Falconer by John Cheever

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American short story writer and novelist (1912 – 1982), the ‘Chekov of the suburbs.’

John  Cheever was not a very nice man; or, to be kinder, a very complicated man. His wife. Mary,  hardly spoke to him – she had good season, he disliked homosexuals but was one himself – one lover, a student, lived with the family for a while; but he also had a short affair with Hope Lange, and he was an alcoholic until 1973; his daughter describing him as a father said, “he was a nightmare”. He was a snob and feared shame; and while terrified of his sexuality he wrote “if I could express myself erotically I would come alive.” He and his wife certainly hurt each other but they didn’t see that as a reason to break up a family. He craved the safety of domestic life but it made him ‘blissfully unhappy’.

In Colm Tóibín’s essay collection New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families (2012) his chapter on Cheever is entitled, New Ways to Make Your Family’s Life  a Misery. That chapter was well-thumbed while writing this post.

He loved fame. If you are a famous musician, you can play something; if you’re a movie star, you can give them an autograph; but if you’re a writer, as Cheever’s son Federico put it, “Well, you get to say pompous things. You get to talk about aesthetics and things like that. That’s the goodies you get.”

“I would like to live in a world,” Cheever wrote, “where there are no homosexuals but I suppose Paradise is thronged with them.”

Before he died he wrote to his son “What I wanted to tell you is that your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters. I thought I’d tell you that, because sooner or later somebody’s going to tell you and I’d just as soon it came from me.” “I don’t mind Daddy, if you don’t mind.” In 1991 the New Yorker and Knopf paid 1.2 million dollars for the rights to publish the journals. Mary Cheever did not read them.

Cheever’s most famous story is The Swimmer (1964): a man ‘swims’ home via all the swimming pools from where he had been lounging beside one, to his. He is well regarded by his neighbours along the way but as he ‘swims’ closer to home the mood gets darker and the context more surreal. Is this really happening? When he gets there his house is empty. It was made into a film in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster. It was unsuccessful, but since has garnered a cult status. It was also the acting debut of comedienne Joan Rivers and the compositional debut of composer Marvin Hamlisch.

*

Many years ago my partner (now husband) and I had a boat: an old wooden cruiser. We took two friends motoring on Broken Bay one weekend and had a meal at Cottage Point Inn. We moored the boat rather grandly right in front of the restaurant; had a wonderful long lunch; too many bottles of wine; and returned to the boat only to find that it wouldn’t start. One of our guests, Julian, a vet, pulled up the floor hatch, climbed into the engine cavity and with a small implement borrowed from a neighbouring boat (far more grand, far more impressive) and a teaspoon from our cutlery drawer, got the engine going. What impressed me most, and has stayed with me all this time, was the feeling of Julian’s self-confidence, ease, and complete understanding of what he was doing. That same feeling returned while reading this book.

Falconer got Cheever on the cover of Newsweek with the title, A Great American Novel in 1977. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for three weeks. Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his next published work, his collected Stories.

Falconer, on the surface is a crime/punishment/redemption story: Ezekiel Farragut, an academic and drug addict kills his brother, although he admits hitting him with a fire iron, he says his brother was drunk and he fell and hit his head on the hearth; he has a “profound”  love affair with a fellow inmate and then escapes, posing as a corpse, and understands he’s a better man.

The third-person narrator self-references once …

but at the time at which I’m writing, leg irons were still used …

This is rare, as if the narrator is a character, Cheever we suspect, but it need not be. If a third-person narrator self-references too much, he becomes a first-person narrator.

His wife, Marcia, visits him in prison

Farragut stepped into this no man’s land and came on hard, as if he had been catapulted into the visit by mere circumstance. ‘Hello darling’ he exclaimed as he had exclaimed ‘Hello darling’ at trains, boats, airports, the foot of the highway, journey’s end; but in the past he would have worked out a timetable, aimed at the soonest possible sexual consummation.

and as they talk,

Out the window he could see some underwear and fatigues hung out to dry. They moved in the breeze as if this movement – like the movements of ants, bees, and geese – had some polar ordination.

The narrator relates Farragut’s anecdotes about his relationship with his wife: their back story …

… he thought that perhaps a bag of fox grapes may do the trick. He was scrupulous about the sexual magic of tools.

He means ‘tools’ in the sense of ‘gifts’, but uses the word ‘tools’; it darkly colours the image with cynicism and says more about Cheever than about Farragut.

Contradictions are scattered through the text like peppercorns in a stew; light and shade, good and bad, right and wrong, innocence and guilt, ‘superficial and fortuitous’, masculine and feminine …

He had been called a bitch by a woman he deeply loved and he had always kept this possibility in mind. 

Most of the text is a stream of consciousness, a re-emerging writing style, as noted in the Booker Prize 2018 winner, Milkman by Anna Burns;  but I’ll leave the last word to Tóibín.

“If you ignore the upbeat, cheesy ending, Falconer is the best Russian novel in the English language.”                                                                                                                         Colm Tóibín.

You can read Joan Didion’s review of Falconer in the New York Times, March 6, 1977, here.

You can buy the Kindle edition here.

 

 

 

 

Take Nothing with You by Patrick Gale

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British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

Having read a few of the 19 volumes written by Gale, A Sweet Obscurity, A Place Called Winter, The Aerodynamics of Pork, Ease, Notes from an Exhibition, A Perfectly Good Man, one thing stands out: he’s very good at self-discovery; by that I mean, his protagonists cope with discovering who they are. In this latest, Take Nothing With You he does it again. This is a coming-of-age story.

Actually it is two stories about the same person: Eustace as a pre-teen discovering his love of the cello and boys, and coping with his parents; and Eustace as a fifty-something coping with thyroid cancer, mortality, and an on-line, but serious, love affair with a British soldier in the Middle East who he’s about to meet face-to-face i.e., kiss, for the first time.

