Wednesday, 18 January 2012
James Watson: A Writer’s Notebook
*Literary Encounters (8): GIRL MEETS GHOSTS
*Notes in Passing: No Great Novels, Just Great Passages
*Poems of Place (7) Lakeland: the Children’s Part
GIRL MEETS GHOSTS
Bored with her French village holiday, Elsa fails to befriend a young local boy. Curiously, he seems to know her and her attempt to start up a conversation makes him nervous. Wondering why he seems so scared, so desperate to get away, she wanders alone into the church.
She is at a loss, rather more upset than she really ought to be. Also, despite the heat of this April morning, she is shivering.This whole place gives me the creeps. In to the church. It is cool, and, as shafts of sunlight penetrate the gloom, mysterious. Churches can also be creepy, so full of dark shadows. The slightest sound is amplified, rises to the vaulted roof and seems to return as a reproach.
She sits down. There is a potent odour of incense mixed with damp. This holiday is becoming a disaster. Dad’s on edge, Carol’s on edge and so am I. Three’s a crowd: I’m beginning to understand what that means. I’m the odd one out. I resent Carol and I can’t disguise it; and I’m mad at Dad. He thinks everything can be normal. She’s not my mum and never will be. I told him in Carol’s hearing. She probably won’t ever forgive me…
As for the boy out there, that I don’t understand; why his startled look, especially as he seemed to recognise me; and what or who was he staring at over my shoulder? He’s a loner, that’s my guess; stuck all day on a farm out there, herding cattle, picking grapes or whatever; probably with only rabbits and crows to talk to. I liked his eyes and his dark hair, though…
Elise wanders towards the east end of the church, and the high altar. Sunbeams project the colours of the stained glass window, blue and red across the tiles of the choir and the altar steps. She closes her eyes, inhales the scent of spring flowers, though, look as she might, she cannot see any.
The cool has become cold. That’s it, then: five minutes and I’ve run out of the tourist attractions of Izieu. Elise quickens her pace towards a door on the north side of the church. She pauses beside a tray of unlit votive candles. She picks up a box of matches. This’ll be for my Gran. The matches are too damp to light.
Sorry, Gran. I’ll bring Dad’s lighter next time.
Beside the north door is an oak table. There is a large leather-bound Visitors’ Book and beside it the stub of a pencil. I suppose people pinch the biros. Elise opens the book. Its yellowed pages give off a pungent, musty smell: wet tobacco and rotting cabbage. What shall I write? ‘Had the most exciting holiday of my life. Back again next year!’ Better not or Dad might take me at my word and rent the cottage for every year till I’m an old maid.
That’s strange, I could have sworn…Must be the poor light in here. She looks closer at the pages of the Visitors’ Book. Odd – very: could be some joker. She runs her finger down the list of names. Astonishment makes her voice ring through the church: ‘It can’t be! The last date is 1943!’ Not a very good joke. She turns back the pages: 1942, 1941, 1940. Could be that the priest’s put out an old visitors’ book by mistake. This is ridiculous. All at once, the silence of the church provokes her. She pronounces the word out loud:‘Ridiculous!’
1943: that’s the war – Dad’s war. She addresses her words to the back of the church: ‘Hitler, Nazis, Goebbels, the concentration camps – Auschwitz, the gas chambers…Huh!’
Not funny. Elise has been studying both world wars in History. She turns, as if imagining the church full of parishioners. ‘The war’s over, folks!’
Suddenly, from the West door, a voice: ‘Eloise! You must come now.’ The woman wears a shawl around her shoulders and a patterned scarf around her head. In the poor light she looks ancient but she is coming towards Elise with the speed of someone strong and determined.
She says in a loud, harsh voice, ‘So Stefan didn’t manage to persuade you.’
‘I’m sorry, I…’
Stefan? Warn me?’
‘You will bring disaster on us all with your wilfulness.’
‘Disaster?’ She called me Eloise.
Stay calm, stay polite. In this gloom she’s mistaken me for somebody else. Elise tries a smile, yet steps briskly towards the North door: your turn, she tells herself, to leg it.
The woman advances on her, clasps her arm. ‘Why do you do these things – and risk everything?’
This is weird. ‘Risk everything? Every what?’ Elise is pulled towards the North door. ‘You’re hurting me. Please let go my arm.’
‘You will remember the rules, Eloise, whatever your natural desires. And you will obey them, like everyone else has to do.’
