Saturday, May 1, 2010

Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, Willy Vlautin

May 2010: The weeks of rain we’ve lately had in Sydney might have influenced my reading choices - after Turn Of The Screw, I started on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, which provided me with more dark, spooky, English country houses of “grey, lichened-blotched stone”, “stained and streaked with damp and bad weather”.

All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and grey roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amidst the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried, with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought that comes to me is a feeling of their isolation, and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

I didn’t feel like reading short stories. I had started a Kipling collection, and though the three short stories I made it through were truly wonderful, I had put the book down, because...because I wanted some continuity in my fits-and-starts, fractured life! Sherlock Holmes was all I had left in my bookshelf, and I hesitated when it came to packing it into my bag, to take to Melbourne. Would it do the job? Would it be a companion? I’d read the first few stories, and they’d been enjoyable, a bit populist, with the story-telling stomping along in heavy boots (i.e. very easy to follow). I packed it. And I didn’t regret it - the continuity is, of course, in Watson and Holmes’s friendship, which is subtle, complex and very interesting, and more than makes up for the walk-on, walk-off characters that fill out the detective stories.

Towards the end of this collection, Holmes, in a bad mood (coming down from one of his cocaine and shag-tobacco binges, perhaps) is criticising the “little records” that Watson writes (and we read) of Holmes’s cases.

“You have erred, perhaps,” he observed, taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs, and lighting with it the long cherrywood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood - ‘you have erred, perhaps, in attempting to put colour and life into each of your statements, instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about the thing.”

“It seems to me that I have done you full justice in the matter,” I remarked, with some coldness, for I was repelled by the egotism which I had more than once observed to be a strong factor in my friend’s singular character.

“No, it is not selfishness or conceit,” said he, answering, as was his wont, my thoughts rather than my words. “If I claim full justice for my art, it is because it is an impersonal thing - a thing beyond myself. Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell. You have degraded what should have been a series of lectures into a series of tales.”

It was a cold morning of the early spring, and we sat after breakfast on either side of a cheery fire in the old room at Baker Street. A thick fog rolled down between the lines of dun-coloured houses, and the opposing windows loomed like dark, shapeless blurs, through the heavy yellow wreaths. Our gas was lit, and shone on the white cloth, and glimmer of china and metal, for the table had not been cleared yet.

The constant intermingling of dark and light, good and bad - in Sherlock Holmes more than anyone - is another aspect that makes these stories, as a whole piece of work, more sophisticated than they seemed at first. It’s atmospheric, but it’s also one of the difficulties that we have to cope with in life: how much bad can we bear to see in what we love, and how much good can we bear to see in what we despise? I think of this as ‘the ugly truth’ conundrum; truth being, by definition, beautiful, and something I want to see.

Joseph Bell, on whom Sherlock Holmes is partially based, was an Edinburgh surgeon who taught Doyle, a medical student. Bell also taught my great-grandfather, who emigrated to Australia as a doctor and died of a morphine overdose in Eidsvold, Queensland. Sherlock Holmes enjoyed a bit of intravenous cocaine, and my father has always drawn connections between Sherlock Holmes, Joseph Bell and our ill-fated relative, William Rainer - perhaps it was common for medical men to have intravenous drug habits. Part of WIlliam Rainer’s story was that he kept (as was discovered after his death) all the delicate glass ampoules that the morphine had come in. It was my grandmother, aged fourteen, who found him dead.