Although told in the third person but from the point of view of Eustace, the narrator is so close to our hero, think of him as an imp sitting on Eustace’s shoulder, knowing, seeing, but not understanding everything – just like a 10 year old. James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker since 2007, calls this ‘close writing’, or if you prefer a more literary moniker, ‘free indirect discourse’. I prefer Wood’s term as it creates the idea that the third-person narrator could very easily slip into the first-person narrator, so close are they. Fellow British novelist Edward St-Aubyn in his quintet, which has become known as The Patrick Melrose Novels (1992-2012), uses such a technique for all of his major characters; it’s like the narrator-imp jumps from shoulder to shoulder using the language and tropes of each individual, depending on which shoulder he sits. In Take Nothing With You (2018, Gale’s 16th novel) this close writing enables Gale to create a narrative of the boy’s parents and their disintegrating marriage, including his mother’s secret, that Eustace is unaware of. This dramatic irony is what makes Eustace’s small-town family life, in Weston-super-Mare, a seaside holiday town in North Somerset, so interesting. We readers know more than he does.

By the way, his mother’s secret (no spoilers here) is never mentioned, but you know it because Gale lets you know it.

As an adult Eustace is more at ease with himself and the world, and although his thyroid cancer and its treatment are troubling, his new, as yet, unconsummated romance gives him hope and joy. The world is no longer a mystery to him, as it was when he was young, and he is sanguine about his future; but he hasn’t told Theo, the soldier, about his cancer as he doesn’t want to sour his only communication with him: their daily Skype calls. In this older Eustace narrative the action takes place mostly in the lead-lined hospital room where he goes for radio-therapy treatment and is advised, because of the radiation, that anything he takes with him has to be disposed of, hence he is told to ‘take nothing with you.’

The narrative never follows Theo which makes him less of a character and more of a metaphor for hope. But its Eustace’s hope and Eustace is who we care about.

For a lonely, quiet, and sensitive boy discovering a passion for the cello is heart-warming. Gale plays and performs on the cello himself and if you are interested in music, or a player of any instrument yourself, these passages are a delight. His passion is palpable and these scenes often blurred my vision.

Gale is allergic to clichés; in fact, I get the impression that he tries to invent clichés and then vows never to use them again. He is also a word-smith and sometimes his word choice takes you by surprise: ‘…heedlessly in love’ is almost a story in itself with a beginning, middle, and end.

Gale’s characters have meat on their bones and ideas in their heads. They are people you love, loath, want to see triumph, or fall on their arse.

Any Gale book is highly recommended.

You can buy the eBook and other editions here.

And here is Patrick Gale talking about Take Nothing With You and the three books that influenced it.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

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Irish Writer, Anne Enright. The Forgotten Waltz was the first book after her Booker prize: it doesn’t disappoint, although she goes on a  bit; but, I suppose you can do whatever you like after a Booker win.

Like The Gathering (2007), Enright establishes her story, this story, as having happened in the past but tells it in the present; or at least that seems to be the case as I finish page 1. I have a thing about page 1.

It is some years ago now. The house is new and this is my sister’s housewarming party …

Many readers I know have an aversion to narratives in the present tense but it gives the impression that the writer is telling you right now about a past event, but by telling it as if it is happening now gives the narrative the immediacy of gossip – and we all like gossip. It gives the reader a sense of it not having been written for you but of it being told to you, and only you, at this moment; even if the prose slips into the past at times.

They have mini-marshmallows on top. She goes to pop one in her mouth, then pulls back in surprise. 

‘Ooh, pink!’ she says.

I don’t know what I was waiting for. 

Not “I didn’t know what I was waiting for” (both verbs in the past) nor “I don’t know what I am waiting for” (both verbs in the present) but the first (do) in the present and the second (was) in the past.

It feels like there are two narratives going on here: the story itself (in the past) and the telling of it (in the present). But this is what I think we all do when we tell someone now about something that happened then, and by using this double-tense Enright is being conversational, conspiratorial, and so making us feel comfortable and special: a real friend. Readers love this.

I don’t think Enright is conscious of this nor does she sit down meticulously studying the verbs and deciding which tense they should be to get the effect she is after. My mentioning it is, however, a serious attempt to describe how a writer gets this conspiratorial, gossipy, tone into their writing. In order to get this particular tone the writer needn’t manipulate it- in fact, shouldn’t manipulate it –  but needs to be thinking in this particular tone so the tone in the head becomes the tone on the page.

Or you may think I’m being a wanker and why don’t I get on with it and just read the bloody thing? OK, I will.

On page one, line one, we are given the nut of it.

I met him in my sister’s garden in Enniskerry.

This is the first person account of a woman, Gina Moynihan, and her sexual obsession for a man, Sean Vallely, who like her, is married to someone else.

Enright writes Gina’s monologue as if she’s explaining, justifying at a crackling pace, to a … a … psychologist. She’s keen, this Gina, to tell us everything, but also to leave us guessing:

We managed to linger after everyone had gone, and the details of what corner we found and what we did; how we managed it, and who put what where, are nobody’s business but our own. 

and, of course, by NOT telling us the details our minds race frantically with all sorts of images of ‘doing it’ and ‘putting what where’ and in ‘whose corner’ and ‘managing it where?’ that we’re all in a lather anyway.

Her prose has a momentum that belies the action. There is action everywhere whereby reading it makes you feel exhausted; there’s a breathless tone to the reading, like a theatrical monologue some aspiring, or reviving, actor does of The Gospel According to Matthew. The Gospel According to Gina; where a simple static description is busy with verbs:

Lines of black posts marched down to the shoreline, small and smaller, overtaken, each in their turn by the shifting sand.” 

There’s ‘marching’ and ‘overtaking’ and ‘shifting’; so much happening, so many doing words, but it’s just the view of a bloody empty beach! The empty beach seems as busy as the sex in the corner.

Gina is self-possessed, or maybe just blind, but she has no thought that just as she has a keen sense of perspicacity other people might have a similar talent. She can see through everyone but she is certain no one can see through her. She thinks her secret is safe. This is the tension.

She’s not very likeable – in fact, I’d be very wary of having her at my lunch table, but you’re flattered that she’s confiding in you so much of what she’s thinking and feeling; it’s all so intimate, that you would have to admit your friendship with her even if only to bolster your own standing. Like admitting to a friendship with a Weinstein simply because he’s famous and he talked to you once.

