Tag Archives: e m forster

Life is Poetry

Life, lived on the same plane as poetry and as music, is my distinctive desire and standard. It is the failure to accomplish this which makes me discontented with myself (3).
– 
Lady Ottoline, quoted in Lady Ottoline’s Album.

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

As I read Selected Letters of André Gide and Dorothy Bussy the name of Lady Ottoline came up with some frequency. By an odd coincidence I happen to have the book, Lady Ottoline’s Album, in my possession (with a postcard of the portrait of Ottoline by Dorothy’s husband, Simon Bussy, laid in). Last year when I worked as a companion to elderly (mostly) women, I had a client who delighted in knowing and discussing what I was reading, which delighted me, naturally. More often than not she had a personal connection: Isak Dinesen? “My husband had lunch with her, she was like a bird! All she ate was fruit and champagne!” I loved that- to quote my youngest son, that’s  “my always dream!” But I digress.

When it was time for me to move on, she told me to take whatever books of hers I wanted to “start my library.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was  in the process of a massive book downsizing to make my move manageable, not to mention the fact that I am actually a full fledged book-accumulating adult, but when one is 104, I guess I would seem a mere girl starting out in life….Anyway, at the very least, on sentimental grounds, I couldn’t resist. And of course, I cherish them now, as they recall her to my mind.

One of the books I choose was Lady Ottoline’s Album, but I had not yet read it. André Gide and Dorothy Bussy had reminded me, but it wasn’t until yesterday, whilst in the midst of a quasi-quarterly cleaning and reorganization spasm that I came upon it.

André Gide

André Gide

It had not, until this moment, occurred to me that Ottoline was a woman who would allow me to make love to her, but gradually, as the evening progressed, the desire to make love to her became more and more insistent. At last it conquered, and I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling (38) Bertrand Russell, quoted.

Lady Ottoline seems to have been the type of woman who had an exquisite understanding of the excellence of social interactions- conversation, humor, passion, intellect – the poetry of life. Pursuing the myriad photographs in the book one can’t help being fascinated by her face -her countenance is strangely appealing- she should be unattractive, and yet, she is, in fact, quite strikingly beautiful.

The list of guest that she hosted is extraordinary, she had a knack for attracting artists and writers to her home, Gide and Russell, of course, but also Yeats, D. H.  Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Hardy, Henry James, Auden, Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, among others:

“…I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?’ I hesitated a moment and he supplied the answer: “Virginia of course.” (78) – Clive Bell, quoted.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The book is comprised of her and her famous guest’s writings or letters and a huge array of photographs that Ottoline, for the most part, took. An intimate peek into the lives of a wonderfully influential group of people. The photos of these towering figures in casual moments, is fascinating, and extremely endearing…I can’t stop picturing Yeats, described perfectly by Stephen Spender as having “something of the appearance of the overgrown art student” (100).

Despite Lawrence’s rather scathing sketch (presumably of Ottoline) in Women in Love, which would seriously breach their friendship, (and yet seems a plausible description)…she is a mesmerizing woman. Her relationships, by all accounts burned bright; there is a ferocity about her that makes me trust Lawrence….but still, her insistence that life be lived as poetry – reduced to pure feeling and experience, is so appealing. I suppose Lawrence wondered if she ever really achieved her desire.

Nevertheless, She and Lawrence, have philosophical congress. Concentrated in our bodies, for good or bad, life is meant to be felt, loved, and savoured. It is a lovely little book- an erstwhile golden age, elegantly composed by a passionate woman who had, truly, a genius of repose.

*Lady Ottoline’s Album: Snapshots & Portraits of Her Famous Contemporaries (and of Herself) Photographed for the Most Part by Lady Ottoline Morrell from the Collection of her Daughter Julian Vinogradoff. Edited by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, with an Introduction by Lord David Cecil.

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The Future is Then

Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong. Then I went further: it was then that I called to you for the first time, and you would not come. 
-E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops (44) from The Eternal Moment 

Scan 5After much pain, respectability becomes ludicrous.
-The Eternal Moment (229)

My college library is so large sometimes I just wander around to see what falls into my hand. That is how I came to read E.M. Forster’s collection of short stories, The Eternal Moment. With a title like that I could hardly resist. Even though the eponymous story was the last in the book, I read it first.

