Tag Archives: English literature

Blast Their Eyes!

Love must justify itself by its results in intimacy of mind and body, in warmth, in tender contact, in pleasure. If it has to be justified from the outside, it is thereby proved a thing without justification (27).
—Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point

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Published in 1928, Point Counter Point is a highly amusing society drama which seems to be a pointed but harmless tale of the social foibles of the English upper classes. But, in truth, there is a poison at the center and the story produces a feeling by the end that is akin to a cold hard blade of a steel knife in one’s gut. That people are consistently awful is something we all know but usually try hard to forget. Huxley’s genius is his clever mode of describing the heartbreaking disillusionment of life. I read this book from a found copy of a 1960’s cheap paperback. It more or less fell apart as I read it: the browned acidic paper crumbling, the leaves falling away as I turned the pages….seemed appropriate.

“It’s the disease of modern man. I call it Jesus’s disease on the analogy of Bright’s disease. Or rather Jesus’s and Newton’s disease; for the scientists are as much responsible as the Christians. So are business men, for that matter. It’s Jesus’s and Newton’s and Henry Ford’s disease. Between them, the three have pretty well killed us. Ripped the life out of our bodies and stuffed us with hatred” (124-25).

So admonishes Mark Rampion—the one decent fellow in the cast of characters. He and his wife Mary represent the only healthy people in the book. Their love story is something of an oasis I kept wanting to get back to. It did not surprise me in the least to discover, after I had finished the book, that they are probably based on D.H. Lawrence and Catherine Mansfield. The sane people are justifiably disgusted:

“They’re just marching toward extinction. And a damned good thing too. Only the trouble is that they’re marching the rest of of the world along with them. Blast their eyes! I must say, I resent being condemned to extinction because these imbeciles and scientists and moralists and spiritualists and technicians and literary and political uplifters and all the rest of them haven’t the sense to see that man must live as a man, not as a monster of conscience braininess and soulfulness” (220).

Of course, the legacy of Huxley is his incredibly prophetic vision. although, when you think about it, I suppose it doesn’t take much talent for insight to realize that there is something very wrong with our ability to live naturally in the world. Most people are lucky if they can merely get by on the fumes of love as the real quenching experience eludes so many. And people are cruel to one another. Crueler, even, than they have to be.

“You don’t want to hurt my feelings. But it would really hurt them less if you did say so straight out, instead of just avoiding the whole question, as you do now. Because avoiding is really just as much of an admission as a bald statement. And it hurts more because it last longer, because there’s suspense and uncertainty and repetition of pain. So long as the words haven’t been definitely spoken, there’s always a chance that they mayn’t have been tacitly implied. Always a chance, even when one knows that they have been implied. There’s still room for hope. And when there is hope there’s disappointment. It isn’t really kinder to evade the question, Phil; it’s crueller” (81).

This sort of common way of dealing with things is so destructive. And painful. I see it extend out beyond the domain of romantic love— the question, do you love me or not? This tradition of evasion leads to the warping of all relationships including our relationship with the planet, which asks more and more plaintively each day, do you love me? Why are we poisoning our planet? Why do we poison each other? I saw a photograph this morning of a boatload of starving people who were turned away from countries that could at least help them simply not starve to death. Police killing our own citizens based on the color of their skin. Politicians taking food out of the poor’s mouths. Polluters with incomprehensible immunity. Why don’t you love me? As a society we are bound by norms that don’t allow an injustice to be called an injustice. We evade the reality that other people’s human dignity is trampled upon by an disinclination to let ourselves just be human. To show and prove our love of life—this life! my life! your life! — openly and unapologetically.

“It’s the substitution of simple intellectual schemata for the complexities of reality; of still and formal death for the bewildering movements of life. It’s incomparably easier to know a lot, say, about the history of art and to have profound ideas about metaphysics and sociology than to know personally and intuitively a lot about one’s fellows and to have satisfactory relations with one’s friends and lovers, one’s wife and children” (329).

Reality is hard. I always considered the hermit to be something of an evading weakling—just try to maintain kindness, consideration for others, and for the world here IN the world—that’s the true and good work. My daughter and I always like to remind each other, “if you’re not laughing, it’s just fucking depressing.” But the profound lack of kindness— including faux-kindness laced with ulterior motives, justifications, and self-aggrandizement— is just too depressing to laugh off some days.

