The French novelist Eric Chevillard once wrote: “Literature, more than the zoo, makes it its mission to be a conservatory of animal life…”
When I read that quote in the London Review of Books, the quote and the author were new to me, I didn’t at first understand it; Chevillard, one of the ‘most inventive writers working today’ was referring to literature conserving the names of animals. However, I was drawn to a connection between the words ‘literature’ and ‘zoo’ although it wasn’t clear to me what it was.
(This post is an example of writing something down in order to know what I think.)
That connection became relevant with the following rephrasing, considering the recent brouhaha about changing past writer’s work as in the re-editing of the works for children of Roald Dahl:
“Literature, more than the zoo, makes its mission to be a conservatory of …” its own evolution.
Just like a zoo can conserve species and show us the workings of evolution, so too can literature do the same thing with language.
We may think now that calling a short round woman, even affectionately, a Tallow Ball – or to be more contemporary, Butterball, as in Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) – is misogynistic but literature in order to get to where we are now needed to say that then.
We can only understand the nuance of language we use by knowing how that language has changed over time, and it does; it always does.
Re-editing the work of literature’s past writers because the language they used is now thought of as ‘bad’ is like erasing history just because it isn’t now considered nice or convenient. That’s what autocratic rulers do.
If we are worried about children getting hold of ‘bad’ books, being exposed to misogynistic ideas, there are always guides to help them through: parents and carers.
This issue seems to have faded from public view, and rightly so.
After I finished my 4th novel, well, the 3rd draft of it, who knows what needs to be done to it and at what time it needs to be done, I sent it off to my ‘agent’. He’s not really my agent as we don’t have a writer/agent relationship, he doesn’t have a relationship with me but with a book of mine, my 3rd novel, Johnny William & the Cameraman. However, what’s a writer to do after finishing number 4 but send it on to someone and an agent who has a relationship with number 3 is as good as any. He said he was looking forward to reading it. He said he liked it. With number 4 out of my hair, I felt like my pet budgie had flown away, a little lost. I scanned two abandoned pieces of prose, both over 20,000 words, one set in a declining rural town that seeks its survival only to have that thwarted by the media; and a story of a group of people who witness a tragedy on Sydney Harbour. Neither re-tickled my novelistic fancy.
But then, I found an old note on my Notepad App called The Owls of Kensingtown. The idea was to chart the reactions and romances of a small group of queer-minded people after the sentencing of Oscar Wilde in 1895. I changed the name to Arcadia Lane, but the title is still up for grabs. Actually Up for Grabs isn’t such a bad title itself. The Owls are metaphorical (“Who is that? Who? Look at them, Who is that one? Who? The one in the hat. Who are you? Who? Who? Who? ….” a chorus like a parliament of Owls. Oh, and A Parliament of Owls isn’t a bad title, either).
As I read through my very brief sketch a scene occurred to me, a scene that has become the opening of this new work, a scene that also sets up a need, which in turn will become the narrative. I have no idea, yet, where the story is going; I only have a direction, not an outcome.
Because of the first scene one of my characters, I’ve called him Henry, leaves his employment. I have no idea where he’s going, but a quick look at Google maps of rural England leads me to a village of Cockley Cley in the east – very obscure, very small – so Cockley Cley becomes his destination, where his peasant parents live.
Along the way he helps a farmer fix a broken down dray and gets a lift from him (This scene isn’t written yet, just mentioned, but as I write this I’m beginning to understand that it needs to be fleshed out. Later). They spend the night at a hogsman’s barn. I don’t know if there was such an occupation as hogsman, but a quick ask of Ms Google tells me that it’s a family name, so an occupation it could’ve been; anyway, I like the sound of it, so hogsman it is.
I don’t believe that a potential reader will stop and Google ‘hogsman’ and then complain that it’s an occupation that doesn’t exist, and has never existed. The sound of it alone fits the times (late 1800s) and it’s also self-explanatory. It is within the realm of possibility and so I believe a reader will accept it.
