I had never heard of Patrick Modiano until he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014. He is French of Italian descent and not only does he mine his own life for inspiration – usually to do with WWII and the city of Paris, he was born the year the war ended – but his focus is on the reliability, or not, of memory, which is not the same as one’s personal history, or memoir.
Reading Modiano is like walking through a maze: each chapter creates an expectation, but when you turn the corner, it is more of the same, another expectation; and when you get to the end, the centre of the maze, you realise that it’s not the end, just another beginning.
What is this book about? It’s about memory and its fickleness. A writer once said, “Memory is like an oven: you put something in, close the door, wait a while, open the door, and there it is, something else.”
There are three novellas in this short volume, Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin.
The narrator of the first, Afterimage, almost like the writer, is like someone remembering anecdotes that will eventually lead to a point, but one anecdote only leads to another. The veracity of these episodes is given weight by detail: the colour of a hat, the bullet holes in a wall, a list – Modiano loves lists – a footnote containing a minor thought or an address, the sound of leaves in a breeze. And all to do with the narrator’s memory of Francis Jensen, an enigmatic man who the narrator remembers over a period of 20 years.
The first sentence:
I met Francis Jansen when I was nineteen, in the spring of 1964, and today I want to relate the little I know of him;
which starts comfortably enough, but there is a wobble of uncertainty by the end of it: a book usually tends to contain a lot of information a writer knows about a person, not a ‘little’.
By the end of this short story – only 55 pages – you feel as if the short chapters – some very short – could be in any order. There is no obvious narrative ark. Francis Jansen is ‘revealed’ hazily through what the narrator remembers and the people, friends, lovers, and photographs the narrator discovers and the interplay he remembers having with them, which may have happened, or not. It reads like autobiography, and maybe it is, maybe it is not. This is fiction after all.
Mark Polizzotti, the translator, says “Modiano’s narrators seem fatally drawn to individuals who are uncommonly vague about themselves and their situation” and Modiano himself confirms this, “the more obscure and mysterious things remained, the more interested I became in them. I even looked for mystery where there was none.”
Read his biography in his own words here. In true Modiano-fashion he leaves out a lot of information, creating his own mysteries. He doesn’t say, for example, that the interesting reason that he spent his childhood with his grandparents was that his father was deported during the war and his mother was a touring actor.
The second, and title story, has a narrator of 10 years old: Patoche (a diminutive of Patrick), but here the prose is remembered by the adult Patoche who tries to remember and understand the adult world around the boy, and true to Modiano’s love of mystery there is one here. However, what does a 10-year-old boy know of the world of adults. Why are there policemen scouring his home one day when he gets home from school? And where are all the adults. No spoilers here.
“With each new book, Modiano has refined his memorial mode. He is perhaps the most repetitive novelist in world literature: he uses the novel as a serial form, like a screen print,” wrote Adam Thirlwell in The Guardian.
The third, Flowers of Ruin, is the narrator’s shadowy attempt to solve a double suicide and to uncover the history of an acquaintance: Phillipe de Pacheco, commonly known as simply ‘Pachero’; or his name could’ve been Phillipe de Bellune with a tarnished shadow of nobility.
I sat at a sidewalk table of one of the café’s facing the Charlety stadium. I constructed all the hypotheses concerning Phillippe de Pacheco, whose face I didn’t even know. I took notes. Without fully realising it I began writing my first book. It was neither a vocation nor a particular gift that pushed me to write, but quite simply the enigma posed by the man I had no chance of finding again, and by all those questions that would never have an answer.
Behind me, the jukebox was playing an Italian song. The stench of burned tires filled the air. A girl was walking under the leaves of the trees along Boulevard Jourdan. Her blond bangs, cheekbones, and green dress were the only note of freshness on that early August afternoon. Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insoluble mysteries, when life was there, in all its simplicity, beneath the sun?
This sounds like the ending, doesn’t it? But it isn’t; there’s 33 more pages to go!
Like Virginia Woolf, and other modernists, and post modernists, the pleasure is in the action of reading them, not in following a story or remembering it later. Memory has not been explored like this since that other French writer, Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Modiano’s works are short; read one, and tell me what you think.
You can purchase this book in various formats here.
In London on 7 February 1910 a telegram was received from Sir Charles Hardinge, the Permanent Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, by the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet and the captain of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, the flagship of the British navy, then lying off Portland, Dorset. It informed him that Prince Makalin of Abyssinia and his party were arriving in the afternoon and were to receive every attention. When they arrived by private train carriage they were received with an honour guard and taken ceremoniously on board. The chatter of the dusky-skinned entourage was completely unintelligible although one of the party, Prince Mandax, wearing a sky-blue silk robe, beard, jewels and a turban, constantly murmured “Bunga Bunga” which their interpreter explained was Abyssinian for “Isn’t it lovely?” They refused all refreshments which the interpreter again explained was due to their religious beliefs as they could not be served food or drink with the naked hand. Gloves were not available.
