Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Charles Darwin, Evelyn Waugh

December, 2009: For months, Origin of Species has been my kitchen-table reading, unless there’s something more ephemeral passing over it (the table), such as an issue of the Monthly, or the Inner West Courier, or the SMH. Darwin is a clear, considerate writer, and “I got a song out of it” (a frequent consolation for my failures), but my steam seems to have run out for Origin at page 76. To answer the question of species’ origins, Darwin saw that it was necessary for one single person to review every piece of available evidence. He devoted himself to this almost superhuman task, not to prove his points, but to find out what the evidence would tell him. In the editor’s introduction, there’s a quote from Darwin describing his own mental qualities and conditions that were most important to his success, “the love of science – unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject – industry in observing and collecting facts – and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense.”

It should be remembered that systematists are far from being pleased at finding variability in important characters, and there are not many men who will laboriously examine internal and important organs, and compare them in many specimens of the same species. It would never have been expected that the branching of the main nerves close to the great central ganglion of an insect would have been variable in the same species…yet Sir J. Lubbock has shown a degree of variability in these main nerves in Coccus, which may almost be compared to the irregular branching of the stem of a tree. This philosophical naturalist, I may add, has also shown that the muscles in the larvae of certain insects are far from uniform. Authors sometimes argue themselves in a circle when they state that the important organs never vary; for these same authors practically rank those parts as important (as some few naturalists have honestly confessed) which do not vary; and, under this point of view, no instance will ever be found of an important part varying; but under any other point of view, many instances assuredly can be given.

Much of the first 76 pages is about the necessity of organising things into categories (species, variations), but the mistake of forcing things into categories. We’re so uncomfortable with things that are neither one thing nor another. But if we insist on making things fit, then we miss out on seeing the truth.

Nothing is easier to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult – at least, I have found it so – than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind. Yet unless it be thoroughly engrained in the mind, the whole economy of nature, with every fact on distribution, rarity, abundance, extinction, and variation, will be dimly seen or quite misunderstood. We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that, though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.

December, 2009: Unconditional Surrender (1961) is Evelyn Waugh’s last novel in the trilogy. Guy Crouchback reaches the final stage of his disillusionment, and learns to find meaning in little things, instead of searching for it in grand things. “Quantitive judgements don’t apply”; this is what Guy’s father, seeing his son in a crisis of apathy, writes to him. He’s talking about Catholicism and saving souls, but I, an atheist, have no difficulty translating this beautiful decree into a secular one. To me, it’s about leading a principled life on whatever modest scale you can manage.

“I don’t ask anything from you”; that was the deadly core of his apathy; his father had tried to tell him, was telling him now. That emptiness had been with him for years now, even in his days of enthusiasm and activity in the Halberdiers. Enthusiasm and activity were not enough. God required more than that. He had commanded all men to ask.

In the recesses of Guy’s conscience there lay the belief that somewhere, somehow, something would be required of him; that he must be attentive to the summons when it came. They also served who only stood and waited.

Again we meet Ludovic (see below), who is now a successful author, and a commandant of a parachute training ground. He is hugely tall and pudgy, haunted by a bad conscience, and becomes increasingly bizarre.

Into this jolly company Ludovic entered like the angel of death. No one had believed the literal detail of de Souza’s fantasies but their repetition and enlargement had created an aura of mystery and dread about the commandant who lurked overhead and was seen and heard by none, which Ludovic’s appearance did nothing to dispell.

He overtopped the largest man in the room by some inches. There was at that time a well-marked contrast in appearance between the happy soldiers destined for the battlefield and those who endangered their digestions and sanity at office telephones. Standing before and above those lean and flushed young men, Ludovic’s soft bulk and pallor suggested not so much the desk as the tomb. Complete silence fell. “Present me,” Ludovic said, “to these gentlemen.”

Captain Fremantle led him round. He laid a clammy hand in each warm, dry palm and repeated each name as Captain Fremantle uttered it “…de Souza…Gilpin…” as though he were reciting the titles of a shelf of books he had no intention of reading.

Ludovic reappears the next night:

At dinner he introduced one topic only, and then to Captain Fremantle, saying: “I think I shall get a dog.”

“Yes sir. Jolly things to have about.”

“I don’t want a jolly dog.”

“Oh, no, I see, sir, something for your protection.”

Not for protection.” He paused and surveyed the stricken staff captain, the curious and silent diners. “I require something for love.”

No one spoke.

Ludovic goes on to buy a Pekinese that he names ‘Fido’ after the man he probably murdered in Crete.

Another wonderful character – not delivered up to us to judge, but to observe in all his fascinating detail – is Uncle Peregrine, a bachelor. Virginia, the woman whom Guy marries twice, grills him:

“Didn’t you ever want to marry?”

“Not really.”

