements produced as though they were final and absolute are based on the beliefs and preferences of distinct historical cultures. Cultural Studies overcomes that contradiction by assuming that now we understand cultural relativism we should attend to that and recognise that value is simply a matter for the individual, from which they often also need to be rescued. But in that case the writer about ‘culture’ himself becomes the subject for individual taste and few specialists in the subject attract readers outside the academy. Read the book. Maybe over-ambitiously, The Reader tries to reconnect readers in general, members of book groups, of the review pages in the Sunday papers, those who continue to use our shrinking public libraries or who do not automatically rush past the doors of Waterstone’s with lowered heads, those who want to try the originals behind TV and film adaptations, to persuade all these people that some writing carries more weight than others and more importantly, that all good books, whenever written, belong to our present. Without any belief in a rigid canon, a fixed list of ‘great books’, we want to connect good writing today with good writing in the past. Even critics who thought their primary duty was to the best that was written never set their preferences in stone. If Johnson praises Dryden and Pope he also writes about Christopher Pitt and Gilbert West; if Matthew Arnold is attached to the idea of a great tradition, he also writes about Joubert and Maurice du Guérin, neither exactly classics of French literature. When attention spans are short, we need good literature of all shapes and sizes not simply because it demonstrates the subtlety and depth of which the language is capable but because the sustained concentration it demands is necessary to our mental health. Sudoku squares are simply no substitute.
THIRTY YEARS OF VIRAGO MODERN CLASSICS
esearch shows that readers have little awareness of what publisher has issued which title, but when I was younger I realised that many of the books I loved bore the apple icon. Going to a Catholic girls’ school, I appreciated the symbol’s naughtiness – that Eve’s taste of forbidden fruit was being celebrated – and my teachers championed many of the authors: Angela Carter, Edith Wharton, Maya Angelou, Willa Cather, Margaret Atwood, Stevie Smith, Grace Nichols, to name a few. So that little apple on a green spine became a beacon to me: this was a book that I’d enjoy, one that I could get my teeth into. Perhaps it is inevitable that Virago has influenced my reading tastes – after all, we’ve grown up together. The list was founded not long before I was born and the first Virago Modern Classic, Antonia White’s Frost in May, was published a few years later, in 1978. The Virago Modern Classics list has always challenged what a ‘classic’ is, and therefore has a proud history of publishing a broad spectrum of literature, from the very best of twentieth-century fiction to wonderful volumes of comedy, letter-writing and memoir, to popular novels that were the record-breaking bestsellers of their day. This year is our thirtieth anniversary, and to mark the occasion we are producing a beautiful set of eight hardback books that illustrate the diversity
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym ‘I’d sooner read a new Barbara Pym than a new Jane Austen’ Philip Larkin
VIRAGO MODERN CLASSICS
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston ‘There is no novel I love more’ Zadie Smith ‘There is no book more important to me than this one. It speaks to me as no novel, past or present, has ever done’ Alice Walker
30TH ANNIVERSARY SERIES
of this much-loved and important part of Virago Press. The authors are Angela Carter, Zora Neale Hurston, Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Susann, E. M. Delafield and Helene Hanff. Earlier this year The Times ran an article listing who it considered to be the fifty greatest post-war British writers. Three of the authors in our series featured in it: Angela Carter, ‘a literary sorceress to be reckoned with’; Muriel Spark, ‘mistress of the highest high comedy and a maker of immaculate prose’; and Barbara Pym, whom Philip Larkin preferred to Jane Austen. It must have been an oversight that The Times neglected to mention Elizabeth Taylor, but she is such a firm favourite that there would have been an uproar if she wasn’t included in our celebrations. She is a writer of great humanity and humour, but her genius lies in capturing with both subtlety and absolute precision the feelings that run below the surface. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is a rich, beautiful and trailblazing book, one of the most important in the canon of African American literature, and has been an inspiration to many writers, including Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Zadie Smith. 84 Charing Cross Road is a touching collection of correspondence charting a twenty-year friendship between two bibliophiles who never meet, while The Diary of a Provincial Lady is a comical, fictional account of the trials and tribulations of a 1930s’ Devon housewife. Although Valley of the Dolls may not be what traditionalists would call a classic, it is an era-defining book that hailed a new genre of massmarket fiction and is still often referred to as the bestselling novel of all time. Its continued appeal cannot be denied. This celebratory series features cover artwork by women textile designers. In the past few years, textiles for both interiors and fashion have taken on a definite retro aesthetic – informed by the past, yet still very contemporary – and this captures the spirit of our modern classics. The books and designs aren’t necessarily from corresponding periods, but each design has been chosen to capture the tone of the book: Lucienne Day’s lively, staccato print echoes Muriel Spark’s never predictable, darkly humorous writing to perfection; Cath Kidston’s floral pattern suggests the bright domesticity of the Provincial Lady’s drawing-room; the birds in Marion Dorn’s print evoke carrier pigeons, which seems fitting for a book about a long-distance friendship through letters. A claim sometimes made about women’s writing is that it is too domestic, too housebound, that it concentrates on the emotions, relationships, the family; that it lacks imagination and scope. On the Virago Modern Classics list we can counter this charge by citing, for a start, the pyrotechnic imagination of Angela Carter and the dark, murderous stories of Daphne du Maurier. But I take the view that a small canvas is not necessarily an unambitious one. What is seen under the microscope