A few days later the officers and crew of the Dreadnought were amazed and dismayed to learn, via the Daily Mirror, that it was all a monumental practical joke and the Royal navy was pilloried and laughed at for weeks in the national press and at every dinner table in the land. It has become known as the Dreadnought Hoax and was reported all over the world.
One of the hoaxers, Prince “Bunga Bunga” Mandax, was, in reality, a young girl who was quoted as saying “I found I could laugh like a man easily enough but it was difficult to disguise the speaking voice. As a matter of fact the only really trying time I had was when I had to shake hands with my first cousin, who is an officer on the Dreadnought, and who saluted me as I went on deck. I thought I should burst out laughing, but, happily I managed to preserve my Oriental stolidity of countenance.”
This young lady was the 28 year old Miss Adeline Stephen, who two years later married and became Mrs Woolf. We know her better by her middle name, Virginia.
The Dreadnought hoaxers, 1910. Virginia Woolf, far left.
Apart from being a practical joker, Virginia Woolf was a very beautiful woman. This is certainly not how we think of her today but all the people who wrote about her, and there were many, used adjectives, especially those that knew her well, like, beautiful, mischievous, intelligent, talkative, and inquisitive. She would say things like, “You said you went for a walk, but what made you go for a walk?” When out walking herself with a friend she would see a farmer tossing hay and say, “Look at that farmer pitching hay. What do you think he had for breakfast?” It was this inquisitiveness that made her attend to everything you said to her; and attend with real interest. When you talked to Virginia you always felt that you were intently listened to, and, once literary fame came into the picture, you didn’t even mind that she was mining you for information, words and reasons for human behaviour; in fact, you were flattered that such a famous and beautiful woman was hanging on your every word; gazing into your eyes and eagerly waiting for your next pronouncement. Of course under such scrutiny, if you simply said ‘I don’t know’ you could be sure that she would lose interest immediately and seek someone else’s company. She had a habit of forcing you to search your brain for the right words, because nothing less than the right words were always expected.
She was tall, with a thin face, slender hands and always wore shapeless clothes of indeterminate colours: fashion was of no concern to her.
She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 but almost immediately was called Virginia despite the confusion of initials with her elder sister, Vanessa. She came from a good family of landowners and was well but home educated. She was the third child of her father’s second wife and an incident with her half-brother, George Duckworth, was to have a profound effect on her.
“I still shiver with shame,” she wrote many years after the incident, “at the memory of my half brother standing me on a ledge, aged about six or so, exploring my private parts.” Then, many years later, when her father lay dying from cancer three floors below, George would fling himself on her bed, kissing and hugging her, aged in her early 20s, “to console her”, he later said. Quentin Bell, her biographer and nephew, would write, “in sexual matters she was from this time terrified back into a posture of frozen and defensive panic.” She briefly considered accepting Lytton Strachey’s proposal of marriage knowing that he was homosexual so she thought a simple brother-sister sort of marriage may be preferable to one that included the ‘horror of sex’. She wanted to be married, since being a spinster was considered a failure and finally accepted the proposal of Leonard Woolf and they were married on August 10 1912 after an engagement that, her sister wrote, was “an exhausting and bewildering thing even to the bystanders.” Virginia said to him “I feel no physical attraction to you, … and yet your caring for me as you do almost overwhelms me. It is so real and so strange.” They were planning a honeymoon in Iceland (how metaphoric) but settled for a Mediterranean one instead. Michael Holroyd wrote,
“There seemed some unfathomable inhibition that made male lust, even when compounded with love, if not horrific, quite incomprehensible to her. The physical act of intercourse was not even funny: it was cold. Leonard regretfully accepted the facts and soon brought the word in line with the deed by persuading her that they should not have children. It was a sensible decision for, though she could never contemplate her sister’s fruitfulness without envy, children with their wetness and noise would surely have killed off the novels in her: and it was novel-writing that she cared for most.”
Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, 2002.
In 2002 the film The Hours was released with much fanfare and a stellar cast. It was written by David Hare and based on the Michael Cunningham Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name, which in turn used Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925) as the core of the film about, not only Virginia Woolf and the writing of the book, but also its effect on two women: one in the 1950s and one in the 1980s. Readers can find Mrs Dalloway curious, annoying and tedious but when you read you must not let the words wash over you as one lets light from a fire without looking into the flames; into the beauty at its core.