Uncle Peregrine was not at all put out by these direct personal questions. He was essentially imperturbable. No one, so far as he could remember, had ever shown so much interest in him. He found the experience enjoyable, even when Virginia pressed further.

“Lots of affairs?”

“Good heavens, no.”

“I’m sure you aren’t a pansy.”


“You’re not homosexual?”

Even this did not disconcert Uncle Peregrine. It was a subject he had rarely heard mentioned by a man; never by a woman. But there was something about Virginia’s frankness which struck him as childlike and endearing.

“Good gracious, no. Besides, the ‘o’ is short. It comes from the Greek, not the Latin.”

Virginia gives birth in Peregrine’s apartment. Peregrine says to his niece’s husband:

“Angela has been a great help. Of course, you must know all about childbirth. It has been rather a surprise to me. I had never given it much thought but I had supposed that women just went to bed and that they had a sort of stomach ache and groaned a bit and that then there was a baby. It isn’t at all like that.”

“I always moved out when Angela had babies.”

“I was awfully interested. I moved out at the end but the beginning was quite a surprise – almost unnerving.”

“I am sure nothing ever unnerves you, Peregrine.”

“No. Perhaps ‘unnerving’ was not the right word.”

It doesn’t quite seem right to note down the most important passage in the book, plucking it from the beautiful, subtle setting of this trilogy. A Jewish woman, a refugee, whom Guy has tried to help while in Yugoslavia, says to him:

“Is there any place that is free from evil? It is too simple to say that only the Nazis wanted war. These communists wanted it too. It was the only way in which they could come to power. Many of my people wanted it, to be revenged on the Germans, to hasten the creation of the national state. It seems to me there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians – not very many perhaps – who felt this. Were there none in England?”

“God forgive me,” said Guy. “I was one of them.”

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens

November, 2009: I needed a novel to take with me on a stay at my grandfather’s house, and found, among my brother John’s books, Officers And Gentlemen (1955), by Evelyn Waugh. Though it was the second part in a trilogy, and John doesn’t seem to own the first part, I thought the ridiculous-humour-with-underlay-of-desolation of Evelyn Waugh would be a good friend to have for a week. For anyone who’s feeling disillusioned, this novel will destroy a few more (just when you thought you’d lost ‘em all!); but finding Evelyn Waugh (or Guy Crouchback) out there in the wasteland is a consolation.

I dog-eared a few pages, but would have dog-eared every page if that didn’t defeat the purpose of dog-earing. Here’s one, where Guy has been told that one of his subordinates is keeping a diary, which is against army rules when you’re on the front:

“It has come to my ears that you are keeping a diary,” he [Guy Crouchback] said.

Ludovic regarded him with his disconcerting grey-pink stare. “I should hardly call it that, sir.”

“You realise that anything written which is liable to fall into the enemy’s hands is subject to censorship.”

“So I have always understood, sir.”

“I’m afraid I must ask to see what it is.”

“Very good, sir.” He took his message-pad from the pocket of his shorts. “I have left the typewriter in camp, sir, with the rest of the office equipment. I don’t know if you’ll be able to read it.”

Guy read:

Captain Crouchback has gravity. He is the ball of lead which in a vacuum falls no faster than a feather.”

“That’s all you’ve written?”

“All I have written since we left camp, sir.”

“I see. Well, I don’t think that compromises security in any way. I wonder how I’m meant to take it.”

“It was not intended for your eyes, sir.”

“As a matter of fact, I have never believed that theory about feathers in a vacuum.”

“No, sir. It sounds totally against nature. I merely employed it figuratively.”

Here’s another part, about two-thirds of the way through the book, where the English army are on Crete, in chaos, and retreating:

Guy was weary, hungry and thirsty, but he had fared better than Fido in the last four days and, compared with him, was in good heart, almost buoyant, as he tramped alone, eased at last of the lead weight of human company.

I liked the last clause, in particular. Several pages on, he comes across his old company, the Halberdiers, and suddenly wishes he still belonged to them:

A few hours earlier, he had exulted in his loneliness. Now the case was altered. He was a “guest from a higher formation”, a “Hookforce body”, without place or function, a spectator. And all the deep sense of desolation which he had sought to cure, which from time to time momentarily seemed to be cured, overwhelmed him as of old. His heart sank. It seemed to him as though literally an organ of his body were displaced, subsiding, falling heavily like a feather in a vacuum jar; Philoctetes set apart from his fellows by an old festering wound; Philoctetes without his bow. Sir Roger without his sword.