With the intention of Henry continuing his journey in the morning, I open the next scene early in the morning
with him pissing behind the barn. As he is returning a small girl comes running around the corner and almost knocks him over. I did not plan this. It was as if I was watching this scene, like an audience, and then the little girl appeared. She is strange, precocious, and manic. She is followed by the hogsman, a character I had not intended to draw. The relationship between the hogsman and the girl is ambiguous, and even a little sinister. The hogsman attempts to get the child back into the house with the help of Henry but the child bites Henry on the arm and screams, “He’s a prince!”. This also wasn’t planned. But, serendipitously, (and serendipity plays a very great role in novel-making) a reason for her outburst occurs to me. Henry, a gentleman’s valet, has left his employment because he was having a sexual affair with his gentleman employer, a very satisfying and loving relationship, but the morning paper’s reporting of Oscar Wilde’s sentence of two years hard labor scares the young man and he leaves, leaving the gentleman bereft and without anyone to cook his breakfast. Henry is therefore dressed and groomed very well, courtesy of his employer/lover and his appearance, especially to the little manic girl, seems that of a wealthy man, maybe even a prince!
I continue to ‘watch’ the scene and write down what I ‘see’. The hogsman invites Henry into his house to tend to the wound, shoving the girl into a room where the voices of other young girls can be heard. As the hogsman tends to Henry’s wound the young man looks around the house and notices its two fires, one in the sitting room, one in the kitchen, its heavy wooden and polished furniture, and its decorations, rugs, and paintings. This is not the house of a lowly pig farmer, unless my unnamed hogsman has a very lucrative side business.
The hogsman tangentially suggests a deal: he is willing to pay the young gentleman a tidy sum for his silence about the presence of the little girl/girls in his house. He knows his guest doesn’t look like he needs it, but a deal is a deal and an exchange of money between men who can afford it is as good a deal as most. Henry remains silent, a little character trait I just happened to give him earlier when he saw the wisdom of remaining silent when the truth, which is his usual trope, might do more harm than good (serendipity again). Henry takes the £5 silently, money he, now unemployed, sorely needs.
Understand that this scene may not make it into the final cut.
What has occurred to me since beginning this novel, if that’s what it is, is the similarities between writing prose and playing football. Writers take courses and listen to experts and go on writers’ retreats – players listen to coaches and go on training camps; writers read other writers – players watch other games; writers hone their skills, trying out ideas, different voices – players go to training, honing their skills; writers are disciplined – players are disciplined; writers know and understand grammar – players know and understand the rules of the game; but when it comes to doing the work, writing the thing, playing the game, there is no time to think about rules, advice, examples, and should I write this, should I tackle that; you just write it, play it, and hope to kryst that all the rules, advice, examples, and shoulds have oozed into your intuition, become your default mechanism, and what comes out is eventually a readable novel, a win.
I’m not yet convinced about the veracity of this work but I keep ‘seeing’ scenes, and as long as the scenes keep coming I’ll keep writing. Wish me luck.
This is not a story, and readers may find it difficult and not worth continuing with, but it takes a little gear change to alter your expectations. However, for readers interested in the life of the novel To the Lighthouse is an interesting read; but before sitting down with it a little research into the times and the literary landscape into which it was written is a good idea. It is considered a pioneering work of literary modernism.
Modernism is hard to define since it’s such a broad term and encompasses other ‘isms’ like expressionism and surrealism to name just two; and modernists did not actively adhere to any philosophy or movement like the visual impressionists did. However, it is generally considered to show a strong feeling for experimentation, and anything that was new, as well as a strong anti-Victorian bent. It is also difficult to pin down a starting date but generally it is agreed that literary modernism began at or near the turn of the 20th Century. While Robert M Kirschen of the English Department at the University of Nevada, opts for the end of Modernism in 1939 (some say 1945) with the publication of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “the ultimate work of Modernism. It is truly the pinnacle of this experimentation and novelty. After the Wake, it is no longer possible for a writer to attempt to supersede his or her predecessors in the way Modernists often strove to do. As such, the Modernist movement had reached its natural teleological* conclusion, and anything which came after must be part of a different part of literary history” i.e. Postmodernism. However, these labels are arbitrary and are the result of literary theorists looking back into the immediate past and recognising similar themes, memes, and ideas across the broad spectrum of literary endeavour. James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Proud and Virginia Woolf are all considered pioneers and pillars of modernism.