Her novel of 1928, Orlando, is dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s friend, neighbour and sometime lover and tells the story, over a period of 300 years, of the romantic adventures of a man called Orlando, who suddenly, miraculously, half way through the book becomes a woman. This is revealed in the film version, starring Tilda Swinton, as Orlando with his long, straight, reddish blond hair gazes at himself standing naked in front of a full length mirror and seeing the reflection of a long, straight, reddish blond haired naked woman staring back saying, “Same person, different body.”
Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Orlando (1928).
Virginia confessed her affair with Vita to her sister Vanessa and in a letter to Vita describes the moment.
“I told Nessa the story of our passion in a chemist’s shop the other day. ‘But do you really like going to bed with women’ she said – taking her change. ‘And how’d you do it?’ and so she bought her pills to take abroad, talking as loud as a parrot.”
Uncharacteristically a lot happens in Orlando but it’s not plot that interests Virginia Woolf ( “facts are a very inferior form of fiction”) but the feelings, nuanced emotions that precede the action, or arise because of it; she was more interested in, not the ‘What’, but the ‘Why’, and, more importantly, how one would describe that ‘Why’.
Leonard and Virginia Woolf photographed by Vita Sackville-West.
Nowhere is this more evident than in her novel (most call it her masterpiece) To the Lighthouse (1927). The very title is full of expectation and when the possibility is revealed to little six year old James he is transfixed, incapacitated with the joy of it. This is the opening, including the title which is really part of the first sentence.
“To the Lighthouse
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.”
And what is illustrative, most of all, of her genius, and her deep and all-consuming curiosity of human intention and behaviour, and her determination to create art, is that by the last page the lighthouse itself disappears into a mist and we, the readers, along with the remaining onlookers in the house, can only assume that they have arrived.
Leonardo de Vinci fought tooth and nail to acquire a particular block of marble, also much coveted by, his rival, Michelangelo because he knew that inside there was a statue of David and all he had to do was chip away the extraneous rock to reveal the body within. If Virginia Woolf were present it would be the act of chipping the marble and the chips of marble lying on the floor that would attract her interest and not the finished, polished figure.
Janet Vaughan (a medical scientist and friend) had this to say about Virginia Woolf and ‘genius’.
“Well, it’s a sixth sense. It’s somebody who jumps a gap which other people would need a very, very solid bridge to walk across. She didn’t do it as a scientist might, she did it by interpreting what she saw and what people might be thinking and how they interacted with one another. But she had this quality of jumping gaps.”
And similarly Vita Sackville-West describes it thus: “I always thought her genius led her by short cuts to some essential point which everybody else had missed. She did not walk there: she sprang.”
But it’s the adjectives ‘mischievous, witty, warm and humorous’ that are most intriguing. She loved to tease and teased most those she was most fond of; and those teased seemed to love it and certainly were not offended by it since the teasing was done with such warmth.
In the early 20s Virginia Woolf used the name of writer Berta Ruck (albeit mis-spelt) on a minor character, and a subsequent tombstone, in her novel Jacob’s Room (1920). Angus Davidson, friend, literary critic, and manager for a time of their publishing house, The Hogarth Press, said this was done unwittingly. This is hard to believe as the name Berta Ruck is quite distinctive and her name and the names of her novels were emblazoned on the tops of London buses. However Ms Ruck was a writer of a very different genre than Virginia’s. She wrote romantic stories and almost seventy novels (Khaki and Kisses, Love on Second Thoughts, etc) where beautiful young women were treated dismissively by fathers, brothers and men in general but who fell in love with one of them and lived happily ever after. One can imagine Virginia Woolf thinking this scenario extremely unlikely and with a name like Berta Ruck, and the married name of Mrs Onions, perfectly ripe for mischief. Ms Ruck, however, did not see the humour in the incident and with urgings from her indignant husband, wrote to Woolf in sorrow and indignation threatening legal action. Virginia wrote back rather sarcastically, “I am more pleased than I can say that you survived my burial. Never will I attempt such a thing again. To think that you have bought my book.” It took Ms Ruck eight years to discover the slight so Woolf could hardly have taken her seriously. However they ‘made up’ via correspondence and almost a year later Ms Ruck got her own back by becoming the success at a party, attended by Virginia, by singing a very risqué song, “Never Allow a Sailor an Inch Above Your Knee.” Virginia was reported as being “filled with amazement and delight.” All animosity was forgiven.