One aspect of Waugh’s writing, or one way of describing his magic, is how seemingly inconsequential incidents or observations, often incredibly funny and absurd, often idiosyncratic to the point of being obscure, add up, with utmost precision and – you realise eventually – succinctness, to the grand, profound, devastating whole. Everything pulls its weight, even Trimmer, the former ladies’ hairdresser with his phony accents; especially Major Hound, a.k.a. Fido, and the speedy corruption, when finally at the front, of his army righteousness, beginning with the swapping of five cigarettes for a lump of bully beef and a biscuit: “The deal was done. Fido took his price of shame in his hand, the little lump of flaky, fatty meat and his single biscuit. He did not look at Guy, but went away out of sight to eat. It took a bare minute. Then he returned to the centre of his groups and sat silent with his map and his lost soul.”

The ‘grand whole’ is what novels can do so well. If it isn’t aspiring towards a ‘grand whole’, a novel might as well be a blog.

November, 2009: Dicken’s Little Dorrit was bought in a Brisbane book barn; even though I had only just started D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I was afraid I’d finish it while in Port Hedland, where, as I’d discovered on a previous visit, the one bookshop is full of books with titles you can feel, and see in the dark (i.e. embossed, and ‘metallic’…who knows, possibly phosphorescent, too). My other choice, in the Brisbane book barn, was For The Term Of His Natural Life, but I suspected that, on my travels, I’d need Dickens, who is reliably friendly, funny, entertaining – and long. Dickens is also a great believer in love, especially in its most humble forms. When I think about it, he loves humility – genuine humility, such as Little Dorrit’s, or young John Chivery’s, as opposed to the Pharisaical humility of Mrs Clennam.

He is a wonderful writer. Little Dorrit is no polished masterpiece – it has the feel of something invented on the fly, and never really revised. Characters pop up out of nowhere - and then pop down again, without really having done very much. Mrs Clennam’s house suddenly collapses, conveniently crushing the story’s least likable character. Little Dorrit’s uncle’s ward, whom we hear about for the first time on about page 700, in a long piece of exposition clumsily disguised as a conversation between two characters, wouldn’t have been missed if she had never played a part at all. At the beginning of the book, the Meagles’ maid, the orphan Tattycoram, is apparently being set up to play some important role, but in the end is a minor, scarcely examined character. Some parts of the plot, and some characters, are very rough and unsubtle; sometimes the reader can see the cardboard sets wobbling, the make-up sweating off, the director in the wings feeding the script to the actors line-by-line. But who cares? If Dickens was my contemporary, I’d probably be disappointed and say, “That new novel of Dickens’s isn’t up to scratch.” But knowing his total body of work, I’m happy to allow him the odd pot-boiler. Even his pot-boilers are superbly written. Here are a few of the (many, many) passages I stopped, re-read, and re-read again:

A description of Little Dorrit’s brother:

He began to be…of the prison prisonous and of the streets streety.

A house:

The little staircase windows looked in at the back windows of other houses as unwholesome as itself, with poles and lines thrust out of them, on which unsightly linen hung: as if the inhabitants were angling for clothes, and had had some wretched bites not worth attending to.


Arthur Clennam came to a squeezed house, with a ramshackle bowed front, little dingy windows, and a little dark area like a damp waistcoat pocket, which he found to be number twenty-four, Mews Street, Grosvenor Square. To the sense of smell, the house was like a sort of bottle filled with a strong distillation of mews; and when the footman opened the door, he seemed to take the stopper out.

…the footman said “Walk in,” so the visitor followed him. At the inner-hall door, another bottle seemed to be presented, and another stopper taken out. This second vial appeared to be filled with concentrated provisions, and extract of Sink from the pantry. After a skirmish in the narrow passage, occasioned by the footman’s opening the door of the dismal dining-room with confidence, finding someone there with consternation, and backing on the visitor with disorder, the visitor was shut up, pending his announcement, in a close back parlour. There he had the opportunity of refreshing himself with both the bottles at once…

John Chivery is in unrequited love with Little Dorrit. Arthur Clennam pays a visit on the Chiverys’ tobacco shop:

Mrs Chivery at once laid aside her work, rose up from her seat behind the counter, and deploringly shook her head.

“You may see him now,” said she, “if you’ll condescend to take a peep.”

With these mysterious words, she preceded the visitor into a little parlour behind the shop, with a little window in it commanding a very little dull back-yard. In this yard, a wash of sheets and table-cloths tried (in vain, for want of air) to get itself dried on a line or two; and among those flapping articles was sitting in a chair, like the last mariner left alive on the deck of a damp ship without the power of furling the sails, a little woebegone young man.

“Our John,” said Mrs. Chivery.

Not to be deficient in interest, Clennam asked what he might be doing there?

“It’s the only change he takes,” said Mrs. Chivery, shaking her head afresh. “He won’t go out, even in the back-yard, when there’s no linen; but when there’s linen to keep the neighbours’ eyes off, he’ll sit there, hours. Hours, he will. Says he feels as if it was groves!”