She was unaccustomed to that mood, which is termed depressed, but which certainly gives visions of wider, if grayer, horizons. (211)

The story is of Miss Raby, an English writer returning to the Italian scene of her first love. A love that she rejected, with some regret, and yet a love that made her literary career and gave her life a sort of meaning.

Miss Raby had been on the point of a great dramatic confession, of a touching appeal for forgiveness. Her words were ready; her words always were ready. (217)

Typical, beautiful Forster writing. It’s a lovely story. So lovely, in fact, I decided to start the book from the beginning. The first story was The Machine Stops. I was completely unprepared for this futuristic tale. I have read more than a few books written by Forster, but nothing has been anything like this. A world in which people are self-isolated in rooms in which a machine provides everything: food, books, monitors to view other people, and lectures of information for the edification of each individual. Everything at one’s finger tips. Literally.

Men seldom moved their bodies: all unrest was concentrated in the soul. (28)

It’s a world in which all meaning and importance has been placed in the domain of the intellect. And it’s unpleasant. It centers around a mother whose son, Kuno (whom she had nothing to do with raising, because in the future that would be vulgar) suddenly contacts her. He wishes, and needs, to have physical contact with her after daring to defy the machine and go outside, risking “homelessness.” Finally she relents and makes the journey to his side of the world which is devoid of any actual geographical meaning thanks to the wonders of the machine, but who needs actual meaning when you have virtual meaning? The machine explains all, through constant lectures of fifth or tenth hand reports, which are preferable of course, to first hand accounts.

“Here I am. I have had the most terrible journey and greatly retarded the development of my soul.” (40)

I just love Forster. He really has a wicked sense of humor- and mixed with his utter English uptightness, well, it warms my soul.

Cannot you see, cannot all your lectures see, that it is we who are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the machine? (55)

It’s a touching tale. But that it is written by the same man who wrote Room With a View, and Howard’s End, to name a few…I couldn’t resist the urge to turn the cloth bound book over in hands simply to verify that I wasn’t reading another author. What a delight to read something so different from him. It’s not the best story in the world, but it is moving in that “the machine,” as Forster wished us to understand it, with frightening foretelling, is the same as it ever was- a threat to our humanity. I suppose it makes sense that Forster, a man responsible for  myriad of emotionally and physically corseted characters, most deeply understood that our humanity rests on touch: on human contact.

A Polarized Flow, like love.

It is all a most artificial business of living according to prescription, keeping every impulse strangled, and ending where it begins, in materialism pure and simple.
– D.H. Lawrence, The Symbolic Meaning: Studies in Classic American Literature (55)

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“Yet the lovely cloud of green and summer lustre is within” (30)

Vincent Scully mentioned this D.H. Lawrence book in one of his essays on architecture. Perhaps my interests have some collecting force that draw me to and around Lawrence, but I find that he is referenced again and again in other books that I read. Here in The Symbolic Meaning is a group of essays on American Literature. Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman are among the writers that Lawrence cites to discuss his theory of the American writer.

Only art-utterance reveals the whole truth of a people. And the American art-speech reveals what the American plain speech almost deliberately conceals.[…] And this, again, is one of the outstanding qualities of American literature: that deliberate ideas of the man veil, conceal, obscure that which the artist has to reveal. (18)

Lawrence hits hard on all of his most passionate philosophies and it’s interesting to read the introduction which seeks to untangle the different and sometimes opposing versions of each essay. It would seem that unlike many writers, when Lawrence revised he wholesale re-wrote – sometimes to ill effect. Lawrence was a unique thinker better left in his primary voice, as E. M. Foster so eloquently stated:

Lawrence “was both a preacher and a poet, and some people, myself included, do not sympathize with the preaching. Yet I feel that without the preaching the poetry could not exist. With some writers one can disentangle the two, with him they are inseparable.” (8)

While there are some 2013 politically incorrect moments, Lawrence is so forward at heart that he is easily forgiven. His essay on Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Novels (Last of the Mohicans, et all) is wonderful, perfectly describing what I loved about those books; his essay on the symbolism of the sea to American writers such as Melville is perceptive and fascinating; his appreciation for women, as discussed in the Hawthorne essay regarding The Scarlett Letter, as whole female humans is quite beyond the reach of most people still, depressingly,  to this day.