Unfortunately, the memory of her is clouded by her diaries which record her mental suffering and her depression even though her husband, and editor, went to great pains to explain; “…diaries give a distorted and one-sided view of the writer, because, as Virginia Woolf herself remarks, one gets into the habit of recording one particular kind of mood – irritation or misery say – and of not writing one’s diary when one is feeling the opposite. The portrait in therefore from the start unbalanced.”
Her bouts of illness sprung from the effort of writing, and in particular the exhaustion from finishing a particular work. Her headaches would begin and if left unchecked, she would lose coherence of speech, and her brain would race with images and noises (birds crying out in Greek) and delusions (King Edward VII, among the azaleas, swearing in the most foulest language). Complete rest and quiet would eventually restore her normal life but her recovery would be ridden with doubt and worry about the worth of her just-completed work. Praise and encouragement were oxygen to her. So eventually with Leonard’s care and concern, her own courage, immense courage, she would roll up her sleeves and begin to write again, knowing that creation was hard, completion fearful, and a bout of madness inevitable.
Portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1939, by Gisele Freund, two years before her death.
And then this: her final piece of writing; a short letter to her husband, written on the day she died.
Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.
She then put on a hat, a coat, grabbed a walking stick and headed to the river. There she put down her stick, took off her hat, put rocks in her pockets and disappeared into the water. When Leonard found the letter, he, along with the house keeper, Mrs Meyer, searched the house, the grounds, and the surrounding countryside and when they found her stick and hat assumed the worst. Three weeks later her gruesome body was found by children as it bumped against the bank of the river many miles downstream. She was 59.
Remember Virginia Woolf as a beautiful and intelligent woman, a prankster, a great and innovative writer, the creator of the outrageous Orlando, and the cheeky biographer of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s little cocker spaniel; she was a curious and inquisitive human being, a tease, a lover, and a writer who launched modernism on the literary world. And remember that when her little nephews, nieces, and their friends were preparing for a party who was number one on their invitation list?
“V-i-r-g-i-n-i-a!” they would shriek with delight, because Aunt Virginia always made them laugh.
Virginia Woolf, 1927, aged 45, the year To the Lighthouse was published.
The featured image of Virginia Woolf is by Marta Spendowska.
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.
This is Robert Gulliver, and he’s in the process of being born.
Over the last few years, longer probably, I have sketched out a story about this curious character in script form. Because that’s how I originally saw him, it. I don’t remember where he, the idea, came from. He is sixteen but the rigours of puberty landed heavily and early on dear Robert; that, and given his unusual parenting, and intellect, he is very much a round peg in a square hole. In fact, he is a man still in high school.
I was inspired to re-visit Robert recently as circumstances are that I don’t have the luxury of blocks of hours at my disposal to give long-form writing the wealth of time it needs. I have a few long-form projects that need just that. I thought polishing and cut & pasting an existing work would be a much better use of the time I have. Unfortunately I had written 80% of Gulliver’s Travels on a script-writing program called Final Draft; my subscription had expired, the update was expensive, and I was locked out of the program. However, although Robert has been sitting there, locked in the ether, he has been a lot on my mind: the story is well formed and remembered, and re-remembering it, but in a different form, was an interesting and challenging idea to dive into.
Robert’s story is about family. And the moment I wrote that word ‘family’ Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening line from Anna Karenina sprang to mind:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Translation by Constance Garnett)
And a comment by Patrick Gale, a British and favoured author of mine, in which he said he likes page one to hold some sort of key to the whole work itself. It’s not that Robert’s family is unhappy or that I need a cryptic smack of the whole thing to begin, but what those two thoughts inspired was this,
by Michael Freundt
If you asked a family member – of any family – if they were happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realize that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know that this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the faceless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.
If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into the wrong family, or if circumstances render your family suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it. This is a story of a boy who did just that.
In the musical play Carousel, a spruiker called Bill, and Julie, who works in a mill, try to tell each other how they feel. They don’t have the words to be true to such feelings so they sing it to make it real: what “if I loved you?” The scene needs the music to supply the emotion and for the would-be-lovers to be who they are, not for writers to give them words they would never use. Songs in musicals happen when words are not enough. Poetry happens when prose in not enough. To describe a spectacular tree, you can try to write it realistically as best you can but if it is truly spectacular you will get to a stage where you have to forget what you see and write what you feel; what it reminds you of; what the words are for: sense, surprise, and metaphor. When Auden wrote “As I walked out one evening, walking down Bristol Street” he described what he did, and then what he saw, but what he saw was so such more and he had no words that did justice to the scenery “The crowds upon the pavement” so he slipped into poetry, “were fields of harvest wheat.” And this adds meaning and insight; yes, and there’s rhyme and rhythm of course, a tune if you like. What confuses poetics for the readers of verse is that so often with the text, it’s so personal, perverse, and has no meaning, no revelation; but like masturbation, it may satisfy the writer, and, no one else! I’m going to stop beating up on myself, for being a fool since it isn’t a test, so I’ll read more poetry, treasure those words that light something up, and dismiss those that maybe a gas for the poet, but hot air for the rest of us.