A constant theme in Dickens’s novels is the squalor of industrial cities versus the beauty of rural life. The changes that occurred in England over the nineteenth century were astonishingly huge and swift. The change from agriculture to industry is surely one of the biggest changes possible in a human society – up there with the change from hunting and gathering to agriculture, or stone tools to metal. Here’s a quote from Pancks, the rent-collector who resembles a tug-boat, and has some peculiar mannerisms, but turns out to be a hero:

“What else do you suppose I think I am made for? Nothing! Rattle me out of bed early, set me going, give me as short a time as you like to bolt my meals in, and keep me at it. Keep me always at it, and I’ll keep you always at it, you keep somebody else always at it. There you are with the Whole Duty of Man in a commercial country.”

And a bit more of John Chivery, who could scarcely be more endearing, here chastising Arthur Clennam for doubting his (John’s) claim that Little Dorrit loves him (Arthur):

“I mistaken, sir!” said Young John. “I completely mistaken on that subject! No, Mr. Clennam, don’t tell me so. On any other, if you like, for I don’t set up to be a penetrating character…I mistaken on a point that, even at the present moment, makes me take out my pocket-handkerchief like a great girl, as people say: though I am sure I don’t know why a great girl should be a term of reproach, for every rightly constituted male mind loves ‘em great and small. Don’t tell me so, don’t tell me so!”

Still highly respectable at bottom, though absurd enough upon the surface, Young John took out his pocket-handkerchief with a genuine absence both of display and concealment, which is only to be seen in a man with a great deal of good in him, when he takes out his pocket-handkerchief for the purpose of wiping his eyes.

At some point, Dickens writes of Arthur shedding some “manly tears”.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Albert Gaston

October, 2009: In the W.A. Maritime Museum, Fremantle, I bought Coolgardie Gold, by Albert Gaston (1940). I was going to Coolgardie/Kalgoorlie the next day, on flight QF1894, which just happens to be the year in which Earthly Things takes place (Chapter 1 being set in Coolgardie). Albert Gaston arrived in Coolgardie in 1892, three weeks after Arthur Bayley made his discovery of gold public knowledge, so it’s pertinent research for me, but better still, it’s well-written and a good read. Overall, it’s a description of a decade spent adventuring, lured on by the hope that he could ‘make it’; at the end of the decade, Albert is as broke as he was at the beginning, having collected only some vivid memories of a wild, risk-taking existence, which will cast the rest of his life in a quiet shadow. This is poignant – who’s brave enough to say, “My life’s peak has been and gone”? It reminds me of Robbie Robertson saying (about being in a touring band), with pride, regret, longing, in The Last Waltz, “It’s an impossible way of life!” It also reminds me of a certain nearly-ninety-year-old man who, describing his younger self and a compadre to his new girlfriend, said, “We were gods!” I’m more adventurous now than I was in my twenties; I wouldn’t like to be sighing to myself, “Well, fun’s over.” But lots of young men (young women, too, but less often, or rarely to the same extremity) do seem to have a superhuman, unsustainable capacity for risk, adventure, pushing their bodies past their limits. Maybe they’re relieved when that urge burns out; maybe they think, “Phew! I survived the madness – just.” Of course, this is the urge that is exploited by war-lords.

Here are a couple of passages of Coolgardie Gold I liked:

Cobb & Co’s coach arrived from Southern Cross every evening about eight o’clock, and at nine o’clock the delivery window was opened and one of the staff would call out the addresses on the letters…I have seen a crowd waiting at the window…They were in single file and sometimes the line of waiting men was over five chains long. It was a case of first in the line first served…Some of the deadbeats got onto an easy way of making a little money. They would get in early and secure a good position in the line then offer to sell their turn for a few shillings.

Deadbeats! In 1894! I also thought that it’s the kind of low-brow money-making scheme my characters might have resorted to. And:

The population was now increasing faster than ever. Cobb & Co’s coach was crowded and every team carried swampers, and great numbers were travelling by other ways, some of which were very crude. One man I heard of placed all his goods and chattels in a barrel and rolled it from Southern Cross to Coolgardie…I saw one party of four with a buggy wheel in the centre of a square frame, with a handle on each corner. They had enough loading on it for a draught horse to pull. Such was the eagerness of men to reach the field with as little expense possible.

Albert Gaston had simply walked, carrying his belongings on his back, the three hundred miles from York to Bayley’s goldfield.

When I like a writer from this period, I am curious - and apprehensive: will they disappoint me? - about what they say about Aboriginal people:

The blacks are wonderful trackers [a skill Gaston has had reason to value most highly]. Show them a horse or a camel track and they will follow it through hundreds of other tracks over any kind of rough hard country and never be at fault. In their wild state they are very revengeful for any wrong done them, especially any molestation of their womenfolk – the cause of most of the trouble with them.

There is no doubt we have treated the blacks very badly. We have taken their country from them, and destroyed their game – thus removing their only means of living – and then expect them to change to our laws and standard of things. We have taught them all white man’s vices and then left them to die of starvation and disease.