In the old days, when women turned in her terrible recoil, she became Astarte, the Syria Dea, Aphrodite Syriaca, the Scarlett Woman. To-day, in her recoil the Scarlet Woman becomes the Sister of Mercy. She cannot help it. She must, in her upper mind, keep true to the old faith that man has given her, the belief in love and self-sacrifice. To this she is, as it where, hypnotized or condemned. (132)

His humorous yet heartfelt remonstrations against the “great Greek-Christian will-to-knowledge” that result in such American respectables as the “admirable little monster of a Franklin,” (Yes, Benjamin) are what I love about his writing. When he states that the “modern virtue is a machine-principle,” we can only lament that things are far worse now. But he foresaw that.

 Now, after two thousand years, having established our knowledge and even our experience all in one sort, a halfness, we find ourselves in a prison. We reach the condition when we are so imprisoned in the cul de sac of our mutilated psyche that we are in the first stages of that madness and self-destruction into which the ancients fell when they were imprisoned and driven mad within the cul de sac of the sensual body. Quos vult perdere Jupiter, dementat prius. (71)

That Latin bit basically means- those that Jupiter (God) wishes to destroy, he first drives mad. And this is Lawrence’s point- which he never ceases to fit into whatever it is he is talking or writing about. He sees a duality and a disconnect. Where the pagans of old veered toward sensuality, the modern man veers towards knowledge. Both extremes are equally destructive.

Whereas there is a “magnificence of futurity flooding the heart,” in a liberated and appeased soul, the psychic toll to future generations when we cut ourselves off from one half of our soul is tragic.

What is the use to me if a man sacrifice and murder his living desires for me, only to return in death and demand the sacrifice again of me, tenfold? What is the use of a mother’s sacrificing herself for her children if after death her unappeased soul shall perforce return upon the child and exact from it all the fulfillment that should have been attained in the living flesh, and was not? (73)

Lawrence, of course, explores these esoteric themes in his novels to poignant and moving effect. If his deeply held passion for life was sometimes equaled by his profound disgust in his fellow man, there was at least a true commitment to finding our way back to the life force with a fervency of gratitude and communion. His work was influential to all serious thinkers and the artistically sensitive of his age and beyond. He believed in the vibrancy of life, not the stagnant extremes of the idea and the ideal which disturbed the “natural reciprocity and natural circuits” of the “breath of life.”

KNOWING and BEING are opposites, antagonistic states. The more you know, exactly, the less you are. The more you are, in being, the less you know.
This is the great cross of man, his dualism. The blood-self, and the nerve-brain self.
Knowing, then, is the slow death of being. Man has his epochs of being , and his epochs of knowing. It will always be a great oscillation. The goal is to know how not-to-know. (178)

Other books by or about D.H.Lawrence:

Women in Love – Fog of Love
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – Love’s Lambency
Sons and Lovers Part 1 – Kicking Against the Pricks
Sons and Lovers Part 2 – Flickering Sanity
Apocalypse – Start With The Sun
Lawrence, An Unprofessional Study by Anaïs Nin – On Impulse

*”A polarized flow, like love” from the essay Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast (181)

Flickering Sanity

“Well,” said Paul, “if she looks at a man she says haughtily ‘Nevermore,’ and if she looks at herself in the looking-glass she says disdainfully ‘Nevermore,’ and if she thinks back she says it in disgust, and if she looks forward she says it cynically.”  –D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (254)

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There is a satisfying onomatopoeia in the word frustrate. Your mouth must build up steam to run up and down all the central consonants and then just when things start going again- full stop on the hard “ate.” There is plenty of time to consider the word in one’s mouth while reading Part Two of Sons and Lovers- the sentiment sputters out of the novel at a consistent rate. Part Two’s focus is the “Lovers” of the title, but only frustrated lovers lie therein. Perhaps it is…. Englishness that lends even the dialog a frustrated rhythm, the fits and starts of people full of something to say fracturing under the magnitude of self-edits, fears, and censures.

But no; she dared not put her arms round it, take it up, and say, “It is mine, this body. Leave it to me.” And she wanted to. It called all her woman’s instinct. But she crouched, and dared not. She was afraid he would not let her. She was afraid it was too much.