I have always had a rather unstable relationship with poetry. Usually, when asked what I think about it, I reply rather lamely, “Poetry and I have a love/hate relationship; I love mine but hate everyone else’s”.
Below is an attempt to ‘write it out’: to explain, mainly to myself, what it is and how I can make this relationship more productive, and stop worrying about it.
In the musical play Carousel, a spruiker called Bill, and Julie, who works in a mill, try to tell each other how they feel. They don’t have the words to be true to such feelings so they sing it to make it real: what “if I loved you?” The scene needs the music to supply the emotion and for the would-be-lovers to be who they are, not for writers to give them words they would never use. Songs in musicals happen when words are not enough. Poetry happens when prose in not enough.
To describe a spectacular tree, you can try to write it realistically as best you can but if it is truly spectacular you will get to a stage where you have to forget what you see and write what you feel; what it reminds you of; what the words are for: sense, surprise, and metaphor.
When Auden wrote “As I walked out one evening, walking down Bristol Street” he described what he did, and then what he saw, but what he saw was so such more and he had no words that did justice to the scenery, “The crowds upon the pavement” so he slipped into poetry, “were fields of harvest wheat.” And this adds meaning and insight; yes, and there’s rhyme and rhythm of course, a tune if you like.
What confuses poetics for the readers of verse is that so often the text is so personal, perverse, and has no meaning, no revelation; but like masturbation, it may satisfy the writer, but does nothing for the reader.
I’m going to read more poetry now and stop flogging myself since it isn’t a test. I’ll treasure those words that light something up, and dismiss those that maybe a gas for the poet, but hot air for the rest of us.
Paris Review Interviewer to Truman Capote, Issue 16,1959:
“You recently published a book about the Porgy and Bess trip to Russia. One of the most interesting things about the style was its unusual detachment, …”
What would a detached narrator sound like?
She came out of the house with some definite purpose in mind. I knew it was Sondra because of the way she walked: like walking on too-far-apart paving stones, striding. It was a warm day, peaceful, with a sky the colour of blue-milk. A little breeze that seemed to say “See, I knew I could make it better.”
She seemed to be looking for something in the garden; or looking for a place to put something. Meanwhile I was looking for Billy. I was sure he was seeing Millie behind my back. He was my age, twelve, but still a baby in the way he sulked, inveigled, and pouted, but under my gaze he was under my power. I knew this. It felt good but it didn’t feel nice. I liked that. Sondra knew this about me and thought it scary. I thought she was a bitch. She liked being nice; I liked being feared.
I saw a woman walking in the city.
She walked with purpose,
with a face like intention.
Most other pedestrians were walking in the opposite direction,
against her, but making room, so focused was she,
and faster too; even those in front,
walking her way, swerved as they felt her striding down on their backs,
I saw a youngster walking in the city
who saw the woman too and followed with intention.
Craved such purpose, such instruction, such rights
that if all the youth in the city followed suit
and made their goals her goal, their lives, her life, then
no matter what roots, what seeds, what route,
all would be well and content and precise,
So, there it is. A line in a magazine. A thought. A process. A piece of prose that didn’t work. Another piece of prose that didn’t work but turned into verse that did. A poem.
The opening of “A Portrait …” is one of literature’s most famous:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
He was baby tuckoo.