There was a time when “Prefaces” or “Introductions” were mis-understood and not seen as part of the story – we couldn’t wait to get to Chapter 1, for the story to begin – which I think now has, thank god, changed, but Enright starts the book with a “Preface” that you MUST read as it pre-empts the story: Sean’s little troubled girl, Evie, sees Gina and he kissing and it is seen as the “first official occasion” of their love. Enright has used this devise – a child witnessing something very ‘adult’ – before, in The Gathering, and admits in an interview that after writing this preface scene says to herself,* “Oh God! I’ve done it again.”  But the pivotal scene is the pivotal scene and once it’s there, it must remain.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the book is about an affair; it’s not the affair, nor even its aftermath that interests Enright, what interests her is how Gina sees it, manipulates it, how a woman sees herself, loses herself, against a background of an Ireland where such a thing, not so long ago, would’ve been the end of her; the end of everything for her. It’s hard to think of the Ireland then, and the Ireland now with it’s same-sex marriage legislation, its abortion referendum (May 25, 2018), and it’s out, gay, Prime Minister of Indian parentage.

The affair is exciting, propelling, and with a momentum all of its own, because it isn’t, has nothing to do with, the domestic. The two adulterers – such a loaded term – know little about each other, hardly speak:

“All this. Have you done it before?”

“Well, you know,” he said.

Their affair progresses on “in its Friday pace,” and it’s this that Gina loves. It’s just about fucking every Friday. The ‘falling in love’ bit could ruin it all! But they do; or, at least. she does. The ‘wife’, Sean’s wife, Aileen, isn’t Gina’s nemesis, as one would expect, that role falls to Evie, Sean’s little ‘mistake’ of daughter. She’s enigmatic, chubby, but plain, and not at all healthy, but it’s the daughter that, if any atonement is to be got for Gina and her wild imagination – and all of it could just be that – then it will come via Evie; it’s Evie she also needs to woo.

This is the third Enright I’ve read in a row: an Enright-fest. She has rocketed to the top, well, near the top, of my favourite-writer list: Colm Tóibín still holds my #1 place although Enright, John Boyne, Patrick Gale, and Sebastian Barry are barking at his heels. She says she doesn’t know what she will write next; she’ll find out, I’m sure, and do it. Soon, I hope.

You can purchase the book, in various formats, here.

* The presenter and interviewer are a little boring, fast forward through them to get to the good bits: Enright, herself.

 

 

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

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British writer, Allan Hollinghurst.

A common theme throughout Hollinghurst’s work is how the past can be shaped by the present. The Stranger’s Child (2011) is about a poem written just before WWI but after the poem becomes famous it acts as a microscope on the lives and descendants of the people who were spending that weekend together when the poem was written in a teenage girl’s autograph book. Even his first The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) the past is a crucial element: a young lay-about is asked to write the biography of an ageing aristocrat and in reading the old man’s diaries comes to see the passions, oppressions, and obsessions of an earlier gay life refracted in his own; and, here too in The Sparsholt Affair, a sexual dalliance at Oxford during WW2 , is re-remembered when a lost memoir is discovered shortly after the author’s death. Whatever is happening, or improved, about the present it’s all because of what happened before.

Hollinghurst studied English Literature at Oxford in the 1970’s but concentrated his interests on writers whose homosexuality, though never expressed or admitted to publicly, permeated their work:  E.M. Forster, Philip Firbank, and L.P. Hartly. He is reported as saying that “I was fortunate to come along just as gay-lit was coming into its own” but it was actually his first, The Swimming-Pool Library, that let the way – particularly in literary fiction – in my memory. And that’s the point. Memory is such a slippery thing. Someone once said, “it’s like an oven; you put something in, wait a bit, open the door and there it is: something else.” Yes, there is an affair in The Sparsholt Affair (“Money, power … gay shenanigans! It had everything”) – in fact there are many Sparsholt affairs – but how much people remember about it is what interests Hollinghurst.

“If you think about the Poulson scandal in the early 1970s [a property and corruption case that resulted in the resignation of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling] … the Profumo affair people remember a bit better, but actually, if we tested each other on it now, we’d probably be a bit rocky, and that was a very, very prominent scandal.”

David Sparsholt arrives in Oxford in 1940 and all eyes, from a room across the quad, are on him as he, in a sweaty singlet, lifts weights in what he thinks is the privacy of his own room. The assemblage, mainly gay, some gay-ish, young men, plot and scheme to get Sparsholt’s attention; all to varying degrees, although one in particular succeeds spectacularly. So ends Part 1: The New Man.

In each successive Part – there are five in all – Hollinghurst jumps decades ahead to the Sparsholt family, friends, some from that Oxford group, now ageing, some new, some older, successful, some dying, to Part 5 which concentrates on David’s son, Johnny Sparsholt, a painter, now in his 60’s whose long-time partner Patrick has just died. Here at the end of the book a regular Hollinghurst theme emerges: how gay life of today is so much different from gay life then, when it was illegal, tragic, rife, but clandestine; and Hollinghurst gives us the most vivid and delicious description of gay clubbing, leisure drug-taking, sex for the moment – during which the past emerges, yet again. Permeating all five parts is the affair from Part 1, or it is the real Sparsholt Affair, the one that made the papers, and shocked the socks off everyone?

“What would two long-ago lovers be likely to feel, one of them twice married, the other losing his memory.”

Curiously, or not, for some, the central character, David Sparsholt is rarely in the spot light; he is relegated to the edges of the story, to the shadows of people’s memory and belief – even his son is a little vague about what his father is like;  but it’s the idea of him and what he did, or did not do, that is at the centre, and what was remembered about him, it.

What has always interested me about novels is not so much what happens but how each is told. Apart from Part 1, which is a first-person memoir, Hollinghurst employs a narrator that entirely operates through what his characters sense. They are all experts at defining and opinionising the thoughts, desires, and threats that flit and tumble over the faces of everyone else in the room. His language is Jamsean and sometimes you relish reading a sentence again just for the pleasure of it. He is interested in the tone, the flavour of things, be it the atmosphere in a bar, of a welcome, in the furnishings of a home, a decision, a sigh; and at times you are impressed by his descriptive accuracy:  “the gay voice that survives through generations, the illusionless adenoidal whine and drag …”

Hollinghurst is a stylist because he has a style, and one feature of this style is his phrases of opposites. It’s his logo, his leitmotif. They pepper all his work.