can reveal much about the world in which we live. And what skill it takes to write observantly, feelingly, with wit and perception, about the everyday. Nobody could accuse the artist Louise Bourgeois of lacking imagination, but when I recently visited an exhibition of hers, recurring themes were apparent: motherhood, the home, and the ‘Femme Maison’ (the French term for ‘housewife’) – sculptures and paintings of a woman’s body and a house combined. Bourgeois brings these ‘domestic’ images into her art over and over again, yet it is not something she is criticised for. We are shaped by our experiences and so is our work. Relationships, families, children, love – these are not marginal; on the contrary, they are life itself. This undermining of women’s writing is discussed in the accompanying article written for the TLS by Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago and creator of the Virago Modern Classics list, back in 1980, but it is a conversation we are still having today. Thirty years after the Virago Modern Classics list began, we are still discussing male and female writing, and not just with regard to classic books. What’s more, the supporters and detractors do not fall along obvious gender lines. Muriel Gray, who was one of the judges of the Orange Prize for Fiction last year, berated the state of contemporary women’s writing as being, for the most part, lacking in ambition and imagination (though she did say that this didn’t apply to writers on the Orange longlist):
It’s hard to ignore the sheer volume of thinly disguised autobiographical writing from women on small-scale domestic themes such as motherhood, boyfriend troubles and tiny family dramas. These writers appear to have forgotten the fundamental imperative of fiction writing. It’s called making stuff up.1
While Jonathan Coe pointed out:
In 2007, it’s Graham Swift who writes a novel focused entirely on the domestic and familial (Tomorrow), while writers such as Rose Tremain and Marina Lewycka examine the plight of low-paid migrant workers in the modern British economy. The old clichés about what distinguishes male writing from female writing no longer stand up to scrutiny. 2
A question I am often asked by readers is why we changed the beloved green jackets. I look back on them fondly, but we have to keep in mind a modern audience and we’d be doing the list a great disservice if we didn’t. I’ve showed the old green covers to a number of young adults and the response has been that they look like books forced upon one at school rather than those they’d read for pleasure. The green jackets
were once fresh and exciting and were integral to establishing the list’s identity, but we have to move with the times, and so the decision was taken to create a distinctive look to complement each individual author’s style rather than following a generic design. The great majority of the list is from the twentieth century, so these books are accessible, enjoyable and relevant to readers today, not dreary, earnest old tomes – they are modern classics after all, and need to look vibrant. In addition to producing striking covers, we also commission popular contemporary authors to write introductions to books they want to champion. A reader might not have heard of Elizabeth Taylor or Barbara Pym but if Sarah Waters or Alexander McCall Smith has written the introduction it gives a personal recommendation. The reason the Virago Modern Classics exist is to bring back into print wonderful books that have been neglected or overlooked but will be enjoyable to readers today. As well as revitalising our own titles by reissuing them, and keeping many books available in our print on demand scheme, we are continually looking for titles to resurrect. This year we’ve published one of the great autobiographies of the twentieth century, Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table, and, for the first time in many years, Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier is in print, which means we have every one of her novels on the list. Next year there will be more books by Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark. We will also be publishing Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons, a wonderfully satirical 1930s’ Cinderella story that has been unavailable for decades, and The Group by Mary McCarthy, a book that in its frank depiction of female friendship, sex and women’s lives can be seen as the precursor to The Women’s Room and even Sex and the City. So we continue to build on the sterling work that started thirty years ago – the Virago Modern Classics list is very much alive, growing, and going from strength to strength.
1 The Guardian blog, 21 March 2007 2 The Guardian, 6 October 2007
THE OLD POEM SIR WALTER RALEIGH, ‘LIKE TRUTHLESS DREAMS’
Like truthless dreams, so are my joys expired, And past return are all my dandled days; My love misled, and fancy quite retired, Of all which past, the sorrow only stays. My lost delights, now clean from sight of land. Have left me all alone in unknown ways; My mind to woe, my life in fortune’s hand, Of all which past, the sorrow only stays. As in a country strange without companion, I only wail the wrong of death’s delays, Whose sweet spring spent, whose summer well nigh done, Of all which past, the sorrow only stays; Whom care forewarns, ere age and winter cold, To haste me hence, to find my fortune’s fold.
he poem presents one of those somersault experiences when something we have trusted absolutely, a relationship, a position in life, a guaranteed future, suddenly betrays us, ‘like truthless dreams’. It was all there for Raleigh in 1592 when his marriage to one of the queen’s Maids of Honour, following (probably) his seduction of her, landed him in the Tower and brought the complete loss of royal favour. Like many onceyoung courtiers (he was probably thirty-eight) his flirtatious relation with Elizabeth I combined devotion to a goddess, a courtly-love game and the emotional dependence of a son on a powerful mother. The apparent clumsiness of the syntax here (as in the refrain: ‘Of all which past, the sorrow only stays’) and the economy of diction (‘My mind to woe’) bring a sobriety into the extremes of feeling. Twice, by this time, Raleigh had sent colonists to the New World, to what he flatteringly had called Virginia, though the Virgin Queen herself refused him permission to accompany them and both attempts failed disastrously. In imagination he becomes here one of those wretched pioneers watching his ship sail away (‘clean from sight of land’) or worse, becoming a single man marooned there (‘a country strange without companion’). The images belong to a life of adventure but intimate, not swashbuckling adventure so much as the precariousness of a life taking dangerous risks. Behind the boldness of a soldier lies the desire to be looked after and even nostalgia for the safety of childhood (‘all my dandled days’). Yet the final couplet of this English sonnet turns instead to a recognition of limited aims:
Whom care forewarns, ere age and winter cold, To haste me hence, to find my fortune’s fold.
