Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Patrick White, Truman Capote, Edith Wharton, Herman Melville

December, 2010: I borrowed Patrick White's The Eye Of The Storm (1973) from my mother, who was cleaning up her bookshelves. I love Patrick White, and that's that. This novel is peopled by characters possibly even more repulsive than usual; though, as always, they are figured with love and fascination.

I just thought: maybe White's plays are generally more liked than his novels because his characters are played by real people, and the audience isn't exposed to how White has described them physically; his grotesque (to us - not to him) physical descriptions of his characters can alienate readers.

The Eye Of The Storm is about Elizabeth Hunter, an ancient lady, rich, once beautiful, who lives in her Centennial Park mansion with nurses, cook and house-keeper. Her two grown-up (-ish) children, Sir Basil (famous actor) and Princess Dorothy (ex-wife of a French prince) come back to Australia to get control of their mother's money. They decide that putting her into a nursing home will encourage her to die. She has been a pretty awful mother, so we tend to forgive their lack of love for her; but we also forgive her selfishness and cruelty, because there's something admirable about her - her selfishness is also uncompromising trueness-to-self. Being true to yourself often means doing things that don't work in the favour of those closest to you; when you suppress your own will to please someone else, it feels like a weak self-betrayal.

One redeeming characteristic about the three Hunters is that they know better than anyone else how disgusting they are. We are privy to all their private dark moments; dark moments, in White's hands, are rendered light moments, horribly light, with a harsh light shone onto scenes such as the ageing Sir Basil's drunken seduction of an aspiring young actress in Bangkok, that ends with him failing to get an erection, then vomiting beside the bed.

Janie Carson almost didn't glance; she switched off the light soon after. It was thoughtful of her. His nervous shanks might tremble less in the dark, the slacker skeins of flesh not swing. Balls too.

Ergh! He is so visceral! It makes us squirm with recognition and shame.

Another seduction, later in the novel, of one of his mother's nurses, the young, fecund, uneducated Sister Manhood:

"A genuine Botticelli!" He glanced over his shoulder, half-expecting some unseen spectator might have overheard his corny remark.

"My what?" she giggled as he stood out of his dressing-gown.

The breasts of this elderly man - her lover - were developing relentlessly inside the fur bra.

Here's a bit about Elizabeth Hunter and selfishness:

Lal Wyburd [the sensible wife of Elizabeth's lawyer] would naturally have interpreted as selfishness every floundering attempt anybody made to get out of the straitjacket and recover a sanity which must have been theirs in the beginning, and might be theirs again in the end. That left the long stretch of the responsible years, where you were lunging in your madness after love, money, position, possessions, while an inkling persisted, sometimes even certainty descended: of a calm in which the self had been stripped, if painfully, of its human imperfections.

I find that passage beautiful. If I had posters on my walls of cheering philosophical statements, maybe I'd make one out of that.

And another comment on the bygone Australia where people who showed signs of thinking were discouraged from that activity:

Inklings of transcendence had washed against Flora Manhood before, if only by brief moments: after some dream had driven her out from a house of threatened cardboard into a solid white night, to which her own white particle suddenly and miraculously belonged; or swimming with Col Pardoe against the tide of music, where inadmissible eddies would occur in which she was almost whirled to an understanding of mysteries such as love, beauty, fulfilment, death. Now, thanks to this crazy Jewess, she was again troubled; by a shimmer from a grotty dress in Elizabeth Hunter's wardrobe. When, like every good Australian, she must continue to believe only in the now which you can see and touch.

December, 2010: Suddenly short of a book once again, I picked Truman Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's (1958) from Stella's bookshelf. Now a couple of months has passed since I read it, and so I look at the one page I dog-eared (perhaps I was being restrained in my dog-earring because it wasn't my book):

So I more than half meant it when I wished I were under the wheels of a train. The head-line made the desire positive. If Holly could marry that 'absurd foetus', then the army of wrongness rampant in the world might as well march over me. Or, and the question is apparent, was my outrage a little the result of being in love with Holly myself? A little. For I was in love with her. Just as I'd once been in love with my mother's elderly coloured cook and a postman who let me follow him on his rounds and a whole family named Kendrick. That category of love generates jealousy, too.