     ” … seemed to know and not to know …”

     “ … passed from shadow to shadow in doubt and then brief solidarity.”

     “ … he was smilingly both enemy and friend” which, of course is true of any auctioneer

     “ … more present and also more covetably remote…”

     ” … his relief that he wouldn’t be alone with Francesca was mixed with the relief that he wouldn’t be alone with Ivan… “

     “…he might be about to cry, or was just possibly stifling a laugh.”

     “It was as touching as it was annoying.”

     “ … magic as routine …”

It says something about the human condition – always to the fore in a Hollinghurst book – that these opposites are surprisingly apposite.

This is a book I will read again and unlike music which we listen to again because of what we remember, we re-read books because of what we forget, and not just the incidents but the pleasure of re-finding the joy in the details, the words, the phrases, the descriptions.

My only complaint with this book is the editing, or the lack of it, which, sadly, is what we have come to expect these days. I’m pleased that I’m not overtly annoyed by comma splices, of which there are many, but the sloppy use of pronouns especially in scenes with many characters of the same sex make re-reading for clarity an annoying necessity. There is even a sentence on page 181 that makes no sense at all but is due to, I suspect, a cut and paste not being checked for coherence.

Hollinghurst was born in a market town near Oxford in 1954; the only child of a bank manager, he had a happy childhood and especially remembers being flooded with relief, when his father said: “Awfully sorry, old chap, but you’re not going to have any brothers or sisters.” He didn’t mind at all and rather enjoyed playing Hide-&-Seek by himself: “It can’t be hide and seek if no one’s coming to look for you, darling,” his mother told him. “It’s just Hide.” He had a safe and uneventful childhood and eventually studied at Oxford and after gaining a BA and a MLitt lectured for a while at his alma mater, Magdalen College, and several other tertiary piles before landing a job in 1982 at The Times Literary Supplement and becoming its assistant editor from 1985 – 1990.  He spectacularly burst onto the literary scene with The Swimming-Pool Library which put well-adjusted and happy gay lives firmly into the literary landscape. I remember seeing the book, in hard-cover, large and impressive, being handled and protected carefully in the arms of an Anglophile friend of mine, a mauve sweater draped around his shoulders and a sleeve caught in its pages, like a bookmark. I knew very little about it except its gay theme, but what struck me that day was that it exuded importance. He won the Man-Booker Prize in 2004 for his 4th novel The Line of Beauty.

The Booker, once the sought-after pinnacle of literary fiction in English, has been tarnished somewhat by the inclusion, some say, in 2014, of work by American writers; two of them having won the 2016 and 2017 prizes, Paul Beatty for The Sellout and George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo, respectively. In February this year 30 publishing heavyweights wrote to the Man-Booker Foundation asking that the 2014 decision be reversed. The reason for the dispute seems to be to avoid “an homogenised literary future;” or, it could be because a Brit hasn’t won it since 2012. The Foundation responded with “The Man Booker prize expanded in 2014 to allow writers of any nationality, regardless of geography, to enter the prize providing that they are writing in English and published in the UK. The rule was not created specifically to include American writers.” The 2018 prize, its 50th, will announce the long list in July.

You can buy this book in Kindle, hardback, or paperback editions, here.

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

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Irish writer, Sebastian Barry.

Some years ago at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival I was intrigued and entertained by a British writer called Jill Dawson who had the audience at her session in the palm of her hand, so I checked out one of her volumes in the festival bookshop. I place a lot of importance and insight into a book by its first page. It wasn’t long, still on page one, that I heard a faint gasp from my own mouth and a thunk as I put the book back immediately. Both actions were involuntary. I was alarmed; not by the content but by my reaction to the content: she was writing in the first person as a man. I was not aware that I held this prejudice. Since then I have tried several times to write as a woman; I mean, in a first person (and third person) female voice with mixed success. So, when it was clear that Barry’s first person narrator was a woman I did not act as before but thought it was time I faced my prejudice, although weakened since by my own efforts, and continued reading.

The narrative is, in fact, in two voices: one the old woman, Roseanne Clear, the dominant voice, and the other, Dr Grene, the psychiatrist who tends to her at the Roscommon mental hospital, St Malarky’s, where Roseanne has been living for as long as anyone can remember. Roseanne Clear is very old, maybe even a hundred.

I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in my niche like a songless robin – no, like a mouse that died under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids.

She writes out her life on “unwanted paper” and stashes it under a loose floorboard; not unusual as the building is falling apart. Barry gives her language that is poetic, articulate, melancholy, and wise but seemingly uneducated at times: “no more”, although this could be her Irish-ness peeking through. Yet she is in a mental hospital. This is usually a theatrical device, a character being one thing to the other characters, and someone else to the audience; a form of dramatic irony.  This is reinforced by conversations she has with Dr Grene where she gives simple answers or sometimes no answer at all, while telling the reader her reasons.

Her aim is to try and remember why she is where she is and whether memory, about a husband, then a non-husband, abandonment, expulsion, and a child, has any relation to reality. Is memory trustworthy?

Her story is one of Ireland: beginning with political unrest and genteel poverty as the daughter of a Presbyterian gravedigger in Sligo, western Ireland in the 1940s. Almost half of the book is devoted to her memory of her childhood with a father she adored, and you will too – even when be is reduced to work as a rat-catcher –  but with a mother who is as distant and silent as a housemaid, which she resembles. Dr Grene has a similar wife, blank, distracted, lonely and you wonder at times whose memory is the more reliable.