Given the inevitability of the progression of the seasons he will no longer submit to ‘fortune’s hand’ but move on quickly to make a realistic fortune of his own, not ‘dandled days’ but a peaceable sheepfold. Raleigh was an amateur poet who wrote seldom and his verse varies between caustic warnings, as in ‘The Lie’ or ‘The Nymph’s Reply’ (his answer to Marlowe’s famous lyric) or the sonnet to his son, and exalted praise, as in his poem to Diana (Elizabeth again) or on Spenser’s Faerie Queene. His mind revolves around startling metaphor; look at the fragmentary ‘Book of the Ocean to Cynthia’ (yes, you’ve guessed it). If you can find Philip Edward’s little study of Raleigh published as long ago as 1953, snap it up. It will increase your pleasure in and understanding of some wonderful poems.
RINSING THE COMMONPLACE
Vernon Scannell, Collected Poems: 1950–93 Robson Books, 1993 ISBN 978-0860517658 Vernon Scannell, Last Post Shoestring Press, 2007 ISBN 978-1904886679
ernon Scannell’s poems take their subjects from football, retired boxers, both World Wars, love of course, apples, fireworks, family events, memory, growing old, walking the dog in the park, seemingly all the events and experiences of a single life conducted in public. ‘Occasional poems’ you may say, a slightly dismissive label relegating them with ‘occasional tables’, furniture without a specific function. We prefer, don’t we, writing to come volcanically out of a poet’s interior world and imagination, as with, say, the work of John Donne? Scannell wrote on a different level, more like Donne’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, and, like Jonson, he doesn’t get his due because his work is so various as to be indefinable. Yet though he is, like Jonson, not primarily examining his own feelings, an ample and robust personality engages the reader through the agency of the world he refers to, the world he loves and hates, enjoys and rages against. He restores to us the sense that poetry can be a normal mode of discourse in that any and every thing can become a subject for what is not a rarefied and arcane practice of exquisite sensibility, but an intelligent and emotionally complex observation of identifiable experience. Indeed this is far more a ‘poetry of experience’ than that of Browning, to whom the great Robert Langbaum awarded the title.
As, again, with Jonson such poetry involves not a random and open verse form but the engagement of a meticulous mode of articulation with the contingency of life. The diction is alert with metaphor but also casually colloquial and reader-friendly, and always ring-fenced by the regularities of metre and rhyme. He wonders in ‘My Pen has Ink Enough’ why he writes:
This longing to make wicks of words, light lamps However frail and dim. And hell, why not? I’ve had six children yet more casually got.
The tone of rueful exasperation is typical; how strange the really serious things in life, those children, might happen lightly, while he was intent on making love, whereas the other business, his work, writing poems, serious yes but not a life-or-death matter, takes all his attention. And with dubious results; not the certainty of flicking a switch but the old fiddle of wicks and lamps to spread maybe a little light in someone’s mind, ‘frail and dim though it be’. The nature of the light depends on the emphatic monosyllables, the throwaway expletive, the regularity of the metre (pointed by rhythmic syncopation) and the appropriately thumping final rhyme. The exactness of the form makes possible what one can only call, using the old term, wit. The modesty of the claim he makes is also typical of Scannell, though the ambition is high. In the introduction to the Collected Poems he quotes Dr Johnson’s demand for literature that it ‘enables [us] the better to enjoy life or the better to endure it’. If he also often writes about the process of writing that is not because he thinks words can only ever refer to other words in our tricksy modernist way, but partly because it is his occupation and work matters, and because, mysteriously, of what he calls in Last Post, ‘The Need’, ‘to make a shape of words, / a singing picture or a prayer’. Though in old age most other desires have been as he says ‘pilfered’, this one remains:
So once again I seek a theme to flesh the spectral shape which might flower and sing but what I hear is ‘Try to get the words down right.’
For a writer so often punning, that is also of course ‘downright’. The obituary I read identified what it called ‘a persistent melancholy’ in his earlier work but the term seems to me too passive and plangent to do him justice. He writes in a late poem, ‘Second Sight’ (1992) as a man who needs to wear glasses, ‘Poor eyesight has its compensations’. He momentarily removes his spectacles while walking the whippet in the park and enters a magic realm:
A fallen paper bag starts to bark. In the distance I see trees as men talking. I resume my spectacles expecting the commonplace. It is revealed, rinsed with recent theurgy.
In a moment he becomes like the blind man with sight restored in the Gospel who saw men walking as trees, hence the ‘recent theurgy’. But the function of the poetry lies in that last line, a rinsing of the commonplace, of what we normally and sometimes with anger accept as the real. In his 1965 volume Epithets of War there’s an extraordinary poem on a paraplegic in a moment of bad temper which the disabled are surely permitted, ‘View from a Wheelchair’:
I am less unfortunate, maybe, Than your insolent pity believes: The muscles in my wheels do not grow tired: Like a horse I can sleep standing. And there is something sacred about me, Something that can haunt and make you tremble. I am sick of the fear, the pity, the revulsion. I want them to put me to bed. Their gratitude for my not being them Is a nauseous, poisonous toffee. It is dark and cold. They must put me to bed. They do not know that I walk in my sleep.