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Orpiment Glow

They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives for just a minute while they talked round her (111).
Katherine Mansfield, Miss Brill

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How to break a heart in under five pages. Katherine Mansfield’s story Miss Brill from the Penguin Classic collection, Katherine Mansfield: The Garden Party and Other Stories, is the perfect example of the art and power of the short story. A common mood of repressed loneliness runs through all of her stories but it was Miss Brill that drew my breath away with the final period.

Mansfield’s stories are terribly English: wit, eccentricities, repressions, all interlaced with lusciously  wrought bucolic glory.

How did one meet men? Or even if they’d met them, how could they have got to know men well enough to be more than strangers? One read of people having adventures, being followed, and so on. But nobody ever followed Constantina and her (69). – The Daughters of the Late Colonel.

Just in case one was ever curious as to how the phenomenon of the quintessentially Anglo eccentric-sister-team of spinsters came to be, read no further than The Daughters of the Late Colonel. Somewhat poignant, the story is an amusing exploration of the insular and skewing effects of duty induced repression and pathologically refined manners.

‘I had an extraordinary dream last night!’ he shouted.
What was the matter with the man? This mania for conversation irritated Stanley beyond words. And it was always the same – always some piffle about a dream he’d had, or some cranky idea he’d got hold of, or some rot he’d been reading (8). The Garden Party

Taken a more indepth view, The Garden Party is fascinating in the way that whole groups of people orbit separately in the same family sphere. Where a repressive spirit reigns, it is engrossing to see how individuals adapt and cope.

‘I suppose,’ she said vaguely, ‘one gets used to it. One gets used to anything.’
‘Does one? Hum!’ The ‘Hum’ was so deep it seemed to boom from underneath the ground. ‘I wonder how it’s done,’ brooded Jonathan; ‘I’ve never managed it’ (30).

Jonathan (the prolific dreamer and loquacious annoyance to Stanley) is the rare Mansfield character that can not fully adapt to societal expectations, his inability is really what’s at the heart of Stanley’s irritation. After all, it’s not as if Stanley enjoys the daily asphyxiation of ‘work.’ But of course Stanley has a wife that he adores, and Love is a detail that makes life worth living.

Even still, we all have access to the resplendence of life. Whether it be the exuberant beauty of nature, or a moment of profound reverence. Life affirms itself, and casts an orpiment glow in an instance of a brilliant sky, a sweet kiss, or the profound sumptuousness of a perfect peach.

Laurie put his arm round her shoulder. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said in his warm, loving voice. ‘Was it awful?’
‘No,’ sobbed Laura. ‘It was simply marvellous. But Laurie -‘ She stopped, she looked at her brother. ‘Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life -‘ But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie (51).

 

 

In a Word

“One suffers so much,” Denis went on, “from the fact that beautiful words don’t always mean what they ought to mean.” ( 211) – Aldous Huxley, Chrome Yellow IMG_2167 Chrome Yellow was recommended to me by a lovely fellow blogger after I read Lady Ottoline’s Album. In this wonderful and often hilarious book, Huxley satirizes his ‘set.’ Chrome, the fictional name of the estate, based on Ottoline’s own Garsinton Manor, is seen and experienced by young Denis who comes with youthful ambitions to be a writer, poet, indeed – a man!

“Recently, for example, I had a whole poem ruined because the word ‘carminative’ didn’t mean what it ought to have meant. Carminative–it’s admirable, isn’t it?” “Admirable,” Mr. Scogen agreed. “And what does it mean?”

Huxley describes the ennui of the upper crust of society to perfection. He mocks  the superior “education,” bestowed with entitlement,  which often results in a shallow, dilettante class.

“They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold […] On the label was a list of virtues, and among other things it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. It seemed so wonderful to describe that sensation of internal warmth” 

While the Ottoline-esque hostess is distracted by occult mysticism, artists come to find their muse and paint, writers come to work, young girls to have serious discussions and not fall in love.

Later, when I discovered alcohol, ‘carminative’ described for me that similar, but nobler, more spiritual glow which wine evokes not only in the body but in the soul as well.”

…of course everyone is there to fall in love or  at least die flirting. They all seem somewhat silly, either by virtue of excessive seriousness, or a certain passionlessness. But what does it all mean?

“Well, what does it mean?” asked Mr. Scogan, a little impatiently. “Carminative,” said Denis, lingering lovingly over the syllables, “carminative, I imagined vaguely that it had something to do with carmen carminis, still more vaguely with caro-carnis, and its derivatives, like carnival and carnation.”