The themes here are literary-Irish through and through: the slap-dash care, easy-bitterness, and bloody-mindedness of family; the down-right intractability of a mean-spirited Church hiding behind the skirts of a dour and silent god; secrets of paternity; the hyper-critical branding based on any sexuality that isn’t church-condoned, but done in the dark, and never mentioned; and the dis-empowerment, subordination, and denigration of women.  It’s a very long way from the Ireland of today with its diminished religiosity, liberalism, and political leadership by an openly gay young man whose paternity is from India. However, as long as there are Irish writers who were damaged, but survived, their Irish past, as holocaust survivors survived theirs, there will be books like this.

The writing is luscious, and sometimes you need to re-read aloud a line, a paragraph, just to wallow in the words, to delight in the feel of them in your mouth; and since we read for pleasure – like we listen to music – there’s no need to engage the memory, this is a book for reading again.

The Secret Scripture was short-listed for the Man-Booker, won the Jame Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Costa Award in 2008; which Barry won again in 2016 for Days Without End.

You can find the book in various formats, including audio book and audio CD, here.

The film version, directed and co-written by Jim Sheridan with Johnny Ferguson, was made in 2016 starring Rooney Mara (the love interest to Cate Blanchett’s title-character in Carol, from 2015) as young Rose, Vanessa Redgrave as old Rose, and Eric Bana as Dr Grene; it was released in the USA in October.  It will be in cinemas in Australia from December 7, 2017.

 

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

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Irish writer, John Boyne.

Many years ago, on a small plane trip – the plane was small, not the trip –  as we were about to land in a provincial Queensland town, I continued to assiduously read my book. I was laughing so much, trying not to, but not succeeding, that my eyes were streaming, my nose running, and my face felt hot and red; the flight attendant broke the rules, unbuckled, and hurried to my seat to ask if I needed medical assistance. I just held up the book; I was unable to speak. She understood. Maybe she’d read it too. It was the hit of the season. The hysterical section was the Nativity Scene from A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. The next time I laughed out loud, many decades later (yes, decades), was with this book, and the (highly illegal) Dinner Party Scene, from early on in The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. Ironically Boyne has dedicated this book to Irving.

Making people laugh via the written word, and only the written word, is an extremely difficult and hazardous task. You can’t under play it or over sell it, and you certainly can’t ‘back-explain’ it; it’s all to do with tone, and tone is like a law of physics: it only happens when the universal conditions are absolutely right. It’s as if you need to foster a certain psychological state of mind, and write the episode with as much truthfulness and sincerity as you possibly can – don’t elaborate – just tell it, and if the tone is right, it will be hysterical. If it isn’t you can’t go back and make it right, edit it funny, you have to delete it all and start again. A plane will only fly if all the necessary preparations and current circumstances, weather, wind, mechanical health, operational skill, and power source, are perfect.

The dinner party – and it’s impossible to explain why it’s illegal, you’ll just have to read it to find out – is on page 92, but the preparation for it, and the other laugh-out-loud bits, preparation for the tone, I mean, in true Irving-esque fashion, begins right from the first killer sentence; and by the way, the opening sentence of Owen Meany has to be the killer-opening-sentence in all literature. There was a time when I knew it by heart and it became my dinner-party piece for some time after. I can’t sing, tell a joke, or play the piano, you see.

Boyne considers Irving a mentor, and Irving should be chest-thumpingly proud.

It’s impossible for Boyne to escape the moniker of “author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” which he understands only too well, and he’s certain it will appear on his grave stone, so internationally popular was the book and film; but it changed his life making writing full time not only a possibility but a happy necessity.

Boyne was born in 1972. Ireland brought him up but the Church brought him down. He still suffers from its cruelty and hypocrisy. He’s not alone. His anger is present in this book but, much to his credit, he’s fashioned it into a cutting humour without lessening the truth of his understandable hatred.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies explains the life of Cyril Avery, although not a real Avery, from his pre-birth to two months before his death; from 1945 to 2015; and it is also the story of Ireland over that time; from a society dominated, straightjacketed, and suffocated by the Catholic Church, under the guise of strengthening morality, to one that legalises same-sex marriage. It’s a hell of a journey.

It’s full of surprising events, fashion, villains, extremely bad behaviour, political unrest, beauty, deception, selfishness, redemption, tears – yours as well as the character’s, death, forgiveness, love, birth in the midst of murder, politicians behaving badly, coincidences, literature, weddings, doctors behaving courageously, dreams – both fulfilled and dashed, sentiment, laughter, bigotry, violence, and even the ludicrous; in fact the entire palette that paints our lives that all conspires to prove that age-old adage, nobody’s perfect. And all these elements are wound around a cast of characters you won’t easily forget, and nor would you want to.

Boyne skillfuly uses many literary devices to tantalise and seduce his readers: he drops in an outcome before explaining how it happened; he triggers the reader’s memory before the character’s; and, best of the lot, dramatic irony: when the reader knows more that the characters do.

I love this book and I’ve recommended it to others, who too have loved it. I’m preparing a space on my bookshelf, between Jane Bowles and Peter Carey. You can get the book, in various formats, here.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry pic
Irish writer, Sebastian Barry.

The first thing you know about this work is the person, the narrator. Thomas McNulty is seventeen and has escaped the Irish famine to find himself in the wilds of the American west, not for fame and fortune, just a life. Barry has been mining the lives of the McNulty family for inspiration for many of his works, plays and novels; but what stands out in this book is Barry’s close writing: sometimes more academically called free indirect discourse, the use of language that the character might use when speaking; and he is speaking, speaking directly to the reader in the first person. The words – like ‘knowed’ instead of knew, ‘drear’ instead of dreary, ‘swole’ instead of swollen; the punctuation – nothing fancier than a comma or full stop; and the grammar – double negatives and wrong articles, all help to paint a picture of this boy. Uneducated, naïve, but smart, observant and handsome; no, not handsome, young Thomas is pretty. It is John Cole who is handsome, ‘handsome John Cole’ he is called. They meet in the wilds of Missouri, Thomas seeks shelter from a rain-storm in a hedge and there he is, handsome John Cole.

Their relationship is tender, romantic, sexual, and strong and is at the core of the book. There is hardly any descriptive detail about this partnership, no pink-rosed romance or comfortable sex; it’s just like the scenery, the killing, the survival, it’s just there.