It is to our lasting shame.

I actually felt a bit twee to be reading Coolgardie Gold on my way to Coolgardie. I might have felt even more twee if I’d been reading Coolgardie Gold a week or two earlier, while I was in Coolangatta.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

D.H. Lawrence, Alex Jones, Jill Dimond and Peter Kirkpatrick, Pixie O'Harris

September, 2009: To further develop my new friendship with D. H. Lawrence, I bought Lady Chatterley’s Lover at Kingsford Smith Airport. Thankfully, there was a small contingent of Penguin Classics in the bookshop; there was otherwise nothing I would have wanted to read. I was afraid Lady Chatterley might have dated awkwardly, and that its racy reputation might have rested soley on a bit of ambiguous “making love”. But D.H. didn’t disappoint. On page 35, Tommy Dukes says, “I don’t over-eat myself, and I don’t over-fuck myself.” This book was first published in 1928! Heavily censored, of course. The words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ appear countless times, always for a good reason, never blasphemously. The whole novel is about sex; D.H. might even have written it as a sex education manual. Tommy, asked whether he believes in anything, goes on to say:

“Me? Oh, intellectually I believe in having a good heart, a chirpy penis, a lively intelligence, and the courage to say ‘shit!’ in front of a lady.”

“Well, you’ve got them all,” said Berry.

Tommy Dukes roared with laughter. “You angel boy! If only I had! No; my heart’s as numb as a potato, my penis droops and never lifts its head up, I dare rather to cut him clean off than to say ‘shit!’ in front of my mother or my aunt…they are real ladies, mind you; and I’m not really intelligent, I’m only a ‘mental-lifer’.”

I left Lady Chatterley in Broome for Anna and Ben to read, and, several months later, they have returned it to me; looking back over it now, my amazement at the ‘modernness’ of D.H.’s language is eclipsing the actual content, or intent, of the book – the answer to Errol’s handy question, “But what’s it about?” But D.H.’s intent is everything – in no way was he writing to be clever and modern, or to shock. Lady Chatterley is his response to “the sexual problem”, a conversation topic of his day (and ours, though we might phrase it differently, e.g. - ergh! – the ‘men are from Mars, women from Venus’ issue); D.H. believes, and makes his hero and heroine say in a hundred different ways, that our inherent and beautiful masculinity and femininity has been strangulated by the “insentient iron world and the Mammon of mechanised greed”. His arguments are very convincing, except when he suggests that if men got around in tight scarlet leggings, they’d all feel a lot better about themselves.

Towards the end of the book, here’s an exerpt from a conversation between Lady Chatterley and the sexy, proud gamekeeper with whom she has fallen in love, Mellors. Says Mellors:

“The money is yours, the position is yours, the decisions will lie with you. I’m not just my Lady’s fucker, after all.”

“What else are you?”

“You may well ask. It no doubt is invisible. Yet I’m something to myself at least. I can see the point of my own existence, though I can quite understand nobody else’s seeing it.”

“And will your existence have less point, if you live with me?”

He paused a long time before replying:

“It might.”

She too stayed to think about it.

“And what is the point of your existence?”

“I tell you, it’s invisible. I don’t believe in the world, not in money, nor in advancement, nor in the future of our civilisation. If there’s got to be a future for humanity, there’ll have to be a very big change from what now is.”

“And what will the real future have to be like?”

“God knows! I can feel something inside me, all mixed up with a lot of rage. But what it really amounts to, I don’t know.”

“Shall I tell you?” she said, Looking into his face. “Shall I tell you what you have that other men don’t have, and that will make the future? Shall I tell you?”

“Tell me then,” he replied.

“It’s the courage of your own tenderness, that’s what it is: like when you put your hand on my tail and say I have a pretty tail.”

The grin came flickering on his face.

“That!” he said.

There is a description, about five paragraphs long, of Lady Chatterley having an orgasm; there are detailed accounts of the pair having good sex, and not-so-good sex. The end of the novel (i.e. the final sentence) is unlike anything I’ve ever read – it’s so daring! I mean in terms of novel-writing (I can’t say why, without giving it away). D.H. is no master novel-writer. His novels are vehicles for his ideas; so his use of plot and characterisation is pretty sparing; not clunky and inept, as is George Orwell’s use of plot and characterisation in 1984, another vehicle for an idea. There is very little distinction between D.H.’s main characters, the ones the reader is meant to identify with; not just between Connie and Mellors, but between Connie and Alvina, the heroine from The Lost Girl, and, indeed, between Connie, Mellors, Alvina and the David Herbert Lawrence that comes across in his letters. But I’m happy to read a novel where the main characters feel with D.H.’s sensitivity, bridle with his sense of outrage and injustice, and speak with his imaginative, free choice of words. As a novelist, however, I can see that D.H.’s free-flowing, non-revising writing method has its limitations – as does any method. His method creates a work that is fresh, smooth, flawed (by the unedited whims of the moment) but seamless; but if a novelist lingers over her material, reshapes it, breaks it up and puts it back together repeatedly over a period of years, she has a better chance of escaping herself, and her own limited way of seeing the world, and of drawing closer to that impossibility: of creating characters who are not herself, and who see the world from their own points of view.