A word is like a mystery, a snare of syllables encase it: understanding is within. The meaning is an opening, a pandora’s box of symbols and curiosities which mingle with the impression already given by the sound or vision of the letters: aligned, curving, swaying, with dancing periods hopping along the ‘i’s’ – a thing of beauty.

“Do come to the point, my dear denis,” protested Mr. Scogan. “Do come to the point.” “Well, I wrote a poem the other day,” said Denis; “I wrote a poem about the effects of love.” “Others have done the same before you,” said Mr. Scogan. “There is no need to be ashamed.”

A house, and the lives within,  seen from the outside can only be ill understood. Huxley takes that idea and has a lot of fun shrinking it to a word, then broadening it to person, a house, a village…

“I was putting forth the notion,” Denis went on, “that the effects of love were often similar to the effects of wine, that Eros could intoxicate as well as Bacchus. Love, for example, is essentially carminative.”

Of course true to our training, and nowhere is that training better than in England- except perhaps some Scandinavian countries that will remain nameless, we never simple state things, or leave our insides out for others to see or know. Often, one hardly knows one’s own insides.

“And then suddenly it occurred to me that I had never actually looked the word up in a dictionary.”

Huxley’s story is highly amusing. The days are long, golden, frustrating for youthful would-be lovers, but full of quirky erudite conversations. The evenings are cool as the history of Chrome as its own heartbreaks and drollery is read aloud by Henry Wimbush, the current master of the grandiosity that is Chrome.

“Carminative: for me the word was as rich in content as some tremendous, elaborate work of art; it was a complete landscape with figures. ‘And passion carminative as wine…’ It was the first time I had ever committed the word to writing, and all at once I felt I would like lexicographical authority for it. A small English-German dictionary was all I had at hand. I turned up C, ca, car, carm. There it was: ‘Carminative: windtreibend.’   Windtreiband!” he repeated. Mr. Scogin laughed.

Of course, there is always the possibility that we are exactly the ridiculous creatures that we fear we are.

*As Huxley does not, I will be kind to those that don’t know the word in German either, as it turns out it means: relieving flatulence. Oh, Poor Denis. Poor us.

** All quotes come from pages 211-14

A Frowsy Romance

“Cervantes thought that Romance was dying and that Reason might reasonably take its place. But I say that in our time Reason is dying, in that sense; and it is old age is really less respectable than the old romance. We want to recur to the more simple and direct attack. What we want now is somebody who does believe in tilting at giants.” (292)  – G.K. Chesterton, The Return of Don Quixote

IMG_1576I really want this book to be made into a film. What’s more- I really want to be in the film version- black and white, set in the late twenties when cocktails with intriguing names were always to be found in one’s hand and repartee flowed and bubbled.

“I say, do you know your own librarian by sight, by any chance?”
“What on earth have librarians got to do with it?” asked Rosamund in her matter-of-fact way.”Yes, of course, I know him. I don’t think anybody knows him well.”
“Sort of a book-worm, I suppose,” observed Archer. “Well, we’re all worms,” remarked Murrel cheerfully, “I suppose a book-worm shows a rather refined and superior taste in diet. But, look here, I rather want to catch that worm, like an early bird. I say, Rosamund, do be an early bird and catch him for me.”
(21)

I say, I do wish people spoke like this still. Such fun. Briefly stated,  this story, by G. K. Chesterton, balances on a librarian who is enlisted to fill in a part of a play set in the Medieval Age for a weekend party’s amusement. When the play is performed the heretofore retiring bookish librarian flat-out refuse to take his green tights off, or any other part of his costume, and the adventure, class wars, and asylum breakouts ensue.

But Murrel had something of the promptitude of a fencer leaping and lunging at the only loophole in what seemed like a labyrinth of parry and defence. He thrust into the aperture the wedge of a word” (123).

It’s not a book that moves deeply or alters one’s world view, but it is something of a madcap sprawl, (a jaunty hat) through the bizarreness of the struggle between reason and romance that Cervantes made so famous. The cheek and spot-on observations of Chesterton keep the story moving at a quick clip (strapped high heels clicking along the garden path….) but with a wonderfully effulgent elegance (long tight skirt, perhaps tweed?).