There are several remarkable things about this opening. Firstly, the title has set up the idea that what you are about to read is going to be an autobiography, of the writer, the Artist, Joyce, about himself as a young man. But this is not what we read, this is not an autobiography in seems, since, if it was, the pronoun would be ‘my’ not ‘his’; so, it is not told by the Artist, the author, it is told by a third-person narrator. Secondly, it is written in the past tense, fine, as expected, but the moment you read the word ‘his’ you know that ‘his’ refers to the Artist, James Joyce. We only use a pronoun when it is clear who ‘his’ refers to and the only name prior to this pronoun is the author’s. It is him. This is confirmed by the line “He was baby tuckoo.” Again the pronoun and still only one name, the same name, the author’s, so, he is not the author. Well, yes, he is the author, we just choose to ignore that: we willingly accept what the author has written in order to enjoy the story. We play along. A few pages on this third person narrator, to confirm his existence, gives baby tuckoo a name, Stephen Dedalus. This is a story about a boy called Stephen Dedalus that we understand is the young James Joyce. Why has Joyce chosen to write his own story narrated by a third person god-like narrator? Because it is a much more useful novelistic tool. Writing in the first-person disallows the writer access to the minds, thoughts, tastes, dreams, wishes, and desires of all the other characters in the story. The first-person “I” can only describe what he feels, sees, tastes, dreams, and desires. The third-person god-like narrator has access to everyone and everything, but more importantly, the past, and the future. Also, the ‘baby’ language is the manifestation of yet another novelistic tool, new for 1914 and used here for the first time; so effective and now so widely used: a device that allows the narrator to adopt vocabulary, vocal mannerisms, colour, and tone of the character’s own speaking voice. In literary terms this is called free indirect discourse, or as critic James Wood likes to say, close writing. This is familiar to us now, (Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels, 2012, for example, and almost any novel written in the last 100 years) but innovative then. Also, usually for his times, early twentieth century and before, in novels of coming of age (Dicken’s David Copperfield, 1849 for one), biographical, or auto-biographical, the narrator wrote from the perspective of adulthood; there was a distance from the narrator to the subject. But here, as Stephen grows on the path to maturity, so does Joyce’s language. In 1916 Joyce’s text was radical. It’s as if Joyce, with this opening, was writing about Stephen at 6 years old when he, the narrator, was 6 years old. The action and tone are far more immediate, compelling, and authentic, and along with the non-judgemental narrator sets the ground-work for modernism which would be experimented with and adopted, not just by Joyce but by his contemporaries as well.
However, we know from this opening that this is going to be a story about a person called Stephen Dedalus (James Joyce) and that we are starting at the time when he was a very young boy and that his father wore spectacles and a beard. The original title of this book was another name, Stephen Hero, but he changed the title and the hero’s name.
In Greek mythology Daedalus was a skilled inventor and architect who built the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete to house the Minator, a monster, half man, half bull. He was also the father of Icarus. After Theseus killed the Minator, with Daedalus’s help, and fled with Ariadne, the king’s daughter, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the labyrinth but they escaped – after all, Daedalus built it – and flew the island by making themselves wings of feathers and wax.
Despite his father’s warning, Icarus, excited by the thrill of flying, flew too close to the sun god Helos as he rode his flaming chariot across the heavens, and the waxed wings melted, and Icarus fell and perished in the sea. Daedalus, after surviving another vengeful plot by Minos, escaped and finally settled in Sardinia where he joined a group led by Iolaus, nephew of Hercules; and as far as we know lived to a ripe old age.
In Romanticism, Icarus came to denote impetuousness, rebellion, and hubris, while Daedalus represented the classic artist, skilled, mature, and successful.
The young Stephen Dedalus is an observer, a listener. Early in the narrative he describes in great conversational detail a heated argument at the family Christmas table; an argument about Parnell, an Anglo-Irish politician, who by shrewd but steadfast political decisions became the figurehead of the Irish nationalistic movement in the nineteenth century; he renounced violent anti-Parliamentary action, but he was a protestant. Colm Tóibín writes that this scene could easily have been refracted around the tables of Irish dinners in the 1970’s and 80’s as family members argued over what was going on in Northern Ireland. And the scene where Stephen is unfairly punished resonated with Irish readers and writers: corporal punishment in Irish Catholic schools continued until the 1980’s. The influence of this book overshadowed generations of Irish long after it was published in 1916.
The young boy is also a thinker:
Was that a sin for Father Arnell to be in a wax or was he allowed to get into a wax when the boys were idle because that made them study better or was he only letting on to be in a wax? It was because he was allowed, because a priest would know what a sin was and would not do it. But if he did it one time by mistake what would he do to go to confession?
He asked the kind of questions Irish Catholic schoolboys have been asking themselves – and no-one else – for decades.
The first chapter ends with Stephan ‘reporting’ to the rector his unjust punishment at the hands of the prefect of studies, Father Dolan. This was a brave thing to do and his classmates hoisted him up, carried him along and shouted “Hurroo!” and threw their caps into the air. A stirring chapter-end of vengeance, courage, just fulfilment, and Joyce’s poetic language, not in a character’s words but from the narrator’s prose.
The fellows were practising long shies and bowling lobs and slow twisters. In the soft gray silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.
Stephan has grown up a lot since moocow and baby tuckoo.
Chapter 2 is a portrait of a disillusioned young man in search of something profound which even he does not know what it is: “He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld.” This “it” became “her” as if they would “make their tryst … in some secret place … and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured … Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall away from him in that magic moment.” This “her” in his mind (his muse?) is mingled with the heroine from Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo, Mercedes, or maybe its Ellen who, after a family bit of singing and dancing, comes with him on the tram where he is aware of her closeness, her wish for him to catch hold of her, “nobody is looking. I could hold her and kiss her” but he did neither and “stared gloomily at the corrugated footboard.”
