Tuesday 24 February 2015

After Ford Madox Ford, Jean Rhys, Quartet, which is about the ménage she shared in Paris with F. M. F. and Stella Bowen. After you read Quartet, F.M.F. is no longer the narrator in The Good Soldier, he is the gentleman philanderer, Edward Ashburnham, who maybe doesn't love women at all, and Stella Bowen is his wife, the clean-run Leonora, who sets him up.

Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in Dominica, came to England aged nearly seventeen. England was never England as she'd imagined, it was just another set of lies. No wonder she decided to study drama, where at least lies were de quoi vivre, even a métier. As Ella or sometimes Emma, or Petronella, she was cast adrift, often ill, always poor, easily led, either beholden or in despair.

Among the characters of The Good Soldier she would fall somewhere between Maisie Maidan on the boat back from India, and Nancy the convent girl who by the end of the novel is mad, with touches of the Russian Grand Duke's concubine and an uncertain taste in hats. In Wide Sargasso Sea, her prequel to Jane Eyre, she conflated all of them in Antoinette/Bertha/the first Mrs Rochester, madwoman in the attic: her story.

Ford Madox Ford named her Jean Rhys (he changed his own name, changing hers was part of his predatory move). He opened doors for her, made her a writer. Other doors he closed. He gave her shelter but he ate her alive. There's a fine line between people doing things for you and people controlling you while their wives or procuresses listen outside doors and sneer.

Jean Rhys must have read The Good Soldier or the Saddest Story Ever Told. Did the upright Englishness of Edward Ashburnham fool her for a while? Wouldn't she have been warned? Did she suspect the affectless American narrator? Was she seduced by the conversational intimacies, the wave upon wave of language, The Good Soldier as Venus flytrap, consuming the susceptible? Or did she just feel completely inadequate?

Jean Rhys's main characters are all women alone, looking for safety in bars and hotels, uncertainly dressed, pulled this way, pushed that, drawn to the ideal of the English gentleman, the physical type anyway, of the successful pretender, like Ford Madox Ford, with his clean-run, scornful wife Leonora, or Stella.

Jean Rhys is not a pretty writer. The reader must scuttle and wilt and watch, full of pity, confusion or revulsion at the seediness of it all. This is not a gathering of uncertain hearts at a German spa, it's the transit lounge of 1920s Paris, where there are no good soldiers, only international vagrants, petty thieves and gigolos.

Jean Rhys's novels are The Saddest Story. Ford Madox Ford knew nothing of sadness.

Saturday 21 February 2015

The Good Soldier or The Saddest Story Ever Told by Ford Madox Ford was described by one of the author's friends as the finest French novel in the English language. Discuss. Or write the author a letter, as I used to say to students.

My dear F.M.F.,

Hard to know where the Good is, or the Saddest in your story. You are disingenuous, Sir. Un faux modeste. Faux croyant. Neither Good nor Saddest. Fractal, perhaps. This is not a story you heard, it's a story in which you were embroiled. You trip over yourself, recount from so many angles there is no more solid ground, let alone a minuet, while appearing to be a colourless, wealthy American telling this complicated tale to a stranger in an inn near the sea. Uncertainty is the key, constant undermining and recovery, as in much of life, which is why your book is such a seductive read. The sort of giddy subtlety you no longer find in the newspapers. You make a meal of not knowing how to tell your tale, lurid as it essentially is, dashing back and forth from one point of view to another, none of them – least of all yours – reliable; you share your frailty with your listener/reader, as if that let you off a lot of hooks, then resume the tale with an old world politesse. 'Did Florence commit suicide? I didn't know.' There's a great deal of slippage and unease. Fissures open every other line. You, our narrator disperse among the uncertainties as if you had no say in the matter. All this smacks of French difficulty or exception, a tricky relation between novel and reader, novel and writer, life and the telling. If you don't seek clarity you'll find it, weaving between events and their resolution, which is usually death and in one instance, madness. What is one to think of humanity?

Your J.K.

Thursday 19 February 2015

Buy Music for Chameleons and read Handcarved Coffins, a friend urged in Chicago in 1981, during a year of making friends and influencing nothing (that I knew of yet). That was my introduction to Truman Capote. Then I read In Cold Blood, then other semi-fictions, later The Complete Stories, and lastly saw the film with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who acted Capote perhaps as well as Capote himself.

Truman Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons. He'd been trying to get the world into a book since he was eleven. Now and then he succeeds, and it brings balm in the vast unsatisfactions of his life. The novel Answered Prayers was to be his Proust but, despite his telling everyone about the mountainous manuscript on his desk, it was barely begun when he died.

Some of his Proust he had already written, like the story about making Christmas cakes with his version of Proust's grandmother, a much older cousin everyone called Miss Sook, and her rat terrier Queenie. Or maybe, across his stories, and fiction/nonfiction, he'd already written all of it.

You may want to dislike some of his characters but they're disarming and vanish without trace. He gives them enormous attention: their eyes their legs their hair their mouths; they often have his own short body. You can feel him slough it off with a fine-turned sentence, a well-wrought tale.
He would tell Anna these stories, go home and go to sleep. His dreams were clear blue.
You can't quite feel for him; he won't let you; but you have to admire his gall. And your dreams will be clear blue too.
At this moment the telephone rang. And rang. And it was ringing so loud he was sure all the hotel could hear. An army would be pounding at his door. So he pushed his face into the pillow, covered his ears with his hands, and thought: Think of nothing things, think of wind.