If D.H. wrote a blog, I’d get the internet just so that I could read it. If D.H. had written Infinite Jest, I might have read past page 200. If D.H. had written Memoirs of Duc de Saint Simon, I’d be trying to find English translations of those other unabridged twenty-seven volumes. That’s how strong my love is. Last pondering on D.H.: what would he think of ‘now’? We’re more enslaved than ever to the fantasy of money, but there’s much less sexual hypocrisy. What parts of ‘now’ would he approve of? WWOOFing?

September, 2009: I took Morris In Iceland (2008), by Alex Jones, to Rainbow Bay, right on the border of NSW and Queensland. Morris In Iceland has two storylines, one following William Morris as he rambles through Iceland in 1871, and the other following a retired English professor as he potters around Sydney University locale, circa 2008. In Rainbow Bay, where I temporarily let go of my own life to lead my friend’s life for a few days, the familiar world described by Alex Jones was a comfort. It’s a strange book: frivolous, funny, with everyday drama, even ending with a wedding. The two storylines were too far apart to add much to each other; I wondered whether through reluctance of giving away too much of his real life, the author chose not to draw the two storylines any closer together. From the Morris storyline (based partly on Morris’s diaries), here’s an image – the one skin covering two – that kept coming back to me:

Methought also that Iceland had been to me like a mountain pass, or like a river that I must cross; that I must find my proper place in the world of men, and having found it might truly be at one with what I loved, and draw the one skin to cover us both.

The ye-olde tone of Morris’s story-line – much more ye-olde than 1871 – is probably accurate. Morris seems to have had a tendency towards nostalgia, and probably affected some mediaeval motifs, even – or especially – in his own, private (well, sort of) journals.

September 10, 2009: I’m slightly obsessed with Rowe Street, Sydney (what’s left of it) and the Australia Hotel which used to be there; this is Theodor’s hotel of choice in Earthly Things. My breakfast reading at the moment is Literary Sydney – A Walking Guide (2000) by Jill Dimond and Peter Kirkpatrick. They mention Rowe Street, and give the following quote from Sumner Locke Elliot’s Fairyland (1990), in which S.L.E. describes an incident in the Australia Hotel. I loved Eden’s Lost, one of the few books I’ve read twice. It is a book that has merged inextricably with my real experiences of Medlow Bath and the Hydro Majestic; the book’s mixture of charming frivolity and terrifying emptiness has been siphoned directly out of the atmosphere of the Blue Mountains. I love Sumner Locke Elliot more than ever now that I’ve discovered we have the same – well, almost - taste in men:

In the gradually diminishing room, he caught sight of the tall man. Leaning against the wall near him, thin as tin, gaunt, the sun of years burned into the deep-lined flesh of the face, unshaven under the wide-brimmed dirty hat, a jackeroo perhaps, boundary rider from out west probably, cattle or sheep country, the ultimate in manhood, the shearer, maybe, who, drunk, would knock your head off in the country pub over a slight disagreement because his type lives in actions not words, the epitome of raw, brazen, outdoor paddocks in Australia. For a few moments their eyes met and then, shockingly, unbelievably, the boundary rider winked at him, surreptitiously winked, and the wink was as daring as nudity in the street, concupiscent and inviting. The wink good as said, come on over here a minute, cobber, and I’ll give you the sweetest feel of your darling arse.

Also from Literary Sydney is this quote from my new friend, D.H. Lawrence, taken from Kangaroo (1923):

The morning was very rainy as Sydney, big city as it is, a real metropolis in Pitt Street and George Street, seemed again like a settlement in the wilderness, without any core. One of the great cities in the world. But without a core…

Sydney puzzles me, so I am always on the look out for clues.

September 3, 2009: My mother gave me Pixie O’Harris’s autobiography, Was It Yesterday? (1983), for my birthday. When I was a child, I loved visiting Pixie. She was seventy years older than me. She talked about fairies, and let us play with such treasures as rainbow-throwing prisms and sandalwood fans. She gave me a little blue enamelled brooch with a tiny silver pixie sitting in it. Reading her autobiography was very touching – there she was, just as I remember her! Except that I’ve grown older and she younger. She would still like me, despite the fact I’m a woman, because she seems to make an exception for woman novelists. Otherwise, she saves her enthusiasm for children and young men, not including her husband, but including my father:

Geoffrey Lehmann, when sixteen, sat for me for his portrait. He has since been painted and drawn by artists more brilliant – Charles Blackman and Salvatore Zofrea. Geoffrey has a stentorian voice, and on one occasion, when accompanying me shopping, read his poetry aloud, much to the amazement and amusement of other shoppers.