I don’t know about you but I often feel wearied by the value we put on compassion, turning vulnerability into a virtue instead of admitted weakness, ‘Pity would be no more / If we did not make somebody poor’ as Blake puts it. Scannell is less the poet of melancholy (or even bitterness, its alternative face) than of that unpopular virtue courage (and its twin, defiance), physical courage as an ex-boxer and serving (and absconding) soldier but more importantly moral courage, the honesty to admit when things are bad. This is a truer use of the imagination, to understand the feelings of a constant recipient of sympathy, than the production of fantasies designed to produce an illicit thrill. The notable word there is ‘sacred’, the anagram of scared, as the disabled inevitably remind us of the thin crust on which we walk. But the real Scannell strength lies in the grim humour of that last line which reverses the usual meaning of somnambulism. Not sadness then but honesty is I think the basis of his achievement, evident in what I suppose is his best-known poem, if you can use such a term of so scandalously underrated a poet, ‘The Father’s Face’. It is this face that he sees as he shaves before the mirror and knows
how like his appearance is to the man who made his youth a hell and betrayed his marriage by his drunken whoring. Yet the face he sees is a weakened version of the other one and for once he is glad that it has allowed him to escape at least that remembered sadism. For all that, he exists because of that parent, ‘And though I cannot love him, feel a sort / Of salty tenderness’:
This morning as I shave, I find I can Forgive the blows, the meanness and the lust, The ricochetting arsenal of a man Who groaned groin-deep in hope’s ironic dust; But these eyes in the glass regard the living Features with distaste, quite unforgiving.
His poems usually end, as here, strongly. This final stanza may start with momentary forgiveness but ends with eyes staring back ‘quite unforgiving’. They are both his own eyes true to their remembered dislike but of course also the father’s eyes finding even in the son’s generosity a weakness. But it is also the father looking at himself and identifying a self-loathing which may explain if it does not excuse. Being a poet the son can find the language for ‘hope’s ironic dust’ where, without it, the father’s emotions imploded. Read a lot of Scannell and you recognise how poem connects with poem so that instead of apparent miscellany you become conscious of myriad connections; the father is in miniature that army and its victims the poet so often recalls, hence the metaphor of the arsenal. Publishing poems for nearly sixty years (his first collection appeared in 1948) inevitably one of his persistent subjects is ageing, as also the full stop towards which the ‘Long Sentence’ (as he calls it in a poem of 1965) inevitably travels. But there is none of Larkin’s horror which is replaced usually by a healthy humour as in ‘Spot Check at Fifty’:
Fifty scored and still I’m in. I raise my cap to dumb applause, But as I wave I see, appalled, The new fast bowler’s wicked grin.
But it’s in this new final volume (Last Post) that he writes of old age, an octogenarian, with an honesty only the aged have a right to, rejecting the lenitive idioms to which his condition is subjected:
Whatever others say, I’ll never play those euphemistic games; I’d sooner use the simple names and have it all quite plainly said: I am old. I’ll soon be dead.
This collection is moving because all the old concerns are there but now as valedictions and distant memories of war, of love most of all, often plenary richness of the objects we take for granted, a bowl of fruit and a wooden chair in ‘Still Life’, with its endlessly punning title, offering ‘an unimperilled quietude’ or, another pun, ‘Missing Things’ because it is he who will be missing and the objects he loved that will survive. Slowly the poem relinquishes the fiction that they will miss him:
and I, of course, will neither know nor care since, like the stone of which the house is made, I’ll feel no more than it does light and air.
‘Well, of course’ you might say, but it is being made to recognise within the discipline of rhyme and metre the apparently obvious, so that we really see, as for the first time, what insentience means that makes Scannell an honourable successor to the Thomas Hardy line of descent. But there is also in these late poems a non-Hardyan calm, that detachment that old age can yield, and pleasure in even something so ordinary as fine weather:
The shimmering remnants of a summer’s day; a drowsy sun still holds the dark at bay, while out of sight, a blackbird serenades his nested mate before the daylight fades.
As I do now, he might say, in what is really a reply to Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’. Different season, different singer, but as the bells ring they bring to his mind a word he cannot at once locate:
The word now brings him comfort, soft yet strong; enough to say it quietly, – ‘Evensong.’
The earlier poet’s bird had also sung that service but it brought no consolation, though behind the poem also lie the only magical lines written by the late medieval poet, Stephen Hawes:
For though the day be never so long, At last, the bells ringeth to evensong.
Patience and acceptance of a momentary calm is maybe the last thing the very old can offer us. This volume completes a life in poetry with honour, continued insight and unclouded clarity of vision. Whenever you are looking for a poem on a specific subject or object, an occasion, that is, look at Vernon Scannell’s poetry. You will be almost certain to find what you are looking for.
VISIT FROM AN OLD FRIEND
Russell Hoban, A Bargain for Frances Mammoth, 1992 ISBN 978-0749712310
ccasionally I meet something that picks me up from where I am and sets me down again in a different time and in an altogether different place. This happened to me recently when I saw on a desk in the Reader office a book, A Bargain for Frances by Russell Hoban. Neither the author nor the title meant anything to me, but the picture on the cover, the drawing and the colours were immediately recognisable. I learned to read in another language, in another country, and my childhood copy of this book was not in English but when I saw the pastel colours and a soft pencil picture of the badger girl, the eponymous Frances, I remembered distinctly tasting the sweets in my own mouth that Frances got for her birthday in one of my old picture books. Not being able to use the pretext of having my own children, I had to admit that it was for myself, when I asked if I could borrow the book for the weekend. It is an odd and slightly apprehensive feeling to go back after so many years into a book that meant a lot to me as a small child. I am happy to say, though, that Frances survived exposure to the grown-up me unscathed. On the contrary, I was quite amazed that I enjoyed the book, from my different vantage point, no less than before. With admirable psychological intuition about her friend’s weaknesses
and a bit of her own cunning, Frances gets her money and her own back after being tricked by her friend Thelma. (I won’t tell you how, go to the library and find the book!) But it is a lesson in friendship, not in cunning, when Thelma says ‘from now on I will have to be careful when I play with you’ and Frances suggests that ‘being careful is not as much fun as being friends’. The book ends with genuine reconciliation between the two. I sometimes puzzle over what it means to be grown-up, because some things seem to me to grow in size and years, but not necessarily in quality. The ability to assert one’s own place in life while at the same time being generous in the face of others’ failings and remaining friends is one of these things that don’t ever seem to become really easy. Maybe it’s this that made me grateful for unexpectedly spending a bit of time with such a kind little book, but even without its gentle guidance on friendship, anything that facilitates my time travel so easily must be special, as far as I’m concerned.
Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia Picador, 2007 ISBN 978-0330418379
ow many daunting undertakings are there left for Oliver Sacks to accept? His all-but-impossible project in Musicophilia is to trace the path – or the source – of music in the human brain. There are moments of genuine excitement here where you’re looking in one direction, intrigued, for example, by the planum temporale – the brain region whose development is connected with the rare and seemingly purposeless sense of absolute pitch (‘Only think, Papa blows his nose in G’) – and then suddenly without warning you’re down deep in prehistory, staring at a human ancestor for whom a sense of pitch may have been linguistically essential – a necessary part of understanding and of being understood in a world of primitive noises. This unpredictability of focus is everywhere in Musicophilia and central to how you read the book. There are many ways that music presents itself to the attention of the neurologist – as impairment, talent, help and hindrance, and as downright insult in the case of the elderly lady with insomnia and musical hallucinations, who has to listen in the early hours to the ‘The Old Grey Mare ain’t what she used to be’ playing in her head. But the common thread with most of these manifestations is that they involve the self at a personal level. In New Scientist recently (19 April, 2008) Sacks wrote of a crucial moment in his career – discovering A. R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist: ‘I read the first dozen or so
pages thinking it was a novel’, he says, rather than the neuropsychological case history that it turned out to be. But the very possibility of that mistake is what enticed him. Luria wanted to develop, Sacks writes, ‘what he called a “romantic science” – a science which embraced the fulness of what it means to be a unique individual’. And then he adds bravely: ‘Alexander Luria’s endeavour has become my own.’ Here is one of the stories that Sacks tells in Musicophilia, one of the best ones. Clive Wearing, a composer and a conductor, suffered an encephalitic infection in 1985 that stripped him of his autobiographical memory, cut off all memory laid down after the 1960s, and left him trapped in a moment of awareness that lasts a few seconds only. He couldn’t lay down new memories. Sacks notes that Wearing wrote a diary ‘to hold on to something’:
But his journal entries consisted, essentially, of the statements ‘I am awake’ or ‘I am conscious,’ entered again and again, every few minutes. He would write: ‘2.10 pm: this time properly awake.… 2.14 pm: this time finally awake.… 2.35 pm: this time completely awake,’ along with negations of these statements: ‘At 9.40 pm I awoke for the first time, despite my previous claims.’
The sheer rhythmic emphasis of ‘this dreadful journal’ could almost make you feel you understand the repetitive discontinuity and his sporadic terror at it. Yet two realities survive Wearing’s amnesia – his relationship with his wife, Deborah, and his ability to play music and to be moved by it:
For many years he failed to recognise Deborah if she chanced to walk past, and even now, he cannot say what she looks like unless he is actually looking at her. Her appearance, her voice, her scent, the way they behave with each other, and the intensity of their emotions and interactions – all this confirms her identity, and his own.
It is as if, all unguarded, the invisible emotion of love itself were the perceiving, cognitive sense. The man knows that this is his wife because he loves her. Sacks speculates that the memory is planted in Wearing’s limbic system, where (as he explains) emotional memories from infancy are stored that we cannot remember but which ‘may determine one’s behaviour for a lifetime’. Love as knowing – it is dazzling to find it here. As with Deborah, Wearing remembers music only in the presence of music, though the memory is different in its type. Sacks calls it a procedural memory. Asked to play one of Bach’s Forty-Eight Preludes and
Fugues he declares (wrongly) that he has never played them before, and he then plays Prelude 9: ‘His playing is infused with intelligence and feeling, with a sensitive attunement to the composer’s style and mind’. With his hands on the keyboard, playing, he knows the piece. He has other ‘skills’ from ‘procedural memory’ that he can call upon in his daily life; he can for example shave and calculate and find his way about, though he could not give directions round the house where he lives. It troubles Sacks that Wearing’s music could be automatic in just this way – an ordinary task like shaving:
Clive’s performance self seems to those who know him, just as vivid and complete as it was before his illness. This mode of being, this self, is seemingly untouched by his amnesia, even though his autobiographical self, the self that depends on explicit, episodic memories, is virtually lost.
There may be automatic skill in the performance but ‘to those who know him’ there is also Clive Wearing, regathered and given shape by the music. Is the way that music is stored in some way related to the way that self is stored, linking backwards, yearning forwards? Sacks comments: ‘Remembering music is not, in the usual sense, remembering at all. Remembering music, listening to it, is entirely in the present’ – a blessing for a man who only has a present tense. It makes a possible relationship, stretching the seconds, but crucially for the observer the fact that the man can be moved for those seconds makes him also moving: ‘Once one has seen such responses, one knows that there is still a self to be called upon’. When Clive is found by the Bach piece, or when dementia patients are engaged by music, they may not be able to hold onto the moment – but there they are ‘vivid and complete’ for that moment. They take the music’s time. In the New Scientist article Sacks talks of the need to approach case histories both from the perspective of ‘analytic, reductive science’ and ‘from that of a “romantic” narrative and an almost novelistic science’. Bucking conventional expectations, he uses imagination because he is a scientist, in order accurately to describe the patient’s reality. This is Sacks the great novelist of real life.
