Friday, July 1, 2011

Rudyard Kipling/Craig Raine

July, 2011:  About ten years ago, my father gave me the complete Kipling.  I loved Kim and The Jungle Book, but hated The Light That Failed, and didn't think much of one or two other volumes that I looked at.  In an effort to rectify my low opinion of Kipling, Geoff recently lent me A Choice of Kipling's Prose (1987), selected by Craig Raine.  Every one of these short stories is a jewel.  Thankfully, Raine didn't let the title of the selection put him off including some of Kipling's poems, too; I find poetry hard to read, as it is so dense and rich, and seems to demand repeated poring-overs - the kind of attention that I give to songs - so to have a few of Raine's favourites slipped in between stories was a good way of making prose-readers eat their poems (the way Geoff used to slip a whole lot of spinach into the spag bol he used to make for us children).
It's hard to write about short stories; each story ought to have at least a paragraph, and, alas, I don't want to spend that much time on the task.  One thing that made me love him was his great interest in every person who crossed his path.  He makes two old English ladies having afternoon tea together just as interesting, colourful and moving, as, say, the ill-fated love affair between a Hindu woman who and an Englishman (she ends up having her hands cut off).  And although I usually dislike dialect being put down in print - because it divides us into 'people who speak properly' and people who don't - when Kipling does it, it is because he has such a fine ear for voices, and the words people use is clearly of profound interest to him.  His ability to replicate a person's verbal style is miraculous.  His own voice is almost inaudible, so that I will find myself thinking, "Who told me that story about the handsome man getting his come-uppance?"  Then I'll remember - it was the story Love-o'-Woman, where the handsome man is dying, and all he can think about is a certain past love.  He finds her working in a brothel; his affair with her 'ruined' her.  
'"Fwhat do you do here?" she sez, an' her voice wint up.  'Twas like bells tollin' before.  "Time was whin you were quick enough wid your words - you that talked me down to Hell.  Are ye dumb now?"  An' Love-o'-Woman got his tongue, an' sez simple, like a little child, "May I come in?" he sez.
'"The house is open day an' night," she sez, wid a laugh; and Love-o'-Woman ducked his head an' hild up his hand as tho' he was gyardin'.  The Power was still on him - it hild him up still, for, by my sowl, as I'll never save ut, he walked up the veranda steps that had been a livin' carpse in hospital for a month!
'"An' now?" she sez, lookin' at him; an' the red paint stud lone on the white av her face like a bull's-eye on a target.
'He lifted up his eyes, slow an' very slow, an' he looked at her long an' very long, an' he tuk his spache betune his teeth wid a wrench that shook him.
'"I'm dyin', Aigypt - dyin'," he sez.  Ay, those were his words, for I remimber the name he called her.  He was turnin' the death-colour, but his eyes niver rowled.  They were set - set on her.  Widout word or warnin' she opened her arms full stretch, an' "Here!" she sez.  (Oh, fwhat a golden miracle av a voice ut was!)  "Die here!" she sez, an' Love-o'-Woman dhropped forward, an' she hild him up, for she was a fine big woman.

I can see I'm going to have to read the introduction (I rarely do), as it reveals some of the many secrets encrypted in his stories - Love-o'-Woman was dying of syphilis, of course!  And "I'm dyin', Aigypt - dyin'" is a quote from Anthony An' Cleopatra!  And the nephew in another of my favourite stories, The Gardener, is actually an illegitimate son!  I should have known this from:
...though she was, at the time, under threat of lung trouble which had driven her to the south of France.

Perhaps I would have picked that up if he had added, "for nine months." 

His stories about India, or ghosts, or lovers, are like dreams, and have stayed in my mind only as pictures or brief moments without their contexts, but his stories about war are memorable, maybe partly because they're written with intent.  My father says Kipling was a real "warmonger" until his son was killed in battle (but which one - the Boer or WWI?).  The Madonna of the Trenches is about a traumatised soldier  who had been at 'Butcher's Row' in France, where corpses were used as sand-bags to keep back the tide of mud.  This was all right in winter, but "all those trenches were like gruel in a thaw", and when the duckboards were missing a slat, you'd unavoidably tread on the corpses, and they'd "creak".  To the reader, it seems more than understandable that this would leave a person permanently unhinged.  But Kipling's Brother Keede (a local doctor) doesn't buy it, and over the course of the story, he unlocks the real cause of Brother Strangwick's anxiety.  Kipling is telling a good story, but he is also making the point that when you have been calibrated to the daily horror of war, walking down Butcher's Row is as traumatising as say, cleaning out a grease trap (which is pretty disgusting).  But do we want to reach that level of calibration?  