This, a constant battle between the developing Artist and the developing Young Man.
And when he finally writes something about the tram, and Ellen and the kiss not made he “thought himself into confidence” over “a new pen, a new bottle of ink and a new emerald exercise” and “there remained no trace of the tram itself nor the tram-men nor of the horses” but only “of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon” and the kiss not given became a kiss “given by both.” Finally, the Artist at work; and, so often, his muse, his Art is so confounded with women, with sex. Women “demure and innocent” he sees by day, but by night “her face transfixed by lecherous cunning, her eyes bright with brutish joy” and he is left by morning nothing but a “humiliating sense of transgression.”
At school, he is studious but aware of voices urging him “to be a good gentleman”, “to be a good catholic above all things”, “to be strong and manly and healthy”, “to be true to his country,” “to raise up his father’s fallen state by his labours”, and “to be a decent fellow.” All this bidding by voices all around, “but he was happy only when far from them, beyond their call, alone or in the company of phantasmal comrades.” The battle continues. Even in his own existence. From 1904 he lived with a Dublin chambermaid who had little education nor any understanding of Joyce’s work and felt that he made his life more difficult by writing so strangely. She was vivacious, humerous, loved music, bore him two children, and stuck by him through intense poverty in Zurich and Paris while writing his most famous work, Ulysses. He was a husband and father, a Man, but then inside something else something separate, an Artist.
He is cast in a school play but his part humiliates him, “A remembrance of some of his lines made a sudden flush rise to his painted cheeks” but, surprisingly, the excitement and youth around him “entered into and transformed his moody mistrustfulness.” On stage he was amazed that the play during rehearsals that seemed a “disjointed lifeless thing” had taken on a life of its own and it was a success. He is amazed and confused by this and “his nerves cried out for further adventures” – this is Art and it is Alive! I want more! When he meets his family in the excited crowd outside the theatre he feigns an errand he annoyingly says he has to make and leaves them all before they can say a word. He strides alone through the city, his mind a “tumult of sudden-risen vapours of wounded pride and fallen hope and baffled desire” until he finds himself in a “dark cobbled laneway” where he “breathed slowly the rank heavy air.” Then this …
That is horse piss and rotted straw, he thought. It is a good odour to breathe. It will calm my heart. My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”
Here the close writing of the third-person narrator (“he thought”) in the past tense gets so close that it slips from the past tense into the first-person (“my heart…”) present tense (“… is calm”) – truly radical for literary 1916 – and suddenly Stephen Dedalus is James Joyce. But only for these three short sentences. After the ***** the third-person narrator and the past tense returns.
Stephen was once again seated beside his father …
There is no linking action between Joyce’s scenes; this stream-of-consciousness would be picked up by his peers and by writers even to the present (Marlon James, The Brief History of Seven Killings, 2015). The dialogue is sparse but realistic, but Stephen’s internal thought patterns are poetic and constantly at battle with the world around him. He feels he is alien from his family, “mythical kinship of fosterage” and burdened with a “savage desire … to defile with patience whatever image had attracted his eyes.” Joyce transformed the narrative into isolated scenes, the paragraph into pictures of feeling, and the sentence into impressionistic bits; like the painters were doing to landscape and interiors in studios and fields all over Europe.
But it is in part 3 that Joyce’s major theme, his Christian faith, is described and exalted in a lengthy sermon as his sinful, lustful, self is set against it and painted as on a slippery but vengeful slope to hell and damnation. The Christian parable is given in a naturalistic and almost movie-like narrative; the glory of heaven rent asunder by the treachery and downfall of the once “shining angel’, Lucifer, who is cast from heaven along with his “rebellious angels” into their fiery haven of Hell; and to fill the gap in Heaven left by these fiends, God created Adam and Eve and gave them a wondrous garden to live in; but Lucifer was jealous of these clay-born creatures and tempted them to disobey God and eat the forbidden apple; so the archangel Michael cast them out into the “world of sickness and striving, of cruelty and disappointment, of labour and hardship to earn their bread in the sweat of their brow;” but God is pitiful and promises a redeemer that will take on all the suffering of the fallen people and give them a way to salvation. It’s a heady and powerful text to the developing mind of a teenage boy who sees nothing but poverty and temptation all around.