THE READER CROSSWORD
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
11 12 13 16 17 19 20 21 22 23 24 18 14 15
ACROSS *1 and 26 across. Struggling around hill, pink pair come across our poet (6, 6) 5. We hear municipal vision for this US city layout (8) 9. Nothing to do with being independent (8) 10. Melodious sound of boring group (6) 11. Clerics chase letters from church leaders (12) 13. She features in a Lancastrian narrow boat and the Staffordshire potteries (4) 14. Wisdom of epic town? (8) 17. Dollars man reports as costing nothing (8) 18. Inhabitant of icy region is first in not underestimating kinetics (4) 20. Accompanied by five hundred, wild Theban beast vanquishes all opposition (5, 3, 4) *23. In Dolgellau bad elocution can lead to a form of poetry (6) 24. Blind inhabitant of merchant’s city (8) 25. Perhaps useless democrat is underemployed (4,4) *26. See 1 across * Clues with an asterisk have a common theme
DOWN 2. This contemptible person is responsible for Greek hero’s fatal weakness (4) 3. Swarming bees lack a rental agreement (9) 4. In this spot one will discover fish (6) *5. Certainly not Ophelia’s experience (3, 4, 8) *6. See 8 down *7. Utilizing the sun’s energy in so large an area (5) *8 and 6 down. Pentecostal unions? (3, 7, 8) 12. Travelling quite nude I transmit a sense of uneasiness (10) 15. Leading role for minor celestial body? (5,4) *16. Actor-manager’s arboreal family (3,5) 19. Can be a form of knowledge or material (6) *21. According to Grahame one of these amphibians was a menace on the road (5) 22. Almost a sense of enchantment invoked by these wise men (4)
‘MY SUBJECT IS WAR’
1. ‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’ Which poet asks this question? 2. What is the name of the former hairdresser whom Guy Crouchback meets on the Scottish Island of Mugg? 3. Which book is set on the island of Anopopei during the assault on the Philippines during WWII? 4. Stephen Spielberg produced a TV mini series about WWII called Band of Brothers. Where does the title come from? 5. Which novel tells of Robert Jordan’s mission to blow up a bridge during the Spanish Civil War? 6. Which books feature Billy Prior and his experiences in the trenches? 7. Who wrote, ‘Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose, / But young men think it is, and we were young’? 8. Who turns up nude on the parade ground to receive a medal in WWII? 9. Which battle was fought because a snake bit a soldier on the foot and he drew his sword? 10. In which novel is the world divided into the pacifists (the Eloi) and those who wish to make war (the Morlocks)? 11. Who is ‘the certified idiot’ conscripted to serve in the armies of Austria–Hungary in WWI? 12. In which 1949 novel does Stella Rodney have a passionate wartime affair with a man from the War Office who later turns out to be a spy? 13. Which novelist, mostly known for his spy stories, wrote a novel closely documenting an RAF bombing raid on Germany? 14. ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’. Where does this confrontation take place? 15. ‘And we are here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.’ Where is ‘here’?
PRIZE FOR WINNING ENTRY! SEE PAGE 122
THE BACK END
The sender of the first completed puzzle will receive our selection of World’s Classics paperbacks, while the first correct entry to Buck’s Quiz bags a copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Congratulations to Angus Pickles of Liverpool (crossword) and to Pam Nixon of Oxford (quiz). Please send solutions (marked either Cassandra Crossword, or Buck’s Quiz) to 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG.
CASSANDRA CROSSWORD NO. 21
Across 9. Ostrogoth 10. Black 11. Skylark 12. Vedanta 13. Leech 14. Closest to 16. A proper marriage 19. The golden 21. Quest 22. Lessing 23. Niobium 24. Doris 25. Ostracise Down 1. Consultant 2. Stay near 3. Potash 4. Book 5. Chevrotain 6. A bad year 7. Magnet 8. Skua 14. Ceredigion 15. One’s temper 17. Phoniest 18. Aperitif 20. Ensure 21. Quotas 22. Lady 23. Note
BUCK’S QUIZ NO. 29
1. Robert Browning, ‘Home Thoughts, From the Sea’ 2. India 3. Anne of Green Gables 4. The Brothers Karamazov 5. France 6. Belgium 7. ‘Where burning Sappho loved and sung’ 8. The Unbearable Lightness of Being 9. Gulliver 10. Things Fall Apart 11. Half of a Yellow Sun 12. A Man For All Seasons 13. The Tin Drum 14. Honduras 15. Walt Whitman
Books That Changed the World (Sceptre 2007) and a new novel Remember Me (Sceptre 2008). Donna Coonan is the commissioning editor of Virago Modern Classics, a rich and diverse list with a pioneering history. Iconic authors include Daphne du Maurier, Angela Carter, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Muriel Spark. Ryan Cunliffe is from Hemel Hempstead, dreams of becoming the next Randall Jarrell and is travelling to the Matterhorn to become a sherpa. Josie Dixon works as a consultant in the publishing industry, and gives lectures and workshops on publishing research for around 30 universities internationally. Formerly Academic Publishing Director at Palgrave Macmillan (after many years at CUP), she studied English at Oxford. Tessa Hadley is the author of two highly praised novels, Accidents in the Home