And there is a lot of killing. The two boys get enlisted into the army and take part in the Indian Wars and then the Civil War. There is murder, mayhem, scalpings, scrotums removed to be dried out for bakky pouches, vaginas pinned on hats, children hacked, heads blown off Confederate soldiers not men yet; and all described with the plane observation and simple descriptive language gleaned from Thomas McNulty’s short little life, like he describes the glorious sunsets and the mountains ‘as black as burnt bread’ in the lands that don’t have names yet.

When the boys aren’t killing Indians or gray-boys they are play-acting to earn a dollar. First in a prairie hotel, they don frilly dresses and dance with the miners to offer a bit of pseudo-female company. No hanky-panky mind, just dancin’ and polite conversation including drunken but demure marriage proposals that are gently refused; and later in a grown-up theatre where Thomas sings romantic ballads in makeup and a dress to make grown men cry. Eventually Thomas and John and their adopted ‘daughter’ Winona, an Indian child saved from a bullet by Thomas’s quick thinking, settle down in post-war Tennessee growing tobacco. However, Thomas’s past deeds catch up with him and a happy ending is in doubt. No spoilers here.

But it’s Barry’s writing that is the star. You feel the need to re-read sentences and passages, the joy and innocence of them is captivating. Here is his description of the Major’s new wife:

There’s something sleek about her, like a trout moving through water. Her hair is glossy as pine-needles, pitch black, and she wears a diamond-spangled net over it, like she was ready for business. She carries one of those new Colt guns in her belt. She’s better armed than we are. Guess we think Mrs Neale is top-notch alright. It warms my heart to see how much she is kind to the major. They link arms about the place and she talks like a geyser. Every little thing she says has grammar in it, she sounds like a bishop.

The book is dedicated to his son, Toby:

Years ago, when he was 16 and I was doing the reading for this book, Toby was very unhappy, and when a young man is unhappy we must take note. I was desperately trying to find out what was wrong, but you can’t ask him directly. You have to be a sleuth, a kind of Sherlock Holmes of his unhappiness … Then one morning he came into our bedroom and said, ‘The thing is Dad, I’m gay.’ I can’t describe to you the immense sense of relief and freedom in the very speaking of the words. His unhappiness fell away, my unhappiness fell away, and from that moment on we entered into this extraordinary period where he was instructing me in the magic of gay life … I was very impressed by the subtlety, the delicacy and the intricacy of the love between Toby and his boyfriend. People talk about tolerance, but it’s not really about tolerance. It should also be about emulation and reverence and learning from.”

Barry won the Costa Award, for an unprecedented second time, with Days Without End; it is also long-listed for the current Man-Booker Prize. The winner will be announced in October.

This is an unsentimental work full of violence but anchored by deep love and commitment that is all the more powerful for its simple existence and unwavering certainty.

You can purchase the book in various formats here.

Don’t be Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf, 1902

Virginia Woolf, 1902

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 Mendax, 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” Mendex, 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 as Virginia.

The Dreadnought hoaxers. Virginia Woolf far left. 1910

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 last, 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, The Hours, 2002

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

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 Virginnia Woolf photographed by Vita Sackville-West, 1926

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 KissesLove 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.

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

 

 

Virginia Woolf, 1927, aged 45, the year To the Lighthouse was published. 

 

 

The Aspern Papers by Henry James

henry-james-at-his-desk-1900
Henry James at his desk, 1900. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times.

 

 

On a summer’s night in Venice, 1894, the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, grand-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, author of the first American blockbuster novel, The Last of the Mohicans, fell – or jumped – from the third storey window of her elegant apartment to her death on the ancient pavement below. She is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome and there is a memorial to her on the island of Mackinac in Michigan, USA, in the vicinity of her birth. She was a writer of poetry and novels of recurring subjects, “that of the female artist —who writes with such undeniable force that even the most successful, if supercilious, man, editing her work, can’t subdue it sufficiently for publication”; and stories which includeMiss Grief, The Street of the Hyacinth, and At the Chateau of Corinne—in which young female writers and artists appeal to chilly older men to evaluate their work… fantasies of judgment and rejection.” One older man, chillier than most, was a friend of Woolson’s, the American expatriate writer, Henry James: a man she had sought to meet and know in the mid 1880s and who eventually returned her friendship – he called her ‘Fenimore’ – but not quite returned in full measure. Woolson respected him, admired him, and some say, was in love with him, and thought his work was far superior to hers.

In 1886 the magazine The Atlantic, commissioned a piece from the more famous James about Woolson, who was a far more successful writer and whose work had graced the pages of the magazine on numerous occasions. James’ motives are unclear but he seemed to shroud his true feelings for her work under layers of polite and tactful criticism.

“She is interested in general in secret histories, in the ‘inner life’ of the weak, the superfluous, the disappointed, the bereaved, the unmarried. She believes in personal renunciation, in its frequency as well as its beauty.”

And then in his 1888 volume, Partial Portraits, he presented a revised version of this article where he said, rather pompously, that her fiction was “characteristic of the feminine, as opposed to the masculine hand.”

constance-fenimore-woolson-pic
Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 -1894)

He was devastated by her death, some say, because he felt so guilty at not returning her affection as she would have liked, believing that she didn’t fall, but jumped.

In 2004 two novels based on Henry James emerged, Colm Toibin’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author Author. Both fictionalize his life around the turn of the century and focus on his disastrous attempt to conquer the London stage with a play, Guy Domville, in 1895. In relation to Woolson’s death, Toibin recounts the rather pathetic, but telling, almost comic scene where a guilt-ridden James, given the task of cleaning out Woolson’s apartment following her death, tries late at night to ‘drown’ a horde of the woman’s dresses in a Venetian canal; but they do not submit. He attempts to assist them by pocking them with an oar to get them to sink, but they keep bobbing to the surface, sleeves, and petticoats bouncing up full of life despite his growing frustration, horror at his almost murderous antics, and protestations of the fearful gondoliere.

There has been much written about Henry James, his attitude, dealings with, and writings about women, as well as his sexuality. Some say he was asexual; some say he was bisexual; but most agree that he was a closeted homosexual and died a virgin. Sexual conduct and relationships do not exist in his work.

