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.”
“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.
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”.