and Everything Will Be All Right. She lives in Cardiff and teaches English and Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Her stories appear regularly in the New Yorker, Granta and other magazines. Lynne Hatwell, writer of the highly successful blog dovegreyreader and a Devon-based community nurse for thirty years, is busy discovering the classics anew and now can’t read them fast enough. Phill Jupitus is a writer, broadcaster and performer from Essex who likes the poetry of Ian Dury, baseball, 1960s’ Jamaican ska and fish finger sandwiches. Marion Leibl grew up in Munich and now lives in Liverpool. She works at the University of Liverpool and divides her remaining time between training as a psychotherapist and producing visual art. John Lynch translated a Danish novel in 1969 but subsequently had little time for such work while working as a language teacher and college librarian. Now retired he is seeking publishers for three translated books, one German, two Danish. Billy Marshall Stoneking: I have been led into, and transformed by countless unexpected and miraculous adventures simply by seeking the answer to the question, ‘where’s the drama?’, and then finding it. Ian McMillan was born in 1956 and has been a freelance writer/performer/ broadcaster since 1981. He’s currently presenting The Verb on Radio 3 every Friday night. Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and writes a weekly column for The Smart Set. He is an editor at 3Quarksdaily.com and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in NYC. Drummond Moir is from Edinburgh and now works at a non-fiction publisher in London. His favourite writers are Jonathan Safran Foer and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Blake Morrison is a novelist and journalist and probably best known for his two memoirs, And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Things My Mother Never Told Me. His new novel is South of the River (Vintage 2008). Les Murray has won many literary awards, including the Grace Leven Prize (1980 and 1990), the Petrarch Prize (1995), and the prestigious T. S. Eliot Award (1996). In 1999 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry on the recommendation of Ted Hughes. Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst and author of eleven previous books, including Side Effects and Houdini’s Box. He writes regularly for The New York
123 Melvyn Bragg is a writer and broadcaster. His most recent books are Twelve
Times, the London Review of Books, and The Observer, and is General Editor of The Penguin Freud Reader. Philip Pullman was educated in England, Zimbabwe, Australia and Wales before becoming a teacher. He has published over twenty books and is best known for his award-winning trilogy His Dark Materials. Stephen Sandy’s books of poetry include The Thread, New and Selected Poems (1998), Black Box (1999), Surface Impressions: A Poem in Eight Parts (2002), Weathers Permitting (2005). He lives in Vermont. Myra Schneider’s most recent poetry collection is Multiplying the Moon (Enitharmon 2004). Circling the Core is due this autumn. She has written and co-written books about writing and children’s fiction. She is a tutor for The Poetry School in London. Matt Simpson lives in Liverpool and has published six books of poetry, three with Bloodaxe, two with LUP and In Deep (Shoestring Press 2006). A collection for children What the Wind Said is imminent. He reviews for Stride and Orbis. Tom Sperlinger is Director of Lifelong Learning in the English Department at Bristol University. Enid Stubin is Assistant Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York and Adjunct Professor of Humanities at NY University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
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Frank Wedekind Translated by John Lynch
’m not telling this story, my friends, in order to provide you with some fresh example of female cunning or of male stupidity; no, I am telling it to you because it embodies some curious psychological features which will interest you and other people and from which anyone aware of them might benefit in life. Above all, however, I want to reject straight away any suggestion that my intention is to boast about former misdeeds, indiscretions, which today I regret from the bottom of my heart and for which, now that my hair has turned grey and my knees shaky, I no longer have the inclination or the capacity. ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of, you lovely, young fellow,’ Fanny said to me one fine evening, just as her husband had got back home, ‘because in general husbands are only jealous as long as they have no reason to be. As soon as they do have cause, it’s as though they were struck with an incurable blindness.’ ‘I don’t trust the expression on his face,’ I retorted dejectedly. ‘I think, he must have noticed something already.’ ‘You misunderstand that expression, my lovely lad,’ she said. ‘His facial expression is only the result of the method I use in order to make him proof once and for all against jealousy and to protect him from ever being seized by any troublesome suspicion of you.’ ‘What sort of method is that?’ I asked in astonishment.