“I don’t think Henry James ever knew how ordinary people behave. His characters have neither bowels nor sexual organs. He wrote a number of stories about men of letters, and it is told that when someone protested that literary men were not like that, he retorted, “So much the worse for them. Presumably, he did not look upon himself as a realist.”

From W. Somerset Maugham, Points of View (1958)

“His work is incomplete as his experience was.” T.S. Elliot

“Making love” to Henry James was all about talking to women, being kind to them, taking them for coffee, and, mainly, feigning interest in what they had to say. However, there was an incident in his youth that could account, not only for his own lack of sexual behaviour, but also for that same lack in his created characters.

In 1861, James was 18 and was enlisted as a volunteer fireman. While trying to extinguish a blaze, he suffered an injury. He writes about this in his 1914 memoir, Notes on A Son and Brother, when he was

“jammed into the acute angle between two high fences, where the rhythmic play of my arms, in tune with that of several other pairs, but at a dire disadvantage of positions, induced a rural, a rusty, a quasi-extemporised old engine to work and saving the stream to flow, I had done myself a horrid even if obscure hurt.”

In true Jamesian fashion he doesn’t say exactly what happened but Michael Wood in his essay “The Mystery of Henry James’ Bicycle” proposes a theory.

“What, after all is the most odious, horrid, intimate, thing that can happen to a man?  However much different men might have different answers, in the case of Henry James critics tended to see a relationship between the accident and his celibacy, his apparent avoidance of involvements with women and the absence of overt sexuality in his work.  Thus there emerged a ‘theory’ – promptly converted into a rumor – that the novelist suffered a hurt, during those ‘odious twenty minutes’ which amounted to castration”

or at least genital injury.

So, now onto the point of the above in this review, of James’ Venetian novella of 1888, The Aspern Papers.  The connections will soon become obvious.

The unnamed first person narrator is a bit of a cad. He is a writer who, along with his publisher, are desperate to get their hands on the papers of the late, and extremely famous, American poet Jeffrey Aspern. These papers, letters, etc are rumoured to be in the care of an aging spinster living in Venice with her middle-aged niece, Miss. Tita. Juliana Bordereau was the young lover of the poet when he came to sit as a model for her father’s art classes. The narrator – easy to assume and delicious to think that he is James – plans a strategy with a Venetian friend, Mrs. Prest to get the papers at whatever cost, even if that means ‘making love’ to the niece.

“Ah,” cried Mrs. Prest, “wait till you see her!”

Having read several of his long and short fiction I was struck by his novelistic skill here to illicit tension, suspense, interest, and to be intriguingly clear (So he can do it!). James’ prose is usually circumlocutory and occasionally frustrating, causing the reader to shout, “Oh, p-lease! Get on with it!” or as Alan Bennett has Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II say in The Uncommon Reader (2007)

“Am I alone,’ she confides in her notebook, ‘in wanting to give Henry James a good talking-to?”

The narrator does indeed ‘make love’ to the niece, Miss. Tita – called Tina is some later editions: he talks to her, brings her flowers, takes her for coffee, and tries to listen intently to what she has to say. He confesses his motive for being there, and his real name – but curiously not to the reader – and she offers him help. The lodger’s sinister ulterior motive, and that he speaks to the reader, confides in the reader, and surreptitiously elicits the reader’s sympathy is deftly handled by James; the tension is maintained and the reader gets a curious thrill from being on the side of a cad – or ‘bounder’ as the English of the time might say –  no matter how much self-deluded justification he indulges in: also well handled. He not only fails (Spoiler alert! Sorry!) – he is caught rifling through the old lady’s drawers and flees in shame – but his wooing of Miss. Tita produces results: the woman proposes to him although in a rather Jamesian unspecified manner; giving him another reason for him to flee but for very different reasons.

He wanders remorsefully around Venice with his gondoliere; lies distraught on the beach on the Lido, and then wanders the streets finally finding himself staring up at the magnificent equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni beside the Scuola Grande di San Marco in the Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo, by the Florentine sculptor and painter, Andrea del Verrocchio, a teacher of Leonardo da Vinci. It was his last commission and erected in fulfillment of a request made by the condotierro before his death in 1475.

James was a scholar of Venetian art and history and certainly would’ve known about this famous mercenary soldier and captain-general who defended Venice from neighbouring city-states for over four decades. He also would’ve known about the particular and famous physical attributes of this successful Venetian hero: he was a polyorchid; he had an asymptomatic rare congenital disorder called polyorchidism, or more specifically in his case, triorchidism: he had three testicles. And there on the Colleoni coat of arms emblazoned on the massive pedestal is proof of the fact:

colleoni-statue                                                          coleoni-coat-of-arms

“I found myself staring at the triumphant captain as if he had an oracle on his lips. The western light shines into all his grimness at that hour and makes it wonderfully personal.”

“… it is, indeed, the whole reason for his having chosen this particular landmark as the venue for his narrator’s crisis of confidence. If the statue could speak, his message to the narrator would be: “Sorry, old chap – you just don’t have the balls.”

 Elizabeth Lowry

The narrator finds the courage to visit Miss. Tita again only to find her seemingly physically and emotionally changed. They part coolly never to see each other again. He sends her a letter to say that he has sold the little portrait of Aspern she gave him, along with as much money as he could gather; of course, he hadn’t sold it but kept it hanging above his writing table, not to remind him of Miss. Tita, but

“When I look at it my chagrin at the loss of the letters becomes almost intolerable.”

-oOo-

If you have ever thought you might like to read Henry James but have never tried; or you have, and found him impervious, try this one. You can find the free e-book here.

You can also find a selection of works by Constance Fenimore Woolson, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse

frank-moorhouse-pic
The Australian writer Frank Moorhouse

Here’s a little anecdote …

Frank Moorhouse and his girlfriend were lying naked in their back garden drinking wine and soaking up sunshine when the writer threw aside the book he’d been reading and exclaimed: ‘My God. Oh my God. Copyright is the key to all understanding. If you understand copyright theory, you understand the whole way the world works. It’s all there.’ 