He came down the aisle of the chapel, his legs shaking and the scalp of his head trembling as though it had been touched by ghostly fingers. He passed up the staircase and into the corridor along the walls of which the overcoats and waterproofs hung like gibbeted malefactors, headless and dripping and shapeless. And at every step he feared he had already died, that his soul had been wrenched forth of the sheath of his body, that he was plunging headlong through space… Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices: Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell!”
Alone in the darkness of his room, curled up on his bed, hands covering his face his fear of Hell becomes manifest with images of reeking dung and weeds and “goatish creatures with human faces … trailing their long tails behind them … soft language issued from their spittleless lips … circling closer and closer to enclose;” and so terrified he springs up, vomits, cries, prays and walks the city streets always conscious and fearful of his blackened and sinful self but fearing more the idea of confession: saying aloud what he has done, the seven deadly sins – he lost his virginity at 14 with a whore – he knows them all; the thought of saying it all to a goodly priest; shame fell on him like ash.
There has never been a more vibrant, terrifying description of a young boy’s idea of hell fostered by effective and horrific mind-altering descriptions from a pulpit, feeding the limited but hungry imaginations of those who listen. The Church knows how to do it.
But he does confess and is absolved of all his sins and the chapter ends with Stephen “sitting by the fire in the kitchen, not daring to speak for happiness” and dreaming of a glorious altar with fragrant masses of white flowers as he awaits among other communicants for the body and blood that will soon be his.
Stephen Dedalus, our 16-year-old hero, is now pious and as blameless as any person can be: his intricate piety and self-restraint – he allocates a rigorous discipline to all his senses – even surprised himself but they failed to eradicate “childish and unworthy imperfections” and he felt the “flood of temptation many times” but always eluded them like jumping back from an incoming wave which threatened to engulf him. His piety and dedication grows until the possibility of a priestly life is offered and his contemplation of it is many faceted in poetic language of the mind and the soul and the landscape and the image of an innocent girl standing island-like in the river shallows of the beach. Her skirts and petticoats are hitched up above the waves and “her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh.” He runs from the idea of her and has to eventually admit that his “inherent sinful nature” makes a religious life impossible.
The fifth and final chapter sees him a university student, living at home and still existing on watery tea and fried bread crusts soaked in yellow dripping. He is not a punctual student and misses more classes, English, French, Physics, than he attends. He, instead, seeks out compatible priests and peers and discusses with them his theories and definitions, based on Aristotle and Aquinas, of truth, art, and beauty. Such dissertations are punctuated by scenes of the everyday streetscape: passing students, argumentative men, noisy vehicles and pretty girls, “holding the umbrellas at cunning angles…their skirts demurely”, who were his only distraction. There is always a connection between women, art and sex: each can dislodge the over but it is always art that has the strongest power but which is the most hidden but aches to be exposed; he aspires to “the highest and most spiritual art,” literature.
The penultimate scene is a long conversation with fellow students culminating in a more intimate discussion with his friend, Cranly, about freedom, art, and escape. Finally, the third person gives way to the first, Dedalas is Joyce, in the form of diary entries from March 20 to April 27 1904 where his mother is putting his second-hand books in order and dreading the inevitable: the loss of her son’s love that enables him to learn his own life “away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels.”
Welcome, O life. I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
But it is his oath and his confession to Cranly, a few pages earlier, that rings the loudest and the most true:
I will no longer serve in that which I do not believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.
And that is what he did.
You can find the free ebook here, along with all his other works published by www.ebooks.adelaide.com a wonderful resource of texts out of copyright established and maintained by the University of Adelaide.
The stories have been written over the last 25 years; the latest, A Marriage of Convenience, was written last month. Inspiration comes from some unlikely sources: a bus ride from Balmain, a conversation in a foyer, something a friend said, and among others, an opening paragraph from a magazine article which I read again and again, after returning from my laptop where I recorded the thought, but darned if I could find what it was among those few printed words that sparked the thought in the first place. Apparently the history of my sparking synapses leaves no footprint; or is that just another sign of my age?
I have not included every story from my collection; a few now seemed trite, uneven, and dull so I left them where they are.
And friends, if you think that I have used you for literary purposes you’re right and if you object, then let’s talk about it.
More often than not, the stories are of the What If? kind. Nothing more needs to be said because I will always steer away from expaining to an inquisative reader what I meant by a story, a line, or an idea for two reasons: usually I don’t remember what I meant in the first place, my synapses being what they are, but more importantly I believe that what the reader thinks it means is what it means.
Sometimes stories tumble out like washing from a dryer; at other times they are few and very far between. I’m in the middle of one now which augers well for volume 2.
I hope you enjoy volume 1 and if you do, and even if you don’t, tell me about it.