‘It’s a sort of inoculation. – On the day I decided to make you my sweetheart, I told him straight to his face that I loved you. Since then I repeat it to him every day on getting up and on going to bed. You have every reason, I say, to be jealous of that nice boy. I love him so dearly, and the fact that I do not fail in my obligations isn’t due to you or to me. It’s entirely his fault that I remain so steadfastly faithful.’ At that point it became clear to me why her husband, for all his amiability, often eyed me with such a strangely pitying, disdainful smile. ‘And do you really believe that this method will retain its effectiveness permanently?’ I asked perplexed. ‘It’s infallible,’ she replied with the self-assurance of an astronomer. All the same I still had great doubts about the inviolability of her psychological calculations, until one day the following consequence taught me better in surprising fashion. At the time I was living in a small, furnished room on the fourth floor of a tall tenement block in a narrow alley in the city centre and was in the habit of sleeping well on into the day. One sunny morning at nine o’clock the door opened and she walked in. What now follows I would never have disclosed, if it did not offer evidence of one of the most astonishing yet, nevertheless, most understandable delusions possible in human spiritual experience. She removed every last stitch of her clothing and joined me. And don’t expect anything more compromising or suggestive than that from my story, dear friends. I must emphasise once more that it is not my intention to entertain you with unseemly acts. Hardly had the blanket veiled her bodily charms when footsteps were heard in front of the door; someone knocked and I had just enough time to pull the cover quickly over her head when in came her husband, dripping with sweat and panting from his exertions climbing up the hundred and twenty steps to my place, but with a beaming, joyfully excited face. ‘I just wanted to ask if you’d like to come on an outing with Röbel, Schletter and me. We’re going by train to Ebenhausen and from there by bike to Ammerland. Actually I intended to work at home today; but my wife went off early to the Brüchmanns to see how their youngest is getting on, and so I couldn’t rightly settle down on my own at home in such glorious weather. I met up with Röbel and Schletter in the Luitpold Café, and we decided upon this outing. Our train leaves at ten fifty-seven.’ By now I had had time to collect my thoughts together. ‘You can see,’ I said smiling, ‘that I’m not alone.’ ‘Yes, I realise that,’ he responded with the same smile of mutual understanding. At the same time his eyes began to gleam and his jaw made a champing motion. He edged his way forwards until he was standing immediately in front of the chair on which I was in the habit of laying my
clothes. Right on the top lay a fine cambric lace-chemise with her name embroidered in red together with two long, black silk, openwork stockings with golden clocking. As there was no other visible sign of a female presence his eyes fixed lecherously on to these items of wardrobe. The moment was crucial. One more second and he would surely remember having seen these garments somewhere before in this life. At any price I had to divert his attention from this fateful spectacle and ensure that it no longer slipped away from me. That was only to be achieved, however, through something unprecedented. This thought flashed like lightning through my mind; it led me to commit a brutish act of such enormity that even today, after twenty years, I have not yet forgiven myself, despite the fact that it saved the situation then. ‘I am not on my own,’ I said. ‘But if you had any inkling of how gorgeous this creature is, you would envy me.’ Whilst saying this, at the risk of smothering her, I frantically pressed the arm which had drawn the cover over her head, against the spot where I supposed her mouth to be, so as to prevent any sign of life from her side. His gaze lustfully slid up and down the curving form revealed by the blanket. And now comes that outrageous, that unprecedented act. I took hold of the coverlet at the bottom end and lifted it up to her neck, so that only her head was still concealed. – ‘Have you ever seen anything so fantastic in your life?’ I asked him. His eyes opened wide, but he grew visibly embarassed. ‘Yes, yes – you can say that – you have good taste – well, I – I’ll be off now – please excuse me – for – having disturbed you.’ – At that he retreated to the door, and slowly and deliberately I allowed the veil to fall back again. Then I quickly sprang to my feet and placed myself near to the door in such a way that he could not possibly see the stockings lying on the armchair any longer. His hand was already on the door latch as I said, ‘Anyway I’ll come to Ebenhausen with the noon train. Perhaps you’ll wait for me there in the Gasthof zur Post. Then we can ride to Ammerland together. That’ll be a splendid outing. Thank you very much indeed for asking me.’ After making a few more friendly, jocular remarks he left the room. I stood rooted to the spot until I heard his footsteps dying away in the entrance. I won’t trouble to describe the dreadful state of rage and desperation which the unfortunate woman felt after this scene. She seemed to have gone to pieces and furnished me with such proofs of hatred and contempt as I had never in my life experienced. Hurriedly donning her clothes, she threatened to spit in my face. Naturally I made no attempt to defend myself.
‘Where are you thinking of going to now then?’ ‘I don’t know – to drown myself – home – or else to Brüchmanns – to see how their youngest is getting on. – I don’t know.’ That afternoon at about two o’clock Röbel, Schletter, my friend and I sat together under the shady chestnut tree alongside the Gasthof zur Post in Ebenhausen feasting on roast chicken and gorgeous, juicy lettuce. My friend, whose state of mind I observed with suspicion, reassured me by his quite unusually cheerful mood. Triumphantly rubbing his hands together and smirking he cast pointed, roguish glances at me, without however revealing what it was that stirred his inner self so gleefully. The trip passed off without further incident and towards ten o’clock in the evening we were back in town again. Arriving at the station, we arranged to meet in a public-house. ‘You don’t mind,’ my friend said, ‘if I just go home and fetch my wife. She has been sitting the whole of this fine day with that sick child and would take it amiss, if we left her to spend the evening alone at home.’ Soon afterwards he brought her along to the pre-arranged beergarden. Naturally the conversation centred on the outing just completed, the participants using all their ingenuity to blow up its uneventfulness into really worthwhile adventures. The young woman had little to say, was somewhat abashed and did not deign to look at me. On the other hand his jovial face bore an expression of conscious triumph even more marked than that which had puzzled me so much during the afternoon. Now, however, his superior, gloating looks were aimed not so much at me as at his spouse sitting there lost in thought. It was just as if he had enjoyed some inner, deeply satisfying redress. Not until a month later, when I was alone again with the young wife for the first time, was this mystery resolved for me. After I had had to endure her fiercest reproaches, there ensued a tenuous reconciliation, after whose hard-won realisation she confided in me, how on that particular evening when she was alone with him at home, her husband, with folded arms, had lectured her as follows: ‘Today, my girl, I became better acquainted with your dear, sweet youth. You quite openly avow your love for him every day, and you just have no idea, how he’s poking fun at you. This morning I found him in his rooms; he was not on his own, naturally. I fully understand now why he doesn’t bother about you and scornfully rejects your feelings. For his mistress is a woman of such ravishing, such stunning physical beauty, that you with your scant, faded charms can’t possibly compete with her.’ That, my friends, was the consequence of this inoculation. I have only described it to you, so that you may be on your guard against this magical device.
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