In To the Lighthouse the drama, like many modernist texts, is not in the action, there is very little. Action did not interest Woolf. The book begins with the announcement of a desire, for the boy’s sake, for James, to go to the lighthouse, and ends, 10 years later, with them actually setting out. The drama is internal, the weave and weft of emotional attachments, of familial love and hate, the gamut between, and even dissertations on life matters. There is also an argument, external to the book, but installed in it’s very creation, about doubt of the creative force; about two guests, two of many, at the house: Charles Tansley, a sycophant, who pronounces that women do not have a creative force, and Lilly Briscoe, a woman who desperately yearns, and attempts, to be an artist, a successful painter, but fails. She is a metaphor for Woolf herself and her own legendary self-doubt (thinks Margaret Atwood); but ironically Woolf not only completes this work, and publishes it, but knows its success.
The man, Mr Ramsey, stands over his wife, while she knits a pair of stockings for the underprivileged boy of the lighthouse keeper, which she hopes to take and give to him, if they ever get there, and he demands sympathy, since he declares himself a failure as a man. While knitting, as the boy, James – loving his mother, hating his father – stands between her knees clutching a book, she assures her husband, “beyond a shadow of a doubt, by her laugh, her poise, her competence” that he is wrong about himself. Look at the undying admiration of Charles Tansley, and his very own fecundity, his own house “full of life” – he has eight children – and in response to his wife’s success in turning his self-doubt into self-admiration- not via the sympathy he sought – but “as a nurse carrying a light across a dark room assures a fractious child” he goes for a walk to watch the children playing cricket. But once he is gone she is exhausted and can hardly lift her needles; can hardly read the fairy tale James so wants to hear, with the demands on her to mend her husband as well as wonder where the fifty pounds will come from to mend the greenhouse roof; and all this laden with the half knowledge that her husband is right about himself, adding lies to the accumulated burden she has to bear.
It is this internal drama, thoughts, treacheries, responsibilities, and admissions that interest Woolf. Then here, while knitting and thinking about why children must grow up; why can’t they stay happy forever, she thinks, “We are in the hands of the Lord?”
What brought her to say that: “We are in the hands of the Lord?” she wondered. The insincerity slipping in among the truths roused her, annoyed her. She returned to her knitting again. How could any Lord have made this world? she asked. With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that. She knitted with firm composure, slightly pursing her lips and, without being aware of it, so stiffened and composed the lines of her face in a habit of sternness that when her husband passed, though he was chuckling at the thought that Hume, the philosopher, grown enormously fat, had stuck in a bog, he could not help noting, as he passed, the sternness at the heart of her beauty. It saddened him, and her remoteness pained him, and he felt, as he passed, that he could not protect her, and, when he reached the hedge, he was sad. He could do nothing to help her. He must stand by and watch her. Indeed, the infernal truth was, he made things worse for her. He was irritable — he was touchy. He had lost his temper over the Lighthouse. He looked into the hedge, into its intricacy, its darkness.
It is this combination, this ‘conversation’ between the narrator, Mrs Ramsey, and Mr, but all in the narrator’s ‘words’, that, among others, mark this text as a work of ‘modernism’; and, indeed, one of the first.
If you think of the third person narrator as an omnipotent genie commenting and assessing each character, every moment, past, present and future, and sitting on the shoulder of the protagonist listening in to their thoughts and desires and explaining, prophesizing, and assessing them for the reader, here it is like that genie is not just rooted to the shoulder of the main character but, flitting to and fro onto the shoulders of many characters. And in the final short sentence of chapter 11 Woolf has all three voices ‘speaking’: the narrator, wife and husband,
For he wished, she knew, to protect her.
James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in English in 1922 and Woolf’s reaction to it was initially uncomplimentary, “puzzled, bored, irritated & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples,” but she later came around to admitting his genius even if she may have not finished reading it. However, it is clear that she was influenced by him, and, no doubt, by the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, translated into English as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past, which also came out in English – it was originally published in France – in 1922. What a year!**.
However, it is important to keep in mind that just as fads flutter through most of our civilised efforts, food, fashion, and politics, so too do fads pepper our literary history; and ‘obscurity’ was a particular literary fad of the early 20th century. Writers thought that every story that could be written had been written so they sought ‘the new’ within the structure of the novel itself, the use of the language, and in the relationship between writer, narrator, and reader.
Woolf did not deliberately seek to be obscure, no writer does, but in order to describe, set down, what interested her she had to find new ways of convincing her readers that they would be interested in it too.
The pleasure of the works of Virginia Woolf is immediate; it is in the reading, not the remembering.
You can find the ebook, in various formats, for free here, as well as other works by Virginia Woolf including all her novels and a large number of short stories. If you are interested in discovering Woolf try her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915); a good place to start.