Geoffrey, as a child, had lived within sight and sound of Luna Park and had gone to sleep to the sound of music from the merry-go-round and laughter from the crowds, but he had never been there until he came with me when he was eighteen. What an evening that was! He was determined to enjoy everything and did so with the wonderful spirit of a child.

Pixie was fifty-five when she took my eighteen-year-old father to Luna Park. I couldn’t help thinking, “What a woman!”, but then – having declared war on sexist double-standards – forced myself to turn Pixie into a fifty-five-year-old man, say, Martin Sharp (seeing as we’re at Luna Park), and my father into a starry-eyed, uni-student poetess. Not so admirable now, oh no!

Having just come back to Sydney from W.A., I liked this comment from a letter written by Pixie’s father, in which he compares Sydney and Perth of the early ‘20s:

’You can walk briskly to work here, in Perth one could not do so, here, people move as though they had something to do, even running in swarms to catch trains. In Perth you exist, here you live, that is the difference. There is plenty to see, plenty of change, plenty of people, and there is so much beauty in the city itself.’

I rather like the idea of merely existing.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

D.H. Lawrence (and a bit of Cicero)

August 20, 2009: From D.H. Lawrence’s The Lost Girl (1920), which I bought in Fremantle. Having read so much good sense in D.H.’s letters, I was curious to read more of his novels. I was especially curious to know what a novel written in one sweep, with little revision, would be like to read. Would his method be somehow apparent? The answer is yes: The Lost Girl does read very smoothly, but the downside is that, in a way, the book is not about the characters, except the main one, Alvina, who is a mouthpiece for D.H.:

Now so far, the story of Alvina is commonplace enough. It is more or less the story of thousands of girls. They all find work. It is the ordinary solution of everything. And if we were dealing with an ordinary girl, we should have to carry on mildly and dully down the long years of employment; or, at the best, marriage with some dull schoolteacher or office-clerk.

But we protest that Alvina is not ordinary. Ordinary people, ordinary fates. But extraordinary people, extraordinary fates. Or else no fate at all. The all-to-one pattern modern system is too much for most extraordinary individuals. It just kills them off or throws them disused aside.

There have been enough stories about ordinary people…Every individual should, by nature, have his extraordinary points. But nowadays you may look for them with a microscope, they are so worn-down by the regular machine-friction of our average and mechanical days.

See previous entry for D.H.’s view on ‘work’.

Also from The Lost Girl:

Why was James more guilty than Clariss? Is the only aim and end of a man’s life, to make some woman, or parcel of women, happy? Why? Why should anyone expect to be made happy, and develop heart-disease if she isn’t? Surely Clariss’ heart-disease was a more emphatic sign of obstinate self-importance than ever James’ shop-windows were. She expected to be made happy. Every woman in Europe and America expects it. On her own head then if she is made unhappy: for her expectation is arrogant and impertinent. The be-all and end-all of life doesn’t lie in feminine happiness – or in any happiness. Happiness is a sort of soap-tablet – he won’t be happy till he gets it, and when he’s got it, the precious baby, it’ll cost him his eyes and his stomach. Could anything be more puerile than a mankind howling because it isn’t happy: like a baby in the bath!

…Wretched man, what is he to do with these exigeant and never-to-be-satisfied women? Our mothers pined because our fathers drank and were rakes. Our wives pine because we are virtuous but inadequate. Who is this Sphinx, this woman?

I love the way D.H. writes about women, or rather, people. He is never exclusive. In the first quote, I started to feel uncomfortable about his ‘ordinary versus extraordinary’ argument. There can only be one Cinderella, yet who identifies with the step-sisters? No one. But D.H. saves his point from being elitist with the sentence, “Every individual should, by nature, have his extraordinary points.” And he saves his attack on women from being a ‘stupid women’ attack with, “The be-all and end-all of life doesn’t lie in feminine happiness – or in any happiness,” and the generalising that follows. D.H. can be angry and exasperated, but it comes out of a great love of life and the world.

August 15, 2009: Selected Letters, D.H. Lawrence (1950), selected by Richard Aldington, with a really good introduction by Aldous Huxley. My mother was reading it when we were in Broome, and it sounded good, so when I finished Colm Toibin’sBrooklyn in Port Hedland, I started on D.H. There are so many noteworthy things D.H. says in his letters.