He writes just as well about the people left at home in England, and how they become calibrated - not to say hardened - to the constant dying around them.  Mary Postgate is a story about a 'lady's companion', an inert woman who has no family of her own, seems to have no desires, no impulses or emotions, excepting a slightly maternal attachment to her lady's nephew.  He dies in WWI, and she gathers together his belongings and burns them in the incinerator at the bottom of the garden.  An enemy pilot chances to have parachuted down to the ground nearby, and is mortally wounded.  As Mary incinerates, she listens to him dying.  Mary, when young, had a lot of experience with people dying - her mother, father, "cousin Dick", and "Lady McCausland's house-maid".  One line reveals her as she was when young, before life had cauterised hopes and emotions out of her: "Her long pleasure [in listening to the soldier's death rattle] was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life."  Mary Postgate might be the strangest anti-hero ever.  The Gardener is the other war-at-home story that really struck me - struck me so hard I cried, and not just a tear or two!  Helen goes to Belgium to see where her 'nephew' has been buried:
She climbed a few wooden-faced earthen steps and then met the entire crowded level of the thing in one held breath.  She did not know that Hagenzeele Third counted twenty-one thousand dead already.  All she saw was a merciless sea of black crosses, bearing little strips of stamped tin at all angles across their faces.  She could distinguish no order or arrangement in their mass; nothing but a waist-high wilderness as of weeds stricken dead, rushing at her.
This is one of those descriptions that is so odd and specific, I suddenly realised I was reading a first-hand experience, though Kipling has hidden himself in a woman's body.  The mass slaughter was one thing that made me cry; but the other tragedy was the grief of Helen, a self-contained, controlled, sensible, cool-blooded Englishwoman.  Her grief is so low-key, it isn't expressed in any way - she doesn't cry, she doesn't get flustered, she doesn't feel sick.  The only expression of her grief is via someone else, a man she takes to be a gardener at the mass cemetery.  He looks at her with "infinite compassion" - and that's the first and only suggestion that Helen might not be coping with the experience as well as we think she is; in fact, might be looking distraught and grief-stricken.  He looks at her slip of paper:

"Come with me," he said, "and I will show you where your son lies."

She had said "nephew", but he took it in spirit, and reinterpreted it (correctly, as the introduction points out) as "son".  She doesn't correct him.  All this small-scale drama is extremely moving - I suppose I can be recalibrated, too, and accept that subtle feelings are as significant as tumultuous ones.  Being a tumultuous feeler, I hesitate to say "or more significant!" - though perhaps they are, in that they occur, for one such as Helen, less frequently.  

Joy L. Thwaite/Eve Langley

July, 2011: When Mumma gave me, in 2006, The Importance of Being Eve Langley, by Joy L. Thwaite (1989), I put it on the shelf with no immediate plans to read it. Then, after reading about Isabelle Eberhardt (see below), I found myself thinking about Eve Langley. These two books, or rather, their subjects, are parts of a puzzle, one for which I don't have the box, so I don't know what picture it is that I'm trying to piece together.

I loved The Pea Pickers, Langley's first novel, when I read it ten or fifteen years ago. I thought it was wild and exuberant, o'er-brimming with love, crazy but catching itself just in time. Later, I read Wilde Eve, a selection of her writing edited by Lucy Frost. All those qualities were still apparent, but Langley had a struggle to keep them from drowning in a cess-pit of desperation, sadness, depression, poverty, dysfunction, isolation and loneliness. Her story is incredibly sad. Ruth Park says, "I have thought long and seriously about the following comment: she was the sanest, most stable person I ever knew. She was, I believe, born into the wrong age."

Thwaite's book is a biography, told mainly by Langley's own writing. Langley kept journals, which she revisited a decade or two later and fashioned into novels; all but two were deemed unpublishable by Angus and Robertson (who published this book of Thwaite's), and although Thwaite says that this might have been a misjudgment, I think only a handful of hardcore Langley fans would be able to stomach anything more undisciplined and fanciful than The Pea Pickers. Says the reader's report on Land Of The Long White Cloud: "VERY SAD AND QUITE HOPELESS...It is the aimless chronicle of an irresponsible person who follows her own moods till they run her into misery, but never considers she has any duty to anyone." This statement could apply as much to her way of living as writing. Yet someone published, many bought and many read Infinite Jest, a work in equally dire need of editing as Langley's.