* Teleology is the philosophical attempt to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal
** THE WORLD BROKE IN TWO: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature, by Bill Goldstein, comes out in November this year.
Recently I was alarmed by an article in The New Yorker (October 20 2014) entitled No Time for Lies: rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower by my favourite literary critic, James Woods. It was not the title that alarmed me, it was the opening line of Wood’s article:
“The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney … “
What!? Who!? I had never heard of Elizabeth Harrower, much to my shame, and the fact that she was still alive added, curiously, to the urgency to find out more.
Several of her novels were published in the 1950’s but she withdrew her last novel, In Certain Circles, in 1971 on the death of her mother. She was “frozen” by her loss, besides, as she says, I was “very good at closing doors and ending things. . . . What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I’ve forgotten.” How quickly readers forget: by the 1990’s all of her work was out of print.
Then in 2012 Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston of Text Publishing ‘re-discovered’ her and began re-publishing her work, The Watch Tower (1966), considered by some to be her greatest novel; “Down in the City” (1958), her first work; then The Long Prospect (1958), her second; followed by The Catherine Wheel (1960); and then Heyward managed to persuade her to let him have In Certain Circles (1960), completing the re-issue of her entire work. To this collection Text added, in 2015, a small collection of short fiction, A Few Days in the Country and other Stories, which includes the story, Alice, published in The New Yorker in 2015.
“Harrower’s writing is witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished,” writes Wood and although he admits her themes are somewhat repetitive (a young girl bends to coercion and cruelty in a stifling and misogynist era) “her sentences, which have an unsettling candor, launch a curling assault on the reader, often twisting in unexpected ways. And … her prose is full of variety.”
“I want to argue that Elizabeth Harrower is on a par with Patrick White and Christina Stead, who would be on anybody’s list of postwar literature giants in Australia.” Michael Heyward, Text Publishing.
The Watch Tower “reminded me of Zola in its unflinching depiction of two sisters entangled with a moody, violent man … It is a brilliant achievement.” Michael Dirda, Washington Post.
“I seized on Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, originally published in 1966. What a discovery! Harrower’s voice in this book is disconcerting at first: almost fatigued, as though she knows that everything to come is fated to be so and there’s little to do but tell the story.” Nicole Rudnick, managing editor, The Paris Review.
“The writing is just fantastic. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of her before,” Irish writer Eimear McBride told The Guardian. “Australians have their F Scott Fitzgerald in Elizabeth Harrower.”
Elizabeth Harrower was born in 1928: know her while you can.
I recently set aside prejudices and inaction and knuckled-down and worked out how to use twitter; but, someone said, you’re a bit late, as usual, twitter’s on the way out. Is it? Anyway, I find it very useful. I follow all the literary magazines I can’t afford to subscribe to and whenever I get a tweet that interests me I click on the link and there is the article in full. Magic! This happened recently when I got a tweet from The Paris Review (despite its name it comes out of New York) about Gerald Murnane. I know that name, I thought. Why do I know that name?
He too is a mostly unknown Australian writer (although that is quickly changing) who lives in Goroke, a small Wimmera town in the west of the Australian state of Victoria.
Paul Genoni, Associate Professor, Faculty of Media, Society and Culture at Curtin University, Melbourne said in his 2014 review of Murnane’s The Plains (1982) that the opening could very well be the best in Australian literature:
“Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.
“My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.”
And here is Gurnane’s opening line from his latest work, Border Districts (2016),
“Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.”
The first, “I kept my eyes open”; the second, “I resolved to guard my eyes…” Seeing or not-seeing is a recurring theme in Murnane’s work.
“Murnane’s work has always been a world in which what we see never exists in isolation, so that its reality is only fully understood in relation to what the writing tells us we cannot see.” Will Heyward, writer and editor, New York.
Gerald Murnane won the Patrick White Award in 1999; the Melbourne Prize for Literature, 2009; and the Adelaide Festival 2010 Award for Innovation in Writing. His work has been translated into Swedish and Italian.
“The Australian Gerald Murnane, a genius on the level of Beckett, is known in Australia and Sweden but almost nowhere else.” – Teju Cole, an American writer of Nigerian parentage. He is currently the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College.