Elise guesses it’s to do with talking out loud in church. Sure, for most of us, the war’s long over, but for some it’s never over; and that means they take offence easily if you don’t show proper respect. ‘I’m sorry. I thought I was alone. The words just slipped out.’ She is wondering, will a Hail Mary or two get me off the hook and away from this crazy lady?
‘You will not be slipping out in future, I can assure you of that.’ The woman thrusts Elise out of the church door, then prods her in the back when she hesitates, dazzled by the sun in her eyes.
They have emerged on to a side street, unfamiliar to Elise, running at an angle from the village square. Everything looks different from here. Elise can’t make out the war memorial, but her concern is for the hand that bites into her forearm.
‘Please, I’m not…’ In broad daylight surely the woman will recognise her mistake. She’ll apologise. Elise can think of nothing to say but, ‘I think I’ll be all right now. Sorry about that.’
But the misunderstanding is not to be resolved. ‘You wish to be independent, my child, yet –’
‘Yes I do.’ All at once Elise is keen to assert that independence. This is not a joke; indeed it’s scary. She had been shivering in the church and now she is trembling in the morning heat. ‘I’m not a child, and if you don’t mind…Madame.’
‘I do mind. Don’t you understand? – your actions put us all of us in peril. All of us!’
‘My actions? I was just…’
She is not to be heeded. ‘Come now! This is your last chance.’ When Elise tries to reply, the woman clamps her hand across her mouth. ‘Move – and not a single word!’
From The Ghosts of Izieu (Penguin Readers).
Boy Meets Girl (Besieged! The Coils of the Viper; Blog 21, 17 March 2011). Girl Meets Girl (Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa; Blog 22, 14 April). Dissident Girl Meets Dissident Poet (Ticket to Prague; Blog 23, 11 May). Enemies Meet Face to Face (The Freedom Tree; Blog 24, 6 September). Encounter with Bombs (The Freedom Tree; Blog 25, 13 October). Athlete Meets Bull (The Bull Leapers; Blog 26, 19 November). Mother Forest Meets Brother Business (Justice of the Dagger; Blog 27, 15 December).
NOTES IN PASSING: No great novels, just great passages
Re-reading classic novels imported for next-to-nothing on Kindle, I’ve reached the hesitant conclusion that ‘masterpieces’ scale the heights but also include some very low-level passages. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina possess a kernel of passages which reach the heavens of literary achievement; yet they are complemented by acres of text working at a lower, more pedestrian or even irrelevant level that prompts the reader to question the literary judgment of the writers as storytellers.
The centrepiece of Crime & Punishment is the existential life of Raskolnikov, the penniless student who murders the wickedly mean moneylender and the subtle reeling in and entrapment of the ‘hero’ by the investigator, Ily Petrovych. In good Russian tradition we are treated to an almost uncountable host of characters and situations, many directly relevant to the emerging story, but also many existing in a parallel universe, a galaxy of red herrings.
One becomes bogged down in freshly imported lives that distract from rather than adding to the unity of the novel. They slow its pace, disperse its tension: in short, keep running away with the story. It’s as if Dostoevsky were being paid lineage and was thus reluctant to impoverish himself by judicious editing.
In Anna Karenina Tolstoy creates one of the greatest love-stories in literature. His portrayal of the passionate, tragedy-marked Anna and her well-matched hero, Prince Vronsky, is stunning, the depth and turbulence of their relationship magnificently examined.
In parallel, and connected throughout, we encounter the life of Levin, his love for Kitty, his marriage, his fatherhood: in fascinating contrast, the honest, deep-feeling ‘good’ person intriguingly documented, his feelings sensitively recorded and divined with great perception.
However, Levin has another side, reflecting the interests of the author himself, and it is one that borders on the mundane, is treated at such length and becomes tedious – Levin’s obsessive interest in Russian estates, agriculture, the character and attitude of the stuck-in-their-ways peasantry. Much text is also given over to hunting, for partridge, ducks and snipe, leaving the story in a sort of instruction-manual doldrums. At other times, the novel risks becoming a dry social tract.
Acknowledgment has to be made that at the time of writing these interests might well have been seen by contemporary readers as important uses of the novel, addressing issues of the time. Even so, the chapters on this issue are endless, as are those detailing the minutae of provincial elections. Only when Anna reappears does the novel spring back to life; then for a few chapters she has to step entirely aside for a narrative that seems to occupy the more mundane side of Tolstoy as writer, sinking into social discourse.