May 2010: In reference to Benjamin Britten, Chris mentioned Turn Of The Screw by Henry James, and Death In Venice by Thomas Mann, and I was annoyed at so narrowly missing the opportunity, all too rare, to discuss books with Chris; though Henry James and Thomas Mann are among my favourites, I haven’t read these two works, simply because they are short, and I prefer ‘em long. So I started with Turn Of The Screw. Reading it was scary - at the foot of my bed, the wardrobe doors, left ajar, gaped darkly at me until I jumped up and closed them; when I would finally turn out the light, rain pouring down outside, I’d pull the blankets right over my head and breathe through a gap. It’s a ghost story, and it worked. But some elements were disappointing, and almost seemed unfulfilled, possibly because the story is about one-hundred-and-ten years old. The fact that the eerie young siblings’ parents had died, simply and conveniently died, was not considered, in 1898, an issue that needed working through, as it was fairly commonplace. But I thought James missed out on an extra layer by not featuring the parents in the plot, or at least in the children’s psychological profiles. The other assumption that James makes, and that present-day reader won’t make, is that Quint and Miss Jessel are damned. Miss Jessel seems to have died giving birth to an illegitimate child (Quint’s), and Quint seems to have been a lower-class man who rebelled against his place in society - this present-day reader rather likes the sound of Quint and Miss Jessel. And the mere fact that they are ghosts, rather than in heaven with the angels, means that they’re bad. I struggled to go along with all that, much as I tried.

Here’s one bit I liked, because it could loosely be applied to a man I had just (briefly) been involved with: [The children’s governess, who is also our narrator, is discussing the weird goings-on with the cook, who, unlike Quint, does know and accept her inferior place]:

“...the very things that have delighted, fascinated and yet, at bottom, as I now so strangely see, mystified and troubled me. Their more than earthly beauty, their absolutely unnatural goodness. It’s a game,” I went on; “It’s a policy and a fraud!”

“On the part of the little darlings?”

“As yet mere lovely babies? Yes, mad as that seems!” The very act of bringing it out really helped me to trace it - follow it all up and piece it all together. “They haven’t been good - they’ve only been absent. It has been easy to live with them because they’re simply leading a life of their own. They’re not mine - they’re not ours. They’re his and they’re hers!”

“Quint’s and that woman’s?”

“Quint’s and that woman’s. They want to get to them.”

Oh, how, at this, poor Mrs Grose appeared to study them! “But for what?”

“For the love of all the evil that, in those dreadful days, the pair put into them. And to ply them with that evil still, to keep up the work of demons, is what brings the others back.”

“Laws!”said my friend under her breath.

‘Evil’ is a concept that puts me on the wrong side of an author (e.g. Lionel Shriver, in her silly and sloppy Something Or Other About Kevin). I don’t accept evil. An author has to work very hard to convince me a character is bad-at-heart - they can’t just slap the ‘evil’ label on someone and expect me to believe it. I don’t think Turn Of The Screw is one of Henry James’s best works. I suspect it’s one of his quickies - one of those works that has contributed to his reputation of writing a paragraph (containing a zillion commas and one full-stop) when, with a bit of self-control, he could have conveyed the same information in a couple of lines.

May 2010: Darren lent me Northline by Willy Vlautin, and I duly read it. I sent a text to Andy, “I’m in bed reading a depressing book.” “Why read it then?” “Because when someone lends me a book, I want to finish it so that at least I can talk about why I didn’t like it.” I enjoy talking with a friend about a book we’ve both read (recently enough to remember), and it doesn’t happen very often. One reason I write ‘Book of the Moment’ is to impress on my mind the books I’ve read - I forget books, movies, love affairs and TV shows scandalously fast, a failing of memory that I’d like to improve.

I’m no fan of Raymond Carver. I read one book of his short stories (Cathedral, I believe) several years ago, and discovered that its surface of austere, unembellished honesty covered up no great truth (too ugly for most of us to bear), but just a stunted, self-involved sentimentality. I thought he had nothing much to offer, and - to think! - he has spawned (or rather, misled) so many followers! Every second modern American book I pick up (true, not that many) doffs its hat to Carver. That kind of bleak ‘realism’ gives me the shits, and Northline plays this one note without a break, from the seedy beginning to the egg-shell-fragile hope-of-happiness ending. It’s not that interesting to read about Allison trying to cut her wrists then hating herself for not having the guts to go through with it. I don’t want to see the world through her grey haze of depression. That’s not realism; that’s not reality. That’s someone who is too self-involved to see the world for what it is, namely marvellous.

The Carver-genre should not be known as realism; in fact, it is romance, dressed down so that men won’t be embarrassed to be seen with it. The female characters are vulnerable and bruised, the males are scarred (and all the more manly for it!), the settings all empty bottles, full ashtrays, bare mattresses and rundown cars, and the emotions are pubescent.