Facetious Nights

A book blog

Strangers and Pilgrims by Walter de la Mare

Ambivalent about this one, but at its best it was certainly worth me reading. It’s a collection of short stories about ghosts, fairies and the uncanny in general. The stories are arranged in the chronological order of writing, which perhaps accounts for my feeling most positive about this in the middle. Some of them are quite fairytale-y, some are stories of early 20th century life with an unexplained feeling of something disturbingly inexplicable lurking, and some of them are fairly traditional ghost stories. There are lots of churches and churchyards. They’re atmospheric. The words are pretty. I’m not entirely sure they were always in the right order, but then again I’m not sure they were in the wrong order either. De la Mare is all about the uncanny as experience of otherness, chilling not quite so much in the sense of frightening but in its lack of the warmth of familiarity. The occasional fairy plays basically much the same role as a ghost: the sighting transfixes and transfigures the seer; they never get to know anything beyond their initial confrontation with its existence and they are marked by the knowledge that it, and another kind of reality, exists. The introduction makes much of the idea that most of the uncanny cannot be proven to be outside the characters’ minds and what really haunts them is themselves. This is kind of true of most ghost stories and I’m not sure it seemed to be more true of these. It’s usually the mental effects of the uncanny that is presented as the real horror. But yes, De la Mare has his own version of this. He puts you into that cold, unhuman place but then I guess I wanted him to do more with it, at least sometimes. After a while I started to want there to be a next step.

The Daisy Chain by Charlotte Yonge

Like Little Women but more religious. So you have to like nineteenth-century domestic fiction and to have a strong stomach for didacticism. This is the story of a family of eleven children whose mother dies in the first few chapters. Their father, a country doctor, generous, absent-minded, with a temper that prevents his children at times from trusting him, has been used to leaving all domestic concerns to his wife. Naturally, his teenage daughters take on a great deal of this responsibility for him. One of these daughters, Ethel, is the main character if the book has a main character. She’s rather a Jo March type who has to learn to channel her enthusiasm in order to achieve things, to sacrifice things because women can’t have it all, and to become more domestic. She’s the character whose virtue is worth most because we are most involved in her struggle to attain it. Not that the other characters don’t have their own struggles. Yonge is particularly concerned here with how to cope with being clever, well-off and popular; she sees these as problems to be taken very seriously. Sometimes it is a character’s duty to suffer heroically through being lauded and lucky and sometimes it isn’t. This has the gossipy feel of small incidents in a small group of characters, punctuated by melodrama when characters die or don’t die.

The thing about Yonge is that if you can get over the fact that self-sacrifice and death are presented as good things in almost any circumstance, she’s a good writer. She engages with people and puts much more into the book than she has to. She doesn’t drag her characters from A to B, bent only on proving her point. She takes the time to acknowledge the idiosyncrasy of particular characters’ psychology so that they get to B under their own steam. The characters each have their different, carefully thought out strengths and weaknesses. She has a great imagination for moral flaws and sees them in the most unlikely places so that, for all the didacticism, your moral imagination is put to work rather than put to sleep.

Ethel should have married the Scottish laird though.

Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

The reviews for this, while faultlessly emphatic on its dark depressingness somehow, through this very emphasis, made me imagine something more vivaciously, energetically dark and depressing. More frenzied, I think. The reality is drearier. This begins with some depressed, desultory characters in a Hungarian village abandoned except by them. The buildings are rotting, falling apart, the inhabitants unable to prevent them from returning to the primeval mud. The monotony is broken up by the arrival of someone with a personality and his sidekick, both previously thought dead. Only briefly broken up mind. Once we’ve established their arrival we spend the first half of the novel establishing quite what all the depressed desultory characters were doing before Irimias and Petrina got there. A child commits suicide and, while waiting for Irimias and Petrina, the characters lose themselves for a while in a drunken dance, which is about as good as things get for them.

Irimias, returning to the estate for some obscure nefarious bureaucratic reason, gathers up the characters and redistributes them for further nefarious bureaucratic reasons, obscure at least to me. The shine has gone off him for one character who realises he probably doesn’t even know what he is doing. It’s all about the pointlessness of a particular political situation, I imagine, and life in general. It’s not entirely deathly serious, there’s an edge of “what does anything really matter?” humour.

The problem with books that are said to be like Kafka and Beckett etc is that they are like them. That is, we have seen it before. We are slogging through all this dreariness for the literary value, and when books are like something else rather than like themselves, the literary value has been stretched too far and has worn a little thin. This is somewhat the case with this, but the problem with Difficult Books is that by the time you’ve got through them you’re kind of stockholmed, so I’m not sure whether this was enough of its own thing or not. It does have an atmosphere of it own, I think.