Life goes n, but should the story?
Both novels bore as much as they inspire, leaving one to wonder whether, at the time of writing, the authors reflected on the erratic levels of their achievement (or just carried on with their 2000 word a day regardless). Even when Anna Karenina reaches its grand finale with the suicide of Anna, suggesting that nothing could reach beyond this devastating event, Tolsoy ploughs on for several chapters with the doggedness of life itself which rarely judges a decent climax.
In contrast, very little of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights deserves to be left on the cutting-room floor. It is dramatically tighter than the Dostoevsky or the Tolstoy, but it takes a greater narrative risk with ensuing hazards.
The Russians are god the creator. We get inside the thoughts of characters through the direct agency of the author. In Brontë’s case we have two narrators, Mr. Lockwood and housekeeper Nelly Dean. Nelly in particular is a great raconteur; she is author Emily in scarcely concealed disguise. We gain from the narrative emerging directly from events though at the same time the device prevents us from knowing the thoughts of the hero/villain of the story, Heathcliff.
...but who speaks for Heathcliff?
We are given much on his behavour, his wild love for Catherine, his depthless bitterness, the way he destroys two families and makes the lives of so many he has power over miserable; but what is lacking is the author’s own explanation and analysis until, towards the end of the story Heathcliff opens his thoughts to Nelly.
There’s reason to commend this, for it leaves the characters subject to fate. It also allows the author to hold back from giving explanations, especially with regard to Heathcliff’s life between leaving Wuthering Heights and returning to it a rich man. We are permitted no revelation of his inner self or made aware of any transition to self-knowledge. As far as the old servant Joseph is concerned Heathcliff lies in death as damned as he lived: ‘Th’divil’s harried off his soul…and he may hev’ his carcass into t’bargin, for ought I care! Ech! What a wicked ‘un he looks, girning at death!’
Shades of epiphany
And yet ‘poor Hareton, the most wronged’ by Heathcliff sees something beyond common judgment: he ‘kissed the sarcastic, savage face that everyone else shrank from contemplating’. By this time of course the young Catherine has employed the magic of reading and affectionate compassion to bring Hareton Earnshaw into the radiant glow of love, the kind that might have rescued Heathcliff from himself had circumstances been different.
By limiting herself to narrators within the text Brontë resists the controlling power of the author-as-god. But the story is more concentrated and more consistently intense as a result, leaving readers to make their own judgments about Heathcliff. After all, towards the end, he concedes defeat. Referring to Catherine and Hareton, he says to Nelly, ‘I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing’; and there are shades of hope, for he acknowledges ‘there is a strange change approaching’, an epiphany in which love does not defeat death but comes to terms with it.
We are offered confirmation of this when Mr. Lockwood recounts meeting a little boy on the moor, ‘crying terribly’. The lad ‘blubbered “There’s Heathcliff and a woman yonder, under t’nab…un’I darnut pass ‘em.’ With such an ending, one is left thinking that the ultimate dream is possible, love overcoming death.
Final paragraph, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Lockwood speaking: ‘I lingered round them [the headstones], under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heather and the harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’
A quote from Anna Karenina: ‘And she felt that beside the love that bound them together there had grown up between them some evil spirit of strife, which she could not exorcise from his, and still less from her own heart.’
POEMS OF PLACE (6)
LAKELAND: THE CHILDREN’S PART
Coniston: the lakewaves glitter, glad
To host kids’ feet slow-stepping
Over pebbles and the risk of glass;
Around their heads a haunting
Of flies like shrunken bats – a coven
Of night witches envious of childhearts
And of mornings crystal bright.
Later Tarn Hows’ fernclad slopes
Were their splashing picnic ground;
Farmsteads sprinkling white
Up Langdale’s blue-green crags
Made a backcloth worthy of Claude Lorraine
Only to be quite ignored.
We alone, disengaged from their games,
Drew together the cobweb strands of vision –
The light, the landscape, the figures,
The streamsong of their voices; hoarding
Them as solace for a winter’s day.