“Murnane is a careful stylist and a slyly comic writer with large ideas. I know it’s the antipodes, but it’s hard to fathom why he isn’t a little better known here [the USA].” American critic and scholar, Robyn Creswell who joined the Comparative Literature Department at Yale in 2014.
“If you want the supreme triumph of Murnane’s method read Inland (1988), which he has admitted is the God-given book, a work that dazzles the mind with its grandeur and touches the heart with a great wave of feeling and brings to the point of maximum reality the grave and soulful preoccupations that run through every bit of fiction Murnane has ever written.” Peter Craven, Sydney Morning Herald, June 2014.
There are rumours that Murnane has never been in an airplane; he hasn’t watched a movie in decades; keeps meticulous files on his everyday life; and that Border Districts will be his last work of fiction.
Gerald Murnane was born in 1939: know him while you can.
In a primary school in a small country town on the Adelaide Plain in South Australia in 1960-something, poetry was a page of writing, usually with a rhyming pattern of a-a-b-b or, if we were good, a-b-a-b, given to us students at Friday’s last session. The copies were made on that ancient, clumsy, messy, clanky machine: the Gestetna. Each student had a poetry exercise book, blank not lined. We had to carefully smear Clag on the back of the poetry page and stick it nicely, no splodges, onto the right hand side of a double page in our poetry exercise book. On the blank left-hand page we had to draw something inspired by the poem. No matter what the poem was about, spring, the Queen, a train, elephants, I always drew a two dimensional, two-storey house as big as the page would allow; so big in fact that the smoke coming from the chimney – there was always a smoking chimney – had nowhere to go except, unrealistically, down the side of the page towards the ground. The teacher never made a comment about this.
No attempt was ever made to make us think that we could possibly write a poem. I didn’t write one but I learned one: a poem of the “A starling, a silly little darling, such a pretty sight to see” variety. I recited this poem to my parents one day in the car on the way to Adelaide, that little flat city that was the capital of the state and, to me, the centre of the universe. My stepfather said nothing: he was deaf. My mother said something nice to me, which I liked. I liked it very much even though my mother’s praise was usually of the “That’s nice, dear, but don’t get too big for your boots” variety. Somehow I understood that she thought that I had written it. I didn’t know how to tell her that I hadn’t and, besides the warmth of praise, even meagre praise, was something rare and utterly delightful. I let her believe that I had written it and felt guilty for years to come, especially since she made me write it down and submit it to my monthly children’s magazine, and in which it was printed. I thought the police would arrive any day and take me away and do what they did to little boys who told lies, claimed other people’s words as their own, and thought poems were things to be proud about.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with poetry ever since: I love mine but hate everyone else’s. I thought for a long time that my schoolteachers weren’t telling me something: like a missing bit from an IKEA pack. However then I thought that maybe I was not getting something so I read a lot of poetry and from all those years only three have gained some traction in my satisfaction bank: Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover, a narrative poem of sacrificial love but, as I understood later, extremely misogynistic; William Carlos Williams’ To a Poor Old Woman which is simple-sad but strong and showed me that poetry doesn’t need punctuation if the lines are the right length; and Clive James’ Japanese Maple which is about approaching death which is apt since he’s dying (talk-about write what you know!).
Anyway, imagine my expectation when I saw Alexander McCall Smith What W. H. Auden can do for you (2013) on a friend’s bookshelf. Maybe I’ll find what I’m looking for in this little book.
Mr. McCall Smith (or is it simply Mr. Smith?) obviously loves poetry and has been reading it since he was 15 and he also obviously loves Auden, although he seems eager to point out that his little tome is not a hagiography. Auden has often been criticized for using words simply for effect and without real regard to their meaning; a criticism McCall Smith agrees with. Here is a quote from his Letters from Iceland (1937).
And the traveller hopes; ‘Let me be far from my
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: Reject!’
The curious line “and the ports have names for the sea” is actually a misprint: he meant ‘poets’ but ‘ports’ was printed. Auden left it in. He liked the sound of it. The other line of interest is “Let me be far from my physician.” McCall Smith is critical of this word too, but as I read the first line the surprise certainly came with the word ‘physician’. I was expecting ‘mother’ or ‘country’ or ‘crowds’ (as McCall Smith suggests) but with the surprise came understanding. I read it as ‘far from all that is safe and fixable.’ McCall Smith thought it may stand “for all that is overly fussy and cosseting in modern society.” The point here is that, no matter what Auden meant, and what he meant is really irrelevant: meaning is in the mind of the reader. I’m sticking to my ‘safe and fixable.’