Like Ethan Frome, my pleasure in Breakfast At Tiffany's wore off as soon as I'd finished it, especially as I went on to read the next short story, House Of Flowers, and the one after, A Diamond Guitar, and suddenly decided I didn't like Capote's writing any more. The narrator in Tiffany's is very likable (as the above passage shows), but I was thinking, like Ethan Frome, sometimes having a narrator can leave the story feeling very limited, and too objective. It's the reviewing of an episode that exists, all complete, in the narrator's memory. When I was a child, I used to hate comics, though I still read them (such as Snoopy and Footrot Flats), because the worlds that the stories too place in were so limited and confined. And in the case of Tiffany's and Ethan Frome, the story isn't even happening to the narrator - they are passive bystanders, on-lookers.

Maybe if I weren't a writer, I would enjoy spending a novel with these sorts of narrators. But I have enough non-participatory looking-on on my life, and prefer to spend time with characters who experience the world in a different way.

December, 2010: Short of a book, and Stell away in Broome, I browsed over her bookshelf and picked out Ethan Frome (1911) by Edith Wharton. Darren was driving someone else's newly-purchased motorhome from Melbourne to Gympie, and he picked me up as he went through Sydney; I'd been diligently at-desk for four or five weeks, and needed to feel some miles under my boots. Then I had to get to Canberra for my great-uncle Gavan's funeral, so caught the train back from Wauchope, and read almost the whole of Ethan Frome on the train trip.

It's great, simple story-telling. Ethan is a sensitive, inarticulate man in a beautiful, harsh landscape, who, in a panic of loneliness, marries a bad-tempered hypochondriac, Zenobia. Marriage being what it was, he is stuck with her (HOW CAN WE FORGET WHAT MARRIAGE USED TO BE? IT RUINED LIVES! FORGET MARRIAGE! FORGET DIVORCE! ISN'T LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP GOOD ENOUGH? That's one arm of my anti-marriage rant). Zeena's young, destitute cousin comes to live with the Fromes, inexpertly doing the house-keeping in return for her keep. Ethan and Mattie Silver slowly fall in love. Then something happens. The story is told by a narrator, who comes to the town twenty years later, and pieces the story together.

I eagerly turned the pages, and at the climax, I cried, not just a tear, but a suppressed sob. But now, a month later, something about it has left me cold: what is it? It's a perfectly-told tale - too perfect, I suspect. There's no groping, there are no false steps, no moments of ambitious failure. For a story about an inarticulate character, it's all too articulate. Wharton has Ethan in a little box. She knows him through and through. There are no ragged, fraying edges trailing off the page. That's why I love Stead, White, Mann, even when I don't like them - they are triers!

Here's the one page I dog-eared (sorry, Stella, for the book vandalism!):

He had always been more sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty. His unfinished studies had given form to this sensibility and even in his unhappiest moments field and sky spoke to him with a deep and powerful persuasion. But hitherto, the emotion had remained in him as a silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even know whether anyone else in the world felt as he did, or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege.

In Tamworth the other day, while walking along the ridge of a sort of flood levee, through a weedy, bullrushy reserve, not a soul in sight, the boom of Peel Street buskers on the breeze, I witnessed a very beautiful sunset - the Tamworth hills turning purple, the nearly-full moon in the sky. I'd been needing a cry for a couple of days, and the beauty finally broke me. The beauty made me feel so lonely, and so alive. I suppose that passage above goes part-way to explaining why I cried.

December, 2010: A History Of Private Life

December, 2010: It was time for Moby Dick (1851). For a long time, I've been meaning to read it - also The Hunchback Of Notre Dame - but I'm running out of long classics. I used to rue my years of hasty reading, but in the future, perhaps I will be grateful to them - all those forgotten novels that I can reread!