As Director of Homer Studies at the Institute of Greek Literature, I wish to query the assertion of your correspondent Ned Baslow that our nation’s greatest poet was probably a member of a scriptwriting team called Anon, and whose reluctance to put pen to paper can be explained by his suffering from dyslexia. The suggestion is preposterous. Further, we object to the doubts he casts on the intelligence of the Trojans in welcoming the Greek gift of the famous Wooden Horse and not suspecting that it was packed to the tail with warriors.
After all, weren’t the Germans successfully deceived by the escape pit dug beneath the wooden horse and out of the prison camp in the popular movie The Wooden Horse starring Leo Genn and Ian Dalrymple? If the Germans of all people could be taken in by such a ruse it’s obvious that a people shell-shocked after ten years of war might as easily be deceived.
Should Mr. Baslow care to visit the Institute, or provide us with a stamped addressed envelope, we will be happy to supply him with ample data that proves beyond doubt that Homer was neither dislexic nor a figure of the Greek imagination: after all, if he were, how would the Institute justify its own existence?
Prof. Milos Kanzankstasis
Institute of Greek Literature,
1, Mount Parnassus Drive,
We are happy to publish letters on all matters included in or referred to in Watsonworks Blogs. As promised in Blog 27, we reproduce here another letter from Ned Baslow in his Celebrity Letters series. This month Ned turns his attention to a historical misunderstanding involving Nebuchadnezzar and the famous London artist, poet and visionary, Mr.William Blake.
Dear King Nebuchadnezzar,
I am writing to you to convey rather delayed apologies on behalf of the well-known London artist, Mr. William (Billy) Blake. You may or may not be aware that one of Mr. Blake’s finest works of art concerns your good self; alas, I doubt whether you would consider it the sort of portrait you could display in front of your children or your subjects.
It is no portrait in the flattering style of Raphael or Van Dyck, dignified, in elegant profile and adorned with suitably magnificent garments, lace cuffs and jewellery up to the elbows. Rather, Mr. Blake portrays you on your knees and in hairy nakedness, best described as grovelling. The theme of his painting is, my wife Betty informs me (she is studying for her Open University degree and knows about such things) is one of Shame and Mortification, but, and this is the reason for my writing to you – it’s based on a simple misunderstanding.
The Him in the painting is not You, meaning that generation after generation of gallery-goers, including vulnerable school parties, have mistakenly been turning up their noses at you and making inappropriate comments.
Some, of course, would say you deserve it considering what you did to Jerusalem or the citizens of Tyre, but what is essential in an honest world is to get the facts right once and for all. Instead of thinking good thoughts about your Hanging Gardens in downtown Babylon (don’t ask me what’s happened to Babylon since your day!) visitors to galleries and especially those queuing for entry into the British Museum (and paying good money for the privilege) have been confronted by your ‘portrait’ when in truth the squalid creature before them was one of your lesser successors, one Nabonidas.
In Mr. Blake’s days there was no Google to summon up in order to get one’s facts straight. The painter was either drunk, quarrelling with his printers or in a haze of dreams and fantasies trying to summon up positive things to say about the British nation, when he happened upon your utterly worthless successor, painted his masterpiece (Betty admits it is of high quality) in the hope that sensation would score over truth (it usually does, but that’s another matter).
From what my Betty tells me, this Nabonidos got into hot water for trying to mess about with the state religion (like the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten who incurred similar bother). Nab switched his support from the Moon God, your own particularly favourite according Betty, to Marduk who by all accounts was a thoroughly bad influence.
I’ve long held it to be true that tampering with people’s gods is one of the quickest ways for a ruler to end up on his knees in a sea of shards, or as we would term it these days, shrapnel. Art that misrepresents the past plays some nasty tricks with people’s attitudes as I pointed out in my letter to the Director of the British Museum demanding that your denomination (ie name) be immediately replaced in all future posters, captions, indexes, postcards; in short, Nab for Neb. I have the Director’s email assurance that Mr. Blake is equally willing to make amends so long as nobody attempts to render Nab upstanding as grovelling has been one of Mr. Blake’s chief selling-points over the years.
With every best wish for an eventually successful makeover of your public and historical image, I am, My Lord King, Yours Truly (incidentally a great admirer of hanging baskets),
Old Roman Road
Readers may be interested in learning what Ned Baslow had to say in previous Blogs: to King Harold (Blog 26) and Homer the Greek (Blog 27). The editorial team wishes it to be known that they do not necessarily share Ned’s opinion of the god Marduk.
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Thanks for reading this. And a Happy New Year!