My dear Monkey, what’s the matter with you,” demanded Archer. “You seem to be quite sulky when everybody else is pleased.” “It’s not so offensive as being pleased when everybody else is sulky,” answered Murrel (251).

Somehow in this story everyone ends up happily coupled without ever having said very much at all about the matter. I’d love to learn that trick. Must be strictly an English trait of either complete genius or idiocy. Or perhaps that is Chesterton’s point, in matters of the heart, reason and its tools (words) are useless. I guess I’ll just straighten my (seamed) stockings and carry on tilting at giants.

For Mr. Douglas Murrel had by no means the intention of losing his faculty of enjoying the absurd with complete gravity (276).

In League With the World

You’ve got to allow for style, though. Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all. To write is always to rave a little.
-Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (8)

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Divided into three parts: The World, The Flesh and The Devil, Death of the Heart is remarkable book . A society drama in the vein of Edith Wharton, the story centers itself cleverly on the journal of the young and innocent Portia.

“But Matchett, she meant to do good.”
“No, she meant to do right.”
(96)

Having just lost her father, quickly followed by her mother, the sixteen year old, Portia, goes to London to live with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna (also, the brother’s life long housekeeper, Matchett). Portia and Thomas’s father had made the unforgivable social faux pas of falling deeply in love with a woman other than his wife. When the other woman became pregnant, Thomas’s mother stoically and sacrificially insists that he marry the soon-to-be mother of Portia, thereby more or less exiling the indecorous (if happy) family to wander Europe until their ends.

“Sacrificers,” said Matchett “are not the ones to pity. The ones to pity are those that they sacrifice. Oh,  the sacrificers, they get it both ways. A person knows themselves what they’re able to do without.” (92)

Anna and Thomas are unhappily married to each other in that smooth cold manner that society generally facilitates so neatly. Anna suffered a serious heartbreak earlier in her life, which is never fully explained, but which warps and poisons her feelings towards Portia. Her heart, and its death, cast Portia’s innocence into a guileless search trying to make sense of the people around her.

In this [Daphne] was unlike Anna, who at a moment of tension let out oaths and obscenities with a helpless delicate air. Where Anna, for instance, would call a person a bitch, Daphne would call the person an old cat. Daphne’s person was sexy, her conversation irreproachably chaste. (188)

So delicious! I love the observations and keen insight Bowen displays – which is cleverly self-referenced in all the talk about keeping a journal. The act of Portia writing down her innocent, and therefore, perspicuous observations is taken as a near act of war. This novel was published in 1938, but the attention to female dispositions and attitudes is notable. Bowen’s descriptions of the various types of women that populate this novel are wonderful, down to the details of how they approach food, one “making a plunge for the marmalade,” (185) or some other fantastically illustrative sketch.

“If you were half as heartless as you make out, you would be an appallingly boring woman.” (318)

When the novel reaches its crisis it is Anna who while answering how she would feel if she were Portia, calls out the crux of the book. The cruel, crushing, corruption of one’s heart by societal mores….and for what?

“Boredom, oh such boredom, with a sort of secret society about nothing, keeping on making little signs to each other. Utter lack of desire to know what it is about. Wish that someone would blow a whistle and make the whole thing stop. Wish to have my own innings. Contempt for married people, keeping on playing up. Contempt for unmarried people, looking cautiously and touchy. Frantic, frantic desire to be handled with feeling…”

To be handled with feeling…because the alternative, as the character of Anna proves, is certain death to the thing we most dearly cherish: our hearts.

*title from page 385: “Happy that few of us are aware of the world until we are already in league with it.”

Etiolated Lives

She was the doorway to him, he to her.  At last they had thrown open the doors, each to the other, whilst the light flooded out from behind on to each of their faces, it was the transfiguration, the glorification, the admission. 
-D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (87)

IMG_1258I recently watched an adaptation of Women in Love. I like it well enough, but there were more than a few mystery bits that I had no recollection of from the book. Upon closer inspection I saw that the adaptation was actually of both Women in Love and The Rainbow.  Now that I’ve read The Rainbow I’m sorry I didn’t read it first, not least of all because Women in Love continues the story of Ursula and Gudren. But more than that, for missing out on the natural development of the story in which Lawrence shows an unraveling of human confidence in love over the generations.