Lawrence develops the character of Paul so slowly and naturally from boy to man that even though I wanted to throttle him, my heart ached for him, as a mother and as a woman.

Paul’s inability to Love anyone other than his mother, whose own passion was sacrificed to an unhappy marriage, renders his heart an otiose, useless thing. And yet it still beats. So what to do? The usual course in love and novels is: act stupidly.

So he left her, and she was alone. Very few people cared for her, and she cared for very few people. She remained alone with herself, waiting.

Knowing that you want something is not the same thing as knowing what you want. This is Paul’s problem, his heart calls, but he has hidden it behind the door of his loyal and passionate love for his mother. He tries to love, but only makes misery.

Everyone tries to love, in fact. There is Miriam and Clara, Clara’s husband and more mothers, the fellas in the mines, the girls in the office, all trying to satisfy their hearts. The bucolic beauty described throughout the novel where one loses oneself  and dirties their shoes on amorous walks in the wood makes it more bearable, but also more poignant.  You just want someone to become sane for a moment, like that wonderful moment in E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View when George climbs a tree in a spectacular field and just starts shouting the truth, “Beauty! Beauuttyyy!!!!” I love that. Sons and Lovers is a beautifully told story, but it is all a maddening circle that coils and festers.

There is a wonderful scene towards the end of the story when Paul and his sister are smashing up morphine pills to essentially kill their mother. She is already dying, but they wish to relieve the suffering- hers and theirs.

“What are you doing?” said Annie.
“I s’ll put ’em in her night milk.”
Then they both laughed together like two conspiring children.
On top of all their horror flicked this little sanity.

It’s a lovely, touching, funny moment: Paul trying to disguise the bitterness of the pills in the sweet milk, just as he had tried so valiantly to disguise the bitterness of his mother’s life. It’s so bitter, is all she can say. And it is. The heartbreak is that Paul’s effort has shut his heart off from ever really being pierced, and fulfilled. His heart lives in the shadow of his mother’s trying to fill the space that should have been absorbed by her husband, her man.

No; her life’s nothing to her, so what’s the worth of nothing? She goes with me – it becomes something. Then she must pay – we both must pay! Folk are so frightened of paying; they’d rather starve and die.”

And that is Lawrence’s point- people starve themselves. Suffering from an emotional anorexia nervosa, the frustrations create a sort of insanity: the insanity of an inability to love, and a reluctance to feel. To go so forcefully against our nature is not possible without damage. In the end I think Paul will be alright. I want him to be. I want to agree with Lawrence: listen to Forster’s George – open your heart.


Them Books!

“I was perfectly inured to attacks upon my implements. I had heard books attacked for their bulk, their weight, their fragility, their similarity, their contradictiousness, their uselessness, their effect upon the figure, their drain upon the pocket, and also for their contents.”  – E.M. Forster, Ansell

I assure you I had absolutely no intention of going, but I was on the street, and then there was a parking spot, and – I could look after all couldn’t I?

What was this bewitching attraction? The annual library book sale of course. But, as I said,  I was just looking. Which is exactly what I told myself as I scanned the contents of my anemic wallet while walking quickly from the parking spot to the first tent, don’t go! don’t go! a small helpless voice said deep inside me.

I held – should I say fondled? no I should not. Held. I held many books, but it is not enough to want to read something, if it is going to take up valuable space it had better be because I foresee a desire to come back to it again. I immediately came across such a book, I took hold of it in my arms with rapturous possessiveness. And then another, after all, I could not leave D.H. Lawrence on the table, that would be rude.

I wandered over to the tiny poetry table and picked up an attractive paperback  that looked to be about my age titled French Symbolist Poetry, I can’t say I know what that means exactlty, so I opened it up to a random page and read:

Autumn Song

With long sobs
the violin-throbs
   of autumn wound
my heart with langorous
and monotonous
sound.

Choking and pale
when I mind the tale
   the hours keep,
my memory strays
down other days
and I weep;

and I let me go
where ill winds blow
   now here, now there,
harried and sped
even as a dead
leaf, anywhere.
– Verlain

Oh for christ’s sake. That killed me. I shouldn’t buy it, but I do…that and perhaps six or seven more, I don’t count them. I rushed off to work. They sat very well behaved in my car, humming with the satisfaction of their success in my seduction -as if it had been a challenge. I stashed The Life to Come and Other Tales by E.M. Forster in my purse and was soon reading it as I sautéed zucchini and onions in a Sicilian agrodolce style for my client’s dinner- “You’re a witch!” she declared in her rolling brogue as she delightedly ate it.