It’s just a vignette. But in its composition and tone, it’s also a story which takes us to the heart of Moorhouse and his work. There’s the eye for sensual detail. The juxtaposition of the intimate and the abstract. The continuum between the big picture and the everyday. The intellectual energy at play amidst other pleasures. And, of course, there’s the delicious irony of a man lying next to his naked lover, inflamed with passion by legal prose.

         ‘Our man at cultural studies cliff face’, by Professor Catharine (2004): in Gleeson, Lumby and Bennett: Frank Moorhouse: a celebration, Canberra: National Library of Australia.

Nowhere is the above more illustrative than in this following scene, from page 198 of Grand Days (Volume 1 of The Edith Trilogy, The Vintage edition, 2011).

The Australian protagonist, Edith Campbell Berry, an administrative assistant with the League of Nations in 1920s Geneva, is in Paris with friends at a jazz club. She is enthralled by the music, especially scat singing which she perceives as a new kind of language with staggering potential; she’s a little drunk. She is also fascinated with one of the black musicians, Jerome in a bowler hat, who comes, invited, to the table and explains about scat singing. A little time later, on her way back from the Lady’s, Edith stumbles across the musician’s room and enters, discovering Jerome, alone. She offers him her hand which he takes and guides her onto his knee. Then this sentence…

Time and movement then become slippery, as she gracefully slid, seeing for the first time his caramel and cream shoes and without thinking too much at all about things, it seemed his warm dark hands were on her exposed and very alive breasts, which she felt she had delivered up to him; all seemed to happen in flowing fixed steps, something like a waltz, except they were not moving from where they were adhered together in this strange way, and without any guidance at all and in no time at all, and with no impediment, with no thought at all, warm, fleshy and flowing, it was finishing, and she took her lips, tongue, and gentle teeth away, opened her eyes and looked across the room to an open instrument case.

Here the mundane, ‘cream and caramel shoes’, ‘no thought at all’, and ‘an open instrument case’, juxtaposed with the sensual, ‘dark hands’, ‘breasts’, and ‘lips, tongue, and gentle teeth’ create something perversely human; although once the penny drops and you realise what she has just done the sensual flavours the mundane and ‘an open instrument case’ takes on a brand-new meaning entirely.

That quote is an apt example of free indirect discourse which has become the characteristic of literary modernism ever since Joyce knowingly used it, and understood it as a style, in his 1916 autobiographical work, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are also examples of it in the works of Goethe and Jane Austin but it was Joyce who used it in such an obvious and effective way, as a literary tool, that it was subsequently taken up and experimented with by his contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse, 1927), and now it is so widely used that it’s hardly noticeable anymore. Free indirect discourse, or experienced speech, or, as The New Yorker literary critic and academic, James Woods, calls it, close writing, allows the author two very useful authorial tools. Firstly, it gives the writer freedom to flit from character to character to give their different view of the scene, character, action, etc. A vivid modern example of this is Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose novels (2012) where St Aubyn describes the (autobiographical) sexual abuse of his 4-year-old protagonist by his father from the boy’s and the man’s point of view. It’s as if the unnamed, god-like, all-knowing, third-person narrator flits from the mind of one character to the mind of the other. Secondly it allows the writer to use the language and tone of the character, the times, and circumstance to colour the narrative prose itself. Joyce’s opening to “A Portrait …” uses baby language – moocow, little tuckoo – not as dialogue for his baby protagonist, Stephen, but in the prose itself making it very clear, and without the necessity of saying it, that the boy is very young. By the end of the first chapter the narrative language is that of an intelligent, sensitive, and inquisitive school-boy which is what Stephen is at that time in the story.

If you read the Moorhouse sentence again – go on! Re-read it! – remembering that Edith is quite drunk, it is in language and tone (defensive) that she might have used if she was asked to explain what happened; the narrator’s prose is using the language of the circumstance, the situation, and the character.

Pre-Joyce, this rarely happened: the unnamed, god-like, all-knowing, third-person narrator was usually sage-like, mature, and distanced in time and character from the people and all the elements of the story. Dickens is a solid example of this.

Edith Campbell Berry is a sophisticated and complex creation, which was an entirely intuitive process, says Moorhouse, and her genesis began with his mother. Moorhouse has always been interested in social and personal politics, citing the liberation movements, both social and sexual, of the 60s and early 70s as having a transformative effect on him; and literary works such as James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) he found enlightening and greatly affected his understanding of his own sexuality. Edith is aware of her multiple histories, ambiguities, desires and even chaos in her personal life which is separate and guarded from her professional life which she is immensely proud and protective of. She is an idealist and believes “the League had the task of making the manners of the world.” Her personal life in Geneva is founded on her early meeting, on the train from Paris to Geneva as she travelled to take up her post, of Ambrose Westwood, a British diplomat who too works for the League and, with Edith’s knowledge and support, investigates his own predilections for cross-dressing – she loans him her best evening gown forcing her to wear her second-best on their first tryst to The Molly Club – and homosexuality, while remaining Edith’s lover and confidant. Moorhouse admits there is some of him in the character of Ambrose Westwood. Her exploration of her own desires is stimulated by his, but she is constantly aware of, and ruminates at length, on her perceived reputation at the League (Is she a ‘vamp’?) finding it imperative that both her personal and professional lives are kept separate, and rightly so: a consistent theme in Moorhouse’s work. However, while making little effort to curtail her exploits with Ambrose into the secret and steamier side of Geneva’s social life, she is in constant threat of being exposed. This tension propels the narrative where both fictional and real characters and events are mingled to create a fascinating picture of the personal, the political, and the professional in the early years of the League of Nations.

At every turn, Moorhouse suggests, the answer to the question of how to live lies in learning to live with ambiguity and resisting the impulse to bury the contradictions of being human behind reductive, authoritarian codes.

It’s a fascinating read and once you get to know Edith Campbell Berry you are even pleased with the novel’s length – it’s big – as are the two to follow – because you just want more of her, as do many of the characters in the books.

Dark Palace is next, followed by Cold Light. A lot to look forward to.

The ebook edition of Grand Days is available here through ibooks for $US10.99.