McCall Smith makes it clear that Auden’s homosexuality was reflective of his time which was full of perverse contradictions: single sex boarding schools which thrust a single sex together while punishing single sex itself, which is itself reflective in the hypocrisy of calling moneyed schools ‘public’ as if their money was for all, which it wasn’t. Such a system, a bed of oppression and treachery, not surprisingly, also produced spies. And intellectuals who in their declining years re-embraced Christianity, as did Auden. All this is mirrored in his choice of subjects, Freud, limestone, Iceland, Spain, Hitler, Rome, love – sexual and not, dreams, birds, water, fascism, and vales but not mountains.
Knowing something of the poet, and his times, helps in understanding his poetry; even an older Auden disowned the words of his younger self. Thank god he told us. McCall Smith also states that influences of time and place can’t be ignored. He identifies two great influences on artistic endeavour in the twentieth century: war and Freud… Now, hang on! All I’m looking for is an ‘in’ to the appreciation of poetry and here, Auden’s in particular. I, nor anyone, have the time for an academic investigation to eek out meaning to the words I’ve just read.
In the musical theatre characters sing when the emotion, or action, expressed is bigger than the text, when just words are not enough. Similarly it seems with poetry: it’s louder, stronger, more complex, more succinct, and usually more effective than mere words. To write about political decline, as he did in The Fall of Rome, less is more:
The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend. …
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form…
The imagery here is singular but powerful: an abandoned train; fantastical evening gowns; tax-defaulters fleeing through sewers; private rites of magic; sleeping leaders; and an unimportant and disillusioned clerk. These are four of the six verses in the poem; Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire stands at 12 massive tomes With Auden you don’t get the history, but you get the idea.
What I take from this book is the affirmation that if a poem doesn’t speak to you, read it again, really listen to what the words, and, more importantly, the words together, conjure, and what you think it means is what it means, but if you still can’t hear anything, put it back and read something else.
Oh, and in 1940-41 W. H. Auden lived in Brooklyn Heights in a house, that has become known as the February House, with Benjamin Britten, Jane and Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee. What a Sunday-lunch gathering that would be!
For more insight into poetry John Goodman succinctly explains obscurity in poetry, not forgetting that obscurity as a fad in art comes and goes. You can read his article here.
And you can listen to Auden himself reading his As I Walked Out One Evening (1937) here.
In 1993 Joanne Woodward was the narrator in Sorcese’s film of Edit Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Her voice was measured and melifuous, full of American cadences of the time; a formal English suggesting refinement, wisdom, and good behaviour.
I was just over two pages into Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s new/old novel (and if you’re a reader and haven’t heard of it you’ve probably been living on Mars), when I realised the voice in my head I was reading with was that of Woodward’s with the same measurement and melifuousness perfect for phrases like “a family example not Iikely to be discountenanced” and “Love whom you will but marry your own kind was a dictum amounting to instinct within her.”
The mood of life in Maycomb is set by annacdotes of the people in it. Tales of loyalty, family pride, and self reliance pepper the opening pages so by the time I met the aged Atticus Finch I was already steeped in small-town life and flavour. I expected, hoped for, a slow reveal of Atticus Finch but Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird and how could the author know what an indelable image her creation would leave on the minds of her readers; not to forget the looks and fatherly masculinity of Gregory Peck, from the 1962 film, that couloured it. Over a million copies have been sold in July: the month of it’s release, on the 14th. It’s been ringing tills all over the world and some critics have sharpened their knives and honed their sarcasm to firmly put it back in the bottom drawer.
It certainly isn’t as good as To Kill a Mockingbird but then no-one really thought it would be as part of the marketing campaign was to explain that the original publisher remarked to a young Harper Lee that the most interesting parts of the book were the flashbacks to Scout’s early years and being a novice, Lee took his advice and went back to her desk and, as we know, wrote Mockingbird, which has become a modern classic loved the world over. What is interesting in this book is its role as the precursor to that iconic text. You feel a sense of privilege to discover the germs of scenes that grew into those we know so well: the courtroom scene, for instance, that forms the climax of Mockingbird is a simple reminiscence Jean Louise (Scout) has when she visits the same courthouse.