Moby Dick is a very odd book. It has passages of action and colour, as rollicking as something from a Dickens novel, then a whole lot of outdated science about whales, and minute detail about the whaling business, a chapter devoted to the significance of the colour white, chapters (and, at the end of the novel, a collection of extracts) about the history of whales and whalemen, whales in the bible, whales in Egyptian hieroglyphs. There are chapters with stage directions, and crew members talking in sotto voce asides about each other. All this variety is how Melville deals with his structural problem: that his story is a long sea voyage, with all the attendant tedium and repetition, building up to the climax (namey: Captain Ahab has it out with Moby Dick), which is also the end. Oh, a tough story he has picked for himself! In our day and age, of messing around with time, we would solve that problem by making the climax the body of the story. We would pick the eyes out of the voyage and poke them into the three days of wrangling with Moby as strategic flashbacks. Moby Dick is proof that clever structures maketh not a work of enduring value. There is something pure and beautiful - unartificial - about this structure. It provides a simple setting for the work's jewels: the authorial voice (Herman, I love you!), and the incredibly vivid descriptions of incidents, sights, feelings, that I will never experience.

I was just flicking through the novel, in search of a sentence which seemed too unremarkable at the time to dog-ear. Something about how men spend their prime years in search of fame, fortune, adventure, and only in their later years discover that all that matters is family, the fireside. This sentiment of Melville's has gradually found its way to the Christina Stead quote-of-the-moment, "She's [womankind is] desperate!" (see previous entry). It struck me that women's discovery is the opposite - they spend the first two decades of adulthood obsessed with family and the fireside - with men - then (post-menopause) discover all the other things life has to offer. In my limited but wide-ranging experience of men, those under forty think that your interest in them is a reflection of all their merits; your interest in them inspires them with the confidence to reach for even greater ambitions. Men over forty think that your interest in them is a fluke, and they try to grab as much of you as they can before you (inevitably) move on. As Jenny Winters said, "Older men - they're grateful." Men - especially the ones with the most charms - must feel a terrible loss when, for all their charms, women in their age-group simply aren't interested in them anymore, not they way they used to be. Maybe it's good and natural that women and men aren't "desperate" for each other at the same time in their life-cycle. But it seems a pity, too! Well, I'm looking forward to my revenge. I read a fairy-story in childhood where the hero had two choices: trials and tribulations in the first half of life, and peace and happiness in the second half, or vice versa. As I child, I decided that, in his position, I would have chosen the trials and tribulations in youth, while I had the energy to cope with it - "get it over with", I thought.

All right, some favourite parts:

...he [Ahab] cried out in his old lion voice, - "Up helm! Keep her off round the world!"

Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings, but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.

Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

This set off a "demon phantom" theme for me - all the demon phantoms I senselessly chase, and not just men-under-forty. It would be nice just to live, rather than fill up one's time with difficult circumnavigations.

There is a wonderful passage about our hero Ishmael's first meeting with the tattooed cannibal Queequeg, who becomes his bosom friend. Ishmael is initially repelled and horrified by Queequeg's appearance, and the fact that he has spent the day trying to hawk a severed head around the town of Nantucket. Here, he is forced to share a bedroom with Queequeg in a cheap, crowded hotel:

As I sat there in that now lonely room; the fire burning low, in that mild stage when, after its first intensity has warmed the air, then it only glows to be looked at; the evening shades and phantoms gathering round the casements, and peering in on us silent, solitary twain; the storm booming without in solemn swells; I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilised hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him.

Ishmael starts up a broken conversation with his room-mate, and ends up helping him with his nightly ritual to the little ebony idol that he carries with him:

...that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. But we did not go to sleep without some little chat.

How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg - a cosy, loving pair.

Oh, it's tiring typing out another writer's paragraphs! There are so many more dog-eared pages, but I'll stop there for now.

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