From Huxley’s intro:

For him [D.H.], there were two great and criminal distractions. First, work, which he regarded as a mere stupefacient, like opium. (‘Don’t exhaust yourself too much,’ he writes to an industrious friend; ‘It is immoral’. Immoral, because, among other reasons, it is a shirking of man’s first duty, which is to live. ‘Think of the rest and peace, the positive sloth and luxury of idleness, that work is.’ Lawrence had a true Puritan’s disapproval of the vice of working…) The other inexcusable distraction, in Lawrence’s eyes, was ‘spirituality’, that lofty musing on the ultimate nature of things…


I always say, my motto is ‘Art for my sake’. If I want to write, I write – and if I don’t want to, I won’t.

In 1912:

My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser then the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what the blood feels, and believes, and says, is always true.

To A.W. McLeod:

I got the blues thinking about the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges or scrub the floor.

To a man, called T.D.D.:

I was glad to get your still sad letter, and sorry you are so down yet. I can’t help thinking that you wouldn’t be quite so down if you and Mrs D. didn’t let yourselves be separated rather by this trouble. Why do you do that? I think the trouble ought to draw you together, and you seem to let it put you apart. Of course I may be wrong. But it seems a shame that her one cry, when she is in distress, should be for her mother. You ought to be the mother and father to her. Perhaps if you go away to your unhealthy post, it may be good for you. But perhaps you may be separating your inner life from hers – I don’t mean anything actual and external – but you may be taking yourself inwardly apart from her, and leaving her inwardly separate from you: which is no true marriage, and is a form of failure. I am awfully sorry; because I think that no amount of outward trouble and stress of circumstance could really touch you both, if you were together. But if you are not together, of course, the strain becomes too great, and you want to be alone, and she wants her mother. And it seems to me an awful pity if, after you have tried, you have to fail and go separate ways. I am not speaking of vulgar outward separation: I know you would always be a good reliable husband: but there is more than that: there is the real sharing of one life.

I can’t help thinking your love for Mrs D. hasn’t been quite vital enough to give you yourself peace. One must learn to love, and go through a good deal of suffering to get to it, like any knight of the grail, and the journey is always towards the other soul, not away from it. Do you think love is an accomplished thing, the day it is recognised? It isn’t. To love, you have to learn to understand the other, more than she understands herself, and to submit to her understanding of you. It is damnably difficult and painful, but it is the only thing which endures. You mustn’t think that your desire or your fundamental need is to make a good career, or to fill your life with activity, or even to provide for your family materially. It isn’t. Your most vital necessity in this life is that you shall love your wife completely and implicitly and in entire nakedness of body and spirit. Then you will have peace and inner security, no matter how many things go wrong. And this peace and security will leave you free to act and to produce your own work, a real independent workman.

You once asked me what my message was. I haven’t got any general message, because I believe a general message is a general means of side-tracking one’s own personal difficulties…But this that I tell you is my message as far as I’ve got any.

To Catherine Carswell:

I think you are the only woman I’ve ever met who is so intrinsically detached, so essentially separate and isolated, as to be a real writer or artist or recorder. Your relations with other people are only excursions from yourself. And to want children, and common human fulfillments, is rather a falsity for you, I think. You were never made to ‘meet and mingle’, but to remain intact, essentially, whatever your experience may be.

The high quality of friendship evident in D.H.’s letters contrasts greatly to that of Cicero (a 1937 Harvard Classics collection of his letters and treatises, which I’ve been reading sporadically), whose self-importance always comes first. 57 B.C., letter to his best boy-friend, Atticus: “Directly I arrived in Rome…I thought the very first thing I ought to do was to congratulate you in your absence on my return. For I knew, to speak candidly, that though in giving me advice, you had not been more courageous or far-seeing than myself, nor – considering my devotion to you in the past – too careful in protecting me from disaster, yet that you…had nevertheless been deeply grieved at our separation, and had bestowed immense pains, zeal, care, and labour in securing my return.” Cicero seems to think he is the centre of the world; perhaps he was, or close to, in which case, he was in a very conspicuous position, and it’s hardly surprising that someone assassinated him.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Clarence Brown

July, 2009: I fell in love with Clarence Brown, who edited The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, a book I borrowed from my sister, that had been given to her by our father. Clarence selected pieces from about thirty Russian writers, and wrote helpful, interesting and sometimes anecdotal introductions for each writer. From the introduction for Daniil Kharms, Clarence writes:

Tyrants would appear to be more comfortable with outright sedition, which they can at least understand, than with deliberate silliness. Autocrats of whatever tendency have one thing in common – the conviction that Truth exists, and that they have it firmly in hand. Their favourite opponents are those that share this conviction, differing only with details of the second part. But the true philosophical anarchists, those who see the world as devoid of reason and order, and who celebrate this vacancy by filling it with gleeful nonsense, violate all the rules of the great game. They strike at the very roots of legitimacy and – ultimate outrage to the sensibilities of puritanical idealogues – they seem to enjoy themselves immensely. What exactly is their little game? The latest refinements in torture cannot elicit an answer (there being none), and thus the practitioners of Terror, itself founded upon unpredicatble illogic, are themselves terrified.