Langley was born in 1904, somewhere between Forbes and Molong. In 1928, she and her sister June, or Blue, dressed in men's clothes and rambled around Gippsland, picking peas and doing other seasonal work. Langley was a lover of men, but eschewed marriage. She loved men so much, she wanted to be one: "I knew that I was a woman, but I thought I should have been a man. I knew that I was comical but I thought I was serious and beautiful as well. It was tragic to be only a comical woman when I longed above all things to be a serious and handsome man." [The Pea Pickers] Later in life, she even changed her name by deed-poll to Oscar Wilde. She gave birth to a daughter, fathered by a car salesman from Milan, but the baby died a few weeks after she was born. Living in Auckland, Langley became obsessed with an artist, Hilary Clark, who seems to have had a long-term male lover, Franz. But she forcefully wooed Clark, became pregnant, and they married in 1937, when she was 33 and Clark was about 21. They had three children, in abject poverty and poisonous wedlock. Clark spent a lot of his time in his studio in Auckland, and Langley shut the children up in a shed in the backyard and wrote The Pea Pickers, which was published the same year she was committed to Auckland Mental Hospital.

She was in there for seven years, and when she came out was, according to Molly Kilbride, who worked with her at the Auckland Public Library, "...a sad little woman...She had big, luminous eyes, which wouldn't hold your gaze directly - they were fearful, side-wandering eyes - and a pudding-basin haircut...Her eyes were very troubling. She had a very nervous manner and her eyes flickered up and down." Langley now took a doll to bed with her. She gradually acquired a horde of dolls, and was attached to all her worthless (by anyone else's standards) possessions, including lots of little paper-wrapped packages of feathers, leaves, debris. She went on a disastrous and most peculiar trip to Greece, having had a life-long romance with the ancient civilisation; unsurprisingly, to anyone but Langley, she found it, in the late-60s, nothing like her dreams. She died in 1974 in her little tumbledown hut on Clydebank Avenue, Katoomba, possibly having been beaten up by louts, and was undiscovered for about a month, her face having been "chewed by rats" - this last aspect of her death wouldn't, I feel, have much bothered Langley, a woman who could find the warmth of her own urine comforting: "I had a strange night. I let the fire go out and lay all night long in a fever on a bed soaked with urine and heard myself muttering and laughing before I sank into fevered sleep. But the great great darkness was soothing all night and the urine helped me."

This is a book for the fans. It is disorderly and repetitive, but contains a lot of good material, and is certainly more accessible than Langley's unpublished manuscripts that lie in the Mitchell Library - when Langley's typewriter ribbon ran out, she simply kept typing, and the poor Angus and Robertson readers were forced to try to decipher the faint impression of the inkless keys. This in itself encapsulates the weakness of Langley's writing: she considered her genius and vision enough, and no subsequent effort on her part was necessary to make her writing palatable - not even a fresh typewriter ribbon. She is partly right: her vivid observations, and her mode of putting them into words, is enough. It's enough to make her notable and intriguing, and a really Australian writer - Australian in her wonderful descriptions of landscape, her love of the country, and also her isolated, individualistic, eccentric (as in, away from the centre) way of thinking. But it's not enough to make her a great novelist.

There are thousands of passages worth reading. Here are a few:

I went down the steps past the irises and daisies, very white and determined in the strong morning breeze, and picked up the bumble a moist hand. He was quite dead. His tongue hung far out of his mouth, brown, thin like the hairs on a tree fern, and his arms were about his face...just as if he had been crying. [Demeter of Dublin Street]

Autumn began to come brownly along the paddocks and the river that we loved. All the way down the valley, the road swung in white dust, and the dusty trees leant over it and the yellow sallows in the swamp all the way to Myrtleford darkened their roots in stagnant water and penny royal smelt purpling and green in the dry places. Now slow along the valley we loved, autumn was coming, all golden and the huge tall poplars began to glitter and fly with the golden flags and bitter odours of winter. [The Victorians]

She is a woman after my own heart:

[There was] only one perfect place on this earth and that was the bark hut...with little in it, the less the better; the only luxuries a good suit of mens [sic] clothes, two volumes of Horace, one volume of Greek plays and six or seven good rifles...[The Pea Pickers]

...I considered these clubs [literary clubs], for which I had a profound distaste, wasters of good energy and mental reservoirs...I'd feel like a caged animal in those talky drawing rooms. I'd sooner run shouting through the Kickareeki ranges with a deer's tail about my thighs...But I dislike any sort of literary gathering, you know, and prefer to work in the lonely silence of the unknown winter...[from Demeter Of Dublin Street]

Her single-minded pursuit of Clark is a salutary lesson in not chasing someone who doesn't chase you back - although she seemingly achieves her end by marrying him, the marriage is a nightmare, and destroys her.