“Whatever it is, it must stop,” said Sir Edwin. “It’s a dangerous habit. You must break yourself of it before it is fully formed.” –E.M. Forster, Albergo Empedocle

*“Them books!”  E.M. Forster, Ansell

The Fifth Sense

 Valeria’s Last Stand is a wonderful fairy tale of sorts written by Marc Fitten. When I read the discription of it on Amazon: Hungarian town, whale, love story, I knew I’d be smitten. As it turns out, “whale” was only a metaphor of the reviewer’s invention, but it sent my mind immediately to the inimitable Hungarian director  Béla Tarr’s beautiful film The Werkmeister Harmonies. Another thing altogether: although a magnificent film- worth seeing and mentioning whenever possible.

Following the strand of my last post on E.M. Forester, this story is less prophecy, more piquant fantasy, albeit with a visceral carnal charge running through it. The descriptions of life in the remote Hungarian village- vegetables at the market, the drinks at the bar, all the lovely bottoms of the female peasants – burst open all the senses. I felt I could see and  smell the turnips sprouting in the gardens, the molder of a perhaps mercifully, forgotten Eastern European town.

The sense of touch however, is what’s most vital to this tale. Fitten never lets the details- the ones that matter most: a caress on the cheek, a pinch on the bottom, a fondled thigh, poking finger, stroke of a gentle or violent hand- go unnoticed.
The way that the people in this story physically touch objects and one another- be it lustfully, tenderly, violently, in commerce, politics or art really describes how people of a community touch each other emotionally and immaterially.

Valeria’s hardened disillusionment mirrors the feeling of a people that have felt the heel of history on their throats for too long. Her awakening is lovely and leaves one feeling that if you only survive long enough, (she is 65 after all) true love and all its fullfilling attributes will come your way. Like I said- it’s a fairy tale.

I met the author at the Yale Writer’s Conference. Marc was one of the most charming teachers there. His easy, generous and gregarious personality was very much appreciated by me, as someone afflicted with the opposite sort of social demeanor.

Valeria’s Last Stand is the first of a trilogy (The Paprika Trilogy). The second- just released and very well received – is Elza’s Kitchen. I look forward to reading it.

Oh For Peripeteia!

forge a path

I read Moll Flanders many years ago and I remember being highly impressed by the peripeteia that she experienced in her tale. I wondered, at the time, if life was really like that. Would I have chapters? Twists and turns? Part 1, part 2, an epilogue?

Given the last 18 months, I’ve only to accidentally marry my brother to have a good chance of convincing Defoe’s resurrection so to pen my eponymous novel. It remains to be seen if my tale will fall into the picaresque genre, but we won’t think about that. Why think when you can read?

I was reminded of my mentor Moll while reading E.M.Forster’s wonderful book Aspects of the Novel (another very fine recommendation from John Crowley). The book is composed of a series of lectures Forster gave at Cambridge in 1927. He is so charming; also opinionated, erudite and quite funny. He compares works of literature to exemplify what novels are fundamentally composed of: story, people, plot, fantasy, prophesy, pattern and rhythm.

One of my absolute favorite things to do, although, sadly I rarely do it, is wine tastings. I love the side by side- this is different than that- I like this better than that–    activity. That is what Forster does. He wants to talk about prophesy in novels, for instance, so he compares two similar moments in two very different books, in this case- George Elliot’s Adam Bede to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Each passage beautifully tells of a person facing death for crimes committed in spirit if not in actual fact, and they are similar. But as Forster describes the difference: Elliot is preacher and Dostoevsky is prophet. To read the difference is exhilarating.

“Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experience. They convey to us a sensation that is partly physical-the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on its surface, tiny, remote, yet ours.” 

Aspects of the Novel is a joy to read on many levels: the excerpts, the comparisons, the analysis, not to mention fulfilling my fantasy of sitting in an English lecture hall circa 1900. I have a longing for a large hat and corset…

“The human mind is not a dignified organ, and I do not see how we can exercise it sincerely except through eclecticism.” – E.M. Forster