Thursday 29 June 2023

Henry James, The Europeans

Eugenia and Felix are the eponymous europeans in Henry James' novel, siblings born in France and Vienna, but Americans, nonetheless. Europe is a dangerous spice. Eugenia and Felix stir things up when they go to visit their American cousins, Charlotte, Gertrude and Clifford in New England at the beginning of the twentieth century..

Henry James liked to deal with the crème de la leisurely crème, in New England, whence he came, or Old England, which he occupied for many years in his comfortable observer role. 

Comfortable observer is no longer comfortable.  I read Henry James when I want to be in observer mode. With pleasure and unease. As if I'm being judged by a clamorous generation in its thereness, nowness, and grievance.

Wednesday 21 June 2023


I read L P. Hartley's A Perfect Woman, without any notion, or concern, along the way, about which of his female characters was building most towards perfection. As well as a certain impatience with all this plotting, this godlike holding in reserve. Resolution is a decoy. My students sometimes thought that the kind of strange literature I wanted them to read had an answer that I was withholding. It must have seemed like obstinacy on my part. But actually it was desire for them to participate.

The veg plot will tell you that. A veg plot is a patch of land you have to dig and tend in order to know. Not a complot, nor a narrative, not a story but the ground of all stories. Mythic if you like. Aristotle thought that plot was myth, and he was half-right. Aristotle needed to do more gardening.

In The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley was passionate as a shy man is; he knew it from inside. You can be passionate about uncertainty when you are twelve. It doesn't read so well in A Perfect Woman.  Uncertainty is now plot. Earning laurels as a novelist. Keeping yourself and others in suspense.

L.P. Hartley should have done more gardening too. In Losey/Pinter's film of The Go-Between, Michael Redgrave as Leo aged sixty, revisits the scene of his adolescence at Brandham Hall. He is dry, detached and sad in a gentlemanly way. This is far more garden patch, veg plot than complot, plan or conspiracy. This is the old terroir, and terror, of his very being. 

When I read about Alexander Goodrich the novelist in A Perfect Woman, I see an upbeat version of Michael Redgrave in his latter years, as novelist, detached, spinning plots that represent him more or less. I find novels uncomfortable. I don't want to have done with a book. I want to want to start reading it again. 

Tuesday 13 June 2023

The Go-Between, LP Hartley

This time reading The Go-Between it was the knowledge of the 12 year-old narrator that struck me: he knew french, he knew the zodiac, he had some spells up his sleeve, he had absorbed the Rather Wrong and the Very Wrong, from his mother and his school. He was, by today's lights, a learned child. Sensitive to what was correct. Fatherless. Nothing so fearful as a fatherless child. 

Leo's passage to knowledge left him scarred. He witnessed Very Wrong in the outhouse. The landed beauty, Marian Maudsley, and the tenant farmer, Ted Burgess. Two bodies moving like one. He was dragged to the scene by Marian's mother, intent as she was on a match between Marian and Lord Trimingham.

I think I was more mystified than horrified; it was Mrs Maudsley's repeated screams that frightened me, and a shadow on the wall that opened and closed like an umbrella

L.P. Hartley wrote The Go-Between out of his own needs and memories, a painful crooked truth he could only tell this way. Leo's breakdown happened on his 13th birthday.

During my breakdown I was like a train going through a series of tunnels, sometimes in the daylight, sometimes in the dark, sometimes knowing who and where I was, sometimes not knowing. Little by little the periods of daylight grew more continuous and at last I was running in the open; by the middle of September I was considered fit to go back to school.

After The Go-Between I started A Perfect Woman, also by L.P. Hartley, something to read at night or up at the pond. A lesser book, a pot-boiler perhaps. But I enjoy this grown-up Leo, L.P. Hartley, taking on suburban England: an accountant and his wife and their two tidy children, Jeremy and Janice, who play at farmer and trespasser in the back garden. Trespass: Rather Wrong. The accountant's wife, Isabel, is up against Irma, the Austrian barmaid. 1950s repression its painful. 

Here on the hill in Inniscarra, the weather is as hot as it was in Norfolk where Leo was checking the temperature daily. He sometimes met Mr Maudsley there. They would converse about expected temperatures. If you wanted to know about things like spooning, you asked Ted Burgess That was not what Ted and Marian were doing. It couldn't be. Spooning was not intrinsically Very Wrong. And yet it was.

.... the tidings of Ted's suicide came to me voicelessly, like a communication in a dream.

His fate I did know, and it was for him I grieved. He haunted me. Not only in the most dreadful way, by his blood and brains stuck to the kitchen walls, but by a persistent picture of him cleaning his gun. The idea that he had cleaned it to shoot himself with was a special torment to me; of all the thoughts he might have had while cleaning it, the thought that he was going to use it against himself must have been the one furthest from his mind. The irony of this was like an arrow to my spirit.

Saturday 3 June 2023

Unfair reading

I went up to the pond on yet another clear sunny day with a book that P bought recently, a writer on writing, and one of Maurice Scully's vols of poetry. The writer on writing I'd never heard of, Amina Memory Cain. Maurice Scully I knew for maybe twenty-five years. He died earlier this year, so I have been reading him again to find him on the page. Amina Cain has read a number of writers I have read and liked, but I could not find any echoes of their power or indeed any echoes of anything much. My reading started picking up the kind of speed that bespeaks giving up. 

I turned to Maurice Scully's Tig, which means house in irish. And in that house, the pages of that house, I splashed about. The less there is on the page the more gymnastic the reader. Making shapes out of what isn't there. Making games of what is there. Household games. Games of where you are right now.

it's a game in hide & seek/or dip & pursuit/quite formal/ too /  see/saw

The best I could find in Amina Cain is that she had a cat called Trout, as we did also. 

We have complex patterns of affiliation. This much I understand.

Etel Adnan (1925 - 2021} ( Lebanon, Paris, California) explored the same zone. She sat in Paris cafés and kept reflecting, pushing here and there. She wrote and painted and corresponded. 'Her childhood in Lebanon had been so fractured that there was no single audience, no way of communicating fluently, freely.' (NYRB, 'A Life of Sheer Will', Yasmine El Rashidi), and when she went back there in later life she felt exiled from her exile.

I am always away from something and somewhere. My senses left me one by one to have a life of their own. If you meet me in the street, don't be sure it is me.

I'm sure it's her on the page. As Maurice Scully is there on his pages, wanting to exchange his days for ours, and ours for his.

There are prodigious absences on his pages, on hers. These are the places that the reader resides. In the white around the black of the letters. 

The morning after/my death / we will sit in cafés/  but I will not / be there / I will not be.