"You courted me. You threw yourself into my arms, I had to hold you up against that; I told you" he turned his hard white face toward me, "that I would rather take the sluts off the street, than you...pity I didn't too."

"But Hilary," I cried, "I love you." We lost women are all the same; we think the repetition of our old charmed words will awaken the dead.

...Hilary knotted himself up into a branch of hate, the blossom of which was his mouth. His face was distorted with hatred, his mouth was white with it, and his face so twisted that his small moustache was nearly under his ear.

Even in describing this scene, her sense of humour gets a look in; at least, I find the description of his face wicked and funny.

Less funny:

But, oh, the anguish of that which I have to call 'pain', and which I do not believe to be pain, or grief or sorrow. I think it is an ecstasy so cramped in a little human soul that its struggle is called 'Grief'. [Last, Loveliest, Loneliest]

The deserted-house feeling came over me; the sense of being locked up, if anyone spoke, of having a loose blind sagging somewhere in my face, and of everyone looking close into me, as into an empty window, and seeing nothing because of the darkness of the rooms. [Last, Loveliest, Loneliest]

Thwaite's apt conclusion is that Langley "achieved the disillusion without the maturity." I think she suffered from having memories that didn't fade the way they are meant to (let us be grateful for fading memories!). And undoubtedly, as Ruth Park says, she suffered from being unable to be anything but herself in a repressive society. The fact that Langley was stoned by boys for wearing trousers (as she walked to the doctor in Auckland to get her anal fissure attended to) is sufficient proof that what was right and natural to her, was roundly seen as wrong and punishable. This is a terrible dilemma - do what is right, and suffer isolation and persecution; or warp and degrade yourself for the sake of being in step with those around you? In some ways, I see people like Langley and Eberhardt, and also D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, as being martyrs for the sexual equality and sexual freedom that we enjoy today.

I asked my father if he had ever met Eve Langley. He said he had only a vague memory of meeting or seeing a dumpy woman at some literary occasion, but he also said that she had once sent him a letter to say how much she liked his poem about the possum that died in the roof of his childhood home. That was always a favourite poem of mine, too! Langley died a month or two before I was born. I wish I could have met her. Soon I'll do a pilgrimage up to Clydebank Avenue, Katoomba.

Cecilia Mackworth/Isabelle Eberhardt

July, 2011: The Destiny Of Isabelle Eberhardt, by Cecilia Mackworth (1975) was, I'm pretty sure, given to me by my mother, but uncharacteristically for her, it has not been inscribed. Over the years, Mumma has given me quite a few books by feminist historians, or books about exceptionally bold and intrepid women from earlier times. I'm not sure whether this is because I have always shown a tendency towards boundary-bustin' feminism, or perhaps Mumma and her choice of birthday presents subtly urged me in that direction.
Isabelle Eberhardt is one of the most boundary-bustin' people I've ever read about. And it's unfair to keep her within the limits of feminism, because she was a boundary-buster by anyone's standards. "She was that which attracts me more than anything else," writes Colonel Lyautey after her death, "A rebel. What a joy to find someone who is truly himself, refusing all prejudice, all servitude, all banality, and who passes through life as freely as a bird through the air." In brief, she grew up in Geneva; her mother was an illegitimate German Jew who had kept her origins secret and married a Russian of noble birth (i.e. a big snob) in the Tsarist Army. After having several children with him, she ran off with their tutor, a handsome Armenian with all sorts of extreme philosophies. Isabelle Eberhardt, born 1877, was the youngest daughter from the second litter (to use my mother's terminology). Her childhood was bad enough to make her run, and keep running, until she was drowned, at twenty-seven, in a flash flood in Ain-Sefra, Algeria. By then, she had converted to Islam, dressed habitually as a man, had lost all her teeth and had malaria, was married to a handsome but rather spineless Arab soldier whom she had met one night in an oasis, and spent her days and nights riding around the Sahara, taking shelter (or not) in various Bedouin tents, army camps and tiny villages.
After reading her story (and it's very nicely told, too), the main impression left on me was that someone who lives so resolutely according to her nature, and by what seems right to her (rather than by what she is told is right), leads a very lonely life. Enemies spring up around Isabelle for practically no reason. She writes in her diary, on Christmas Day 1902, "The most difficult of all things - the only difficult thing, perhaps - is to enfranchise oneself and - even harder - to live in freedom. Anyone who is in the least free is the enemy of the mob, to be systematically persecuted, tracked down wherever he takes refuge. I am becoming more and more irritated against this life and the people who refuse to allow any exception to exist and who accept their own slavery and try to impose it on others."
Her ideas about freedom are further advanced than mine, and therefore exciting - nay, inspiring! - for me to read. Forget Jack Kerouac! He was a dilettante compared to Eberhardt.