Is heaven impatient for me, and bitter against this earth, that I should hurry off, or that I should linger pale and untouched? (265)

The story follows three generations of women, finding, failing, or groping with anguished hope towards love: “the admission”- I love that. Admitting entrance to the other into one’s soul as well as admitting to oneself that the possibility exists. Running  forward chronologically, the story seems almost to run backwards novelistically. The satisfaction of true love comes early in the first section concerning the Polish immigrant widowed mother, Lydia Lensky. Tom Brangwen falls in love with her, and after the usual bouts of trammeled passion they arrive at their font of love. Things are more difficult for Anna, Lydia’s daughter adopted by Tom:

And in this state, her sexual life flamed into a kind of disease within her. She was overwrought and sensitive, that the mere touch of coarse wool seemed to tear her nerves. (314)

The tragedy here is passion without love. Lawrence describes with startling insight the gaps that motherhood fills, still, when Anna marries Will Brangwen having made the all important physical connection,  emotional  communion eludes them. Through their children the painful smolder of life and love half-lived is abated until eventually, separately yet peaceably, they find a lesser path, but at least it is a path –

And since she was nearly forty years old, she began to come awake from the sleep of motherhood, her energy moved outwards. The din of growing lives roused her from her apathy. She too must have her hand in making life. (395)

Let’s pause here for one brief moment to remind ourselves that this book was written in 1915. What Lawrence so boldly put forward- the physicality of life’s desires, is a truly remarkable thing. Sure, it’s no longer difficult to find myriad books focused on sex, even focused on the female’s perspective of sex, but it takes profound nerve to combine those human needs with a divine call to love.

Always, always she was spitting out of her mouth the ash and grit of disillusion, of falsity. (412)

The story ends with Ursula. The depth into which Lawrence takes the reader is awing and inspiring. The questions and possible answers he raises become deeply embedded in the reader’s thinking and feeling soul. Woven into each part of the story are philosophical musings on religion, God, the suffragette movement, the horrors of corporal punishment, the sickness of institutions, the emptiness of formal education, social hypocrisy, and then, at long last he gives us – the rainbow, spread over it all, in regal refulgent splendor.  The beauty. The beauty.

She wanted so many things. she wanted to read great, beautiful books, and be rich with them; she wanted to see beautiful things, and have the joy of them forever; she wanted to know big, free people; and there remained always the want she could put no name to. (384)

Primal Urges

‘I’m sure Sandy’s mind is not on motor cars, she is paying attention to my conversation like a well-mannered girl.’
And if people take their clothes off in front of each other, thought Sandy…
-Muriel Sparks, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (35)

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is perhaps a book that is not widely read anymore. But that is a shame, if it’s true, because it is wonderful. The humor is subtle and tart and the story is captivating in all of its English school girl oddity.

Outwardly she differed from the rest of the teaching staff in that she was still in a state f fluctuating development, whereas they had only too understandably not trusted themselves to change their minds, particular on ethical questions, after the age of twenty. (41)

The way in which Sparks intertwines the past with the present is marvelously crisp. There is a naturalness to the telling of the story with interrupted bits of future events spotting up the tale, further enhanced by the re-imaginings of whatever literature the girls are engaged with in which they cast themselves as the love interests of the heroes. All of which comes together to give a glimpse into the adolescent mind. It’s very well conceived and highly entertaining.

“Who is the greatest Italian painter?”
‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’
‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favorite.’ (9)

But what’s most wonderful about the story is the irony that while it is ostensibly about sex and the hypocritical efforts to hide or pervert sexual desires not to mention the witch hunts that those desires provoke, particularly for women, Sparks cleverly shows that the situation is worse than that. While everyone is fixated and warping what should be perfectly natural and healthy dispositions of human beings, the really horrible stuff gets free reign. In the end, the downfall of Miss Jean Brodie happens for the right reasons disguised as the wrong. A complex literary device which Sparks masterfully accomplishes.

‘She believes in the slogan “Safety First.” But safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me.’ (8)

I watched the film version after, with Maggie Smith, who is, as always, wonderful. Especially aided, as she is, with fabulous costumes. But the film is completely inferior to what makes the book such fun. All of the structure is gone, while the heart of the story, which Sparks created with a real delicacy, is ratcheted up, and ridiculously exaggerated. I spent the entire film with a quizzical look on my face…at any rate it nearly takes as long to read it as watch it, so, might as well read it.

‘For those who like that sort of thing,’ said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, ‘that is the sort of thing they like.’ (29)