However what is a surprise is that her father, Atticus Finch, is not the same man as the Mockingbird hero. In Go Set a Watchman ( from Isaiah: 21, 6) Atticus is a respected member of the Maycomb community but his attitude to race relations is totally different to those of the younger Atticus who Lee portrayed as a hero of tolerance and rational thinking; here he tries to justify racist attitudes as necessary to deal with, and live peacefully within, his chosen home. These ideas confound and horrify Scout, and us. However the climax, the confrontation between father and daughter, is very shallow and under-written with an outcome that has more to do with blood than sincere argument; the threat is weak and the ending is therefore disappointing.
It is remarkable to realise that not only was race still a devisive issue 20 years after the story of Mockingbird but today, in 2015, it is still an open wound on the face of American society: still as raw as a fresh cigarette burn.
As the mature woman Scout realises that her upbringing rendered her colour blind; but how can that be now that the model of her raising has turned against her? or was he always like he is now? If she is to stay in this world she needs a guide, a Watchman, to lead her through this place where she doubts she belongs or understands.
The writing is not as sharp and reliable as in Mockingbird but there are flashes of brilliance that set up images that stay with you; and most of them to do with the flashes back to Scout’s teenage years and before. The third person narrative is of the ‘close writing’ kind that sometimes gets so close to Scout that it often slips into the first person, a device that effectively creates the feeling of personal truth. Go Set a Watchman as a companion piece to To Kill a Mockingbird is its strongest attribute; it may be thin and embryonic but to those who value artistic endeavour and its evolution it’s a valuable text.
On the online portal about Sexual Respect, for students, faculty, and staff at Columbia University, New York City, Colm Toibin, has recently provided an arts opinion commentary to accompany an art exhibition on Sexual Respect held at the Faculty House this month. In so doing he has defined what art is; where it comes from; and what it achieves. Here is what he said.
The art we make arises from the most private and intimate concerns and struggles, but also from pressing matters which arise when our dream life merges or intersects with what is sharply public or even openly political. Art begins in whispers and tentative rhythms but it can branch out into many realms, including ones in which the voice becomes loud and the rhythm angry and the tone combative. Art begins in ambiguity but as it proceeds it can shed that ambiguity and aim towards the forceful, the clear, the disturbing. Just as art can insist on its own need for subtlety and quietness, it can also inhabit a space where artists can have an argument with themselves and with the world.
Art seeks out an autonomous space. Now, more than ever, we are in need of autonomous space. Thus the image made, the dance movements worked out, the film shot, the words written on the page, the photograph taken, the painting created, are metaphors for our right in the wider world to imagine and make, metaphors for our own will, for our own freedom, for our own vulnerability; they are signs too of our own autonomy, our own power. These rights, these signs, stand for not only what we want from the world and how we wish to be in the world, but also how we want to re-imagine the world and how we want the world to re-imagine itself.
Many years ago, two poets living in America – Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan – in the white heat of the Vietnam War began an argument about what artists should do about evil. Levertov took the view that we should in our work oppose evil; Duncan believed that we had a duty instead to imagine evil. In the work on show here, it is clear that this argument remains as powerful as ever and as unresolved. The questions of sexual respect, sexual responsibility, the removal of power and violence from the sexual equation, are not questions that any one of us can be easy or complacent about. What is notable in this work on display here is its commitment, its passion, its stark and unsparing exploration of these most difficult and important and urgent subjects.
Some of the work here is deeply and openly opposed to evil. Other work seeks to explore what evil looks like, throw dramatic light on what is dark and cruel so that we can see it all the more clearly, so that we cannot avert our eyes from it, so that we will recognize it in the future.
Art comes from our loneliness. Images and phrases come most sonorously to us from the shadow world, a world in which the thing that should have happened did not happen, the world in which the right action was avoided and something else occurred, the world in which many people failed and some did their worst. Art arises from suffering, from regret, from harm, from experience more than innocence.
But art comes too from our sheer need for utterance, our urge to cry out, our knowledge that the silence all around us hungers for our noise. Art comes from our knowledge that silence moves like a thief, or someone who wishes to exert power, do harm, cause grief. Silence moves in fear; it darts and flits. Silence knows that its enemies are words and images and songs. The most forceful enemy of silence is someone speaking the truth, someone alone in a room, someone writing cries and messages from the depths of the self, words or images that strive to matter and make a difference, concentrate our minds, re-create the world.
Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities
Columbia University Department of English and Comparative Literature