One night, stretched out on the rush matting of some Moorish café far out in the Main or in the mountain country, she scribbled some notes in pencil:
'There are few intellectuals who care to claim their right to the life of a wanderer, to vagabondage.
'Yet vagabondage means escape from slavery and the life of the road means liberty.
'To take the decision, to cast off all the bonds with which modern life and the weakness of our own hearts have charged us, to arm ourselves with the symbolic staff and sack of the pilgrim and to depart...
'For anyone who understands the value and also the exquisite flavour of solitary freedom (for one is only really free when one is alone) the act of departure is the bravest and most beautiful of all.
'A selfish happiness perhaps. But it is happiness, for him who knows how to appreciate it.
'To be alone, to have no needs, to be unknown, a stranger and at home everywhere, and to march, solitary and great, to the conquest of the world...
'To possess a home, a family, property or some sort of public function, to have some definite means of existence, in fact, to be a cog in the social machine - these are the things that seem necessary and indispensable to the great majority of men, even to intellectuals and to those who believe themselves to be enfranchised.
'Yet all that is only a variety of the slavery into which we are dragged by the contact with our fellows, and, above all, by a contact that is regulated and continual...
'All property has its bounds and all power is subject to some law, but the tramp possesses the whole vast earth, whose only limits are the unreal horizon, and his empire is intangible since he governs and enjoys it in the spirit.'

At one point, Sliman gets a job in Tenes, a small town in Algeria. He and Isabelle have been so impoverished that the prospect of a regular income is appealing. But small-town life is excruciating for Isabelle (and the poverty continues, forcing Isabelle to beg friends for the odd ten francs, so that she can buy food).
Raymond Marival [a friend in Tenes], ...commemorated, after her death, one of these fits of despair which both he and Randau attributed to the insults and cruel mockeries of the town:
'Behind the house in which I lived at this period was a garden enclosed by a fence; a vine, a wild fig tree and a few flowering rose bushes were its only ornament. The noise of the town did not reach it and one could hear nothing but the confused murmur of the sea and of the great sea-gulls that circled in the air with piercing shrieks.
'Isabelle loved this retreat and used to come there almost every evening. She would sit on a bench, legs crossed and eyes vague, and silently smoke cigarettes of pale tobacco perfumed with musk. On the evening of which I speak, dusk had fallen and moths were fluttering around the lamp. Suddenly, in the shadow, I thought I heard a sob. Isabelle was crying, her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.
"What is the matter," I asked. "What is the matter, Si Mahmoud?"
'She lifted her wet face reluctantly and fixed me with eyes full of distress, the eyes of a hunted animal. It lasted only for a second. As I approached, anxious at this breakdown, her face was masked again with the rather cold mask of careless serenity with which she usually faced her troubles.'

She makes me think of Rudyard Kipling's poem Untimely, except that Eberhardt's time hasn't come even yet. She writes to Barrucand, who published some of her articles and stories, and posthumously 'co-wrote' her work Dans l'ombre chaude de l'Islam, "We are all poor devils, and those who refuse to understand that are even poorer than ourselves."
I was moved to write a song about Isabelle. I started to play it to Nic; first he interjected, "Hmm, arty..." then he started to look appalled, "It's so depressing!"; then I started giggling, so stopped. I think it's a song to be played for myself when I'm by myself.
Isabelle Eberhardt only asked to live
To see what lay past the next sandy ridge.
Dressed as a man, she rode across the sand,
Following Islam and vagabondage.
Where the stars are bright and the night is clear,
And there's not a soul, far or near,
That's when you might hear the song of Isabelle, passing along...
"Oh, it's lovely out here!
Oh, how lovely it is to walk upon this ball of stone!
Am I the only one out here?"

Everywhere she went, she made enemies,
People feel discontent to see someone live so free.
We all want our share of what she found out there,
But few of us can bear that cold desert wind.
Where the stars are bright and the night is clear,
And there's not a soul, far or near,
That's when you might hear the song of Isabelle echoing on...
"Oh, it's lonely out here!
Oh, how lonely it is to walk upon this ball of stone!
Am I the only one who can see
We're all just vagabonds?"