Monday 16 February 2015

So long, See you tomorrow by William Maxwell

The title hangs in the air. The ordinary is suddenly perilous, again. 'Whether they are part of home or home is part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer.'

I've read this novel about seven times, twice in the last two days, and each time I find new places to pause, new ways to read. A crime of passion in rural Illinois in the early 1920s is not a narrative whose summary would draw me in. But this is less about crime than the friendship of two boys, stopped in its fragile tracks, and the attempt of one of them, now a man in his sixties, to make amends. 'If I knew where Cletus Smith is right this minute, I would go and explain. Or try to.'

He circles the story, intricate as it becomes, more well-intended, then despairing. What the preacher should say. What the farm dog would say. What justice ever is. 'In any case, talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.' He tries one then another point of view, each choice, each change making it a lie each time.

'In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead. '

Circling till you tire and you have only the loss and the humanity left. You hope your friend is 'undestroyed by what was not his doing.' That is what you've tried to say, though now, as then, you fail to know how to understand, or weep, or make amends.

'Who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to.'

One of the astonishments of reading is how completely, especially on winter afternoons, you can inhabit another's mind, then move on with your day, go check the new frogspawn in the pond, and apparently forget, but not.

Thursday 12 February 2015

The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

The Pillow Book is not by Sei Shōnagon, it's of her. The notebooks in which she wrote were surplus to requirements at the Imperial Court of tenth century Japan, where she was a lady-in-waiting. Let me make them into a pillow said Shōnagon to the Empress. She wrote her days then slept on them, dreamlessly. A report from a thousand years ago is already a dream. What delights her, what bores her, what is unsuitable or squalid or makes the heart race, today's main stories in the Imperial Court, colour schemes according to season, rendezvous manqués and bedroom etiquette, the sound of a distant flute and how it differs from a flute nearby.

To read The Pillow Book is to re-do your day.

Today's main stories here on the hill in early 2015 are the first frogspawn, the weather turning round to the west, new pruning knife ordered. Encouraging Things: talking to Pat in the farm shop, Mary bagging fondant for the bees, the broad bean bed turned and planted. Delightful Sensations: pulling several feet of pristine bindweed root out of black leaf mould, smelling a sack of newly-dug artichokes. Things that give a poignant feeling: the wind in silhouetted trees in the evening, Mozart about to turn to the minor key.

Tuesday 10 February 2015

As Daily life in Ancient Rome by Jérôme Carcopino came out of the padded envelope, a Peregrine Book from 1964 with a school stamp on the flyleaf, thumbed and respected (the glue was so much better then, and the paper), the text in Monotype Bembo, I smiled. The author's photograph on the inside cover shows a genial white-haired Frenchman captured in mid-phrase, fellow-traveller of the man who taught me A level Latin, Mr Berridge, in his chalk-dusty black robe, with a polio limp and so much to enjoy in any language: he leaned back as he wooed us with Horace and Vergil. Into each school life just enough foreign land.

I preferred the baths to the battles, the Latin to the emperors. I didn't know Greek but was glad to see it there on the page; I deciphered by the letter. The Greeks are a race of people on clean warm islands and isthmuses with blue seas and skies, elegant shadows, behind them only myth. The Romans are busier, sweatier, closer to the Common Era in which we subsist. Thermae is a Greek word with an entirely Roman meaning.
The baths are one of the fairest creations of the Roman Empire. They not only benefited civilization, after their fashion, but also served art, which has been permanently enriched by monuments whose spaciousness, proportions, and technical perfection command our profound admiration even in their decay.
In the Spa Experience during the Late Common Era you pay so much you deserve to get a whole new identity. 
This was not all: this imposing group of buildings was surrounded by an esplanade, cooled by shade and paling fountains, which gave space for playing grounds and was enclosed by a continuous covered promenade (the xystus). Behind the xystus curved the exedrae of the gymnasiums and the sitting-rooms, the libraries, and the exhibition halls. This was the truly original feature of the thermae. Here the alliance between physical culture and intellectual curiosity became thoroughly Romanized.
History is what you do in the day. Kaspar Hauser in Herzog's film tells the story of getting to the city, but he doesn't know what happened after that.

Monday 2 February 2015

After my first ever visit to a spa, I re-read James Salter stories. These choices seem implacable. You look along the shelves and James Salter, suddenly, is the one who fits the post-spa experience.

Last Night (2005) is more spare than Dusk (1988). Very male. Very officer and gentleman. Very onlooker if not wishful thinking. Regretful, lascivious, elegant. People always on the verge of generic, just glancing through, light and fateful, their names esoteric as healing herbs, their stories intermingling and then separate as if never before.

Reading as detox might be worth pursuing. Kafka said a book should sting. Sometimes the sting is unease. Disturbance in the internal weather. A complex frontal system on every other page.
He was later to tell her that words are no accident, their arrangement and choice was like another voice speaking, a voice which revealed everything. Vocabulary was like fingerprints, he said, like handwriting, like the body which revealed the invisible soul, which expressed it.
You don't always know who's speaking in his stories – and he uses the French indent rather than English inverted commas  – which plunges you further into the moment because you now and then you think that one of them must be you.

During the spa experience none of them was me, except parts of my body when they were massaged. What I don't know about the spa experience afterwards, is what, in weight, I don't know at the end of a James Salter story. Massage can be painful.