Kilvert’s Diary by Francis Kilvert

A wild rainy night.  They are holding Clyro Feast Ball at the Swan opposite.  As I write I hear the scraping and squealing of the fiddle and the ceaseless heavy tramp of the dancers as they stamp the floor in a  country dance.  An occasional blast of wind or rush of wind shakes my window.  Toby sits before the fire on the hearthrug and now and then jumps up on my knee to be stroked.  The mice scurry rattling along the wainscot and Toby darts off in great excitement to listen and watch for them.

Isn’t that the kind of passage you’d read a book like this for?  The cosy and the foreign, the intimate and the far away.

It took either Kilvert or me a little while to get into it — diaries can sound so self-conscious, and be rendered so much less interesting because of it.  But we both got into it and I think this really is an important document that should be better known.  It’s an actually lived version of some charming, fascinating rural material more usually seen in fiction, and Kilvert is so much like both a real three-dimensional person (being a real person and all) and a stereotypical Victorian in some respects.  You will need to like scenery, at least when done well, and Kilvert does do it well.  What’s nice is that Kilvert appreciates his vantage point and his relatively leisured lifestyle.

It’s good to see the picturesque country setting and the quaint but changing community free of the need to fulfil the thematic demands of fiction.  The diary format, working as a mosaic composed of random little slivers of colour, creates a curious, sometimes jarring effect — one minute Kilvert is in a cottage hearing some gruesome gossip of death and disaster and madness, the next he’s sauntering off down the lane noticing poetic things and about wildflowers.  Some people are doomed and devastated and some people are doing just fine.  Kilvert himself dies before he’s forty.  I liked the older people’s stories of the olden days — it’s not just the Victorian’s present that’s different to ours, it’s the past that they’re most familiar with.  Kilvert thinking sadly in the 1870s how the attendants at the annual banquet for Waterloo veterans must be dwindling.  The sense of a human chain stretching all the way back, though all but a short section of the preceding chain in lost to sight.

Romance and sexual attraction is where Kilvert is most Victorian, though there is a bit about his reaction to the Prince of Wales’s illness which is pretty foreign.  It’s the weird thing where sexual attraction gets mostly sublimated into waxing lyrical about rosy cheeks and angels, which, because there’s nothing in it that’s specific to the qualities of adult women, gets lavished on little girls too, even though to our eyes it seems so clearly sexual.   Kilvert barely knows there are such things as little boys, but he tells us all about the little girls in his parish.  This is going to give us a “You seem nice; <i>why</i> must you be creepy?” reaction as we read.  It’s annoying not only because of the age element but because of the Dickensy element.  All the girls he likes are made to sound like the girls Dickens heroes marry.  They’re undifferentiated from each other and have no personality apart from being lusciously innocent and good.  The Victorian weirdness shows up in other ways.  Kilvert meets a girl and falls in love with her that same day.  Two days later he and a friend are earnestly discussing whether or not he should marry her and getting all excited about what a good idea it all is.  The day after that he’s announcing his intentions to the girl’s father.  This happens more than once, which certainly adds a humorous element.  They used to be stuck with spouses for life, yet you really notice an incredibly casual attitude with regard to choosing them in the past.

The Vintage edition has a pretty cover but seems to be a facsimile of a much earlier one.  There’s just an old page and a half introduction, which really seemed pretty cheap to me.  They got people to do introductions for the most minor Graham Greene novels, and this is more something that deserves putting in context.

A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys

At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of First Cause which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe.

An opening sentence only an author could love. It gets better, but it is also like this on and off for all its 1,120 pages. Somehow, though, I’d just look at the bits like that and wonder why they weren’t bothering me. Powys reminds me of my impression of D. H. Lawrence’s worst traits (must read more of Lawrence and see just how justified my impression is); women having emotions in their quivering breasts and the sex relation and the like, with added mumbo jumbo. I feel like Lawrence is too much interested in himself and the quivering breasts. Powys is a very interested author. Also he understands that funniness exists in the universe, and this is very important in an author — they need not even be actually funny. This quality of Powys’s voice stops the book from feeling too earnest or grotesque — it has a sense of proportion, in its own way. it’s a companionable book.

The book opens with John Crow, a rather shiftless, stubborn, lone wolf youngish man, coming home for his grandfather’s funeral. He meets his childhood sweetheart/cousin, Mary, and they instantly reconnect; by and large they share a character poised between cynical coldness and cynicism. John moves to Glastonbury to be nearer to Mary, who is a lady’s companion there. Both resist and resent the history and concomitant caricaturisation of Glastonbury, though both come to relent to some degree. John takes a role organising a fantastically ambitious pageant for John Geard, the man who has inherited his grandfather’s fortune, an intensely mystical and earthy messianic figure. It’s hard not to take John as the central figure, as he is certainly a main character and we meet him first, but this is such a community/cast of thousands novel the idea of a centre is tenuous.

Powys doesn’t stint. He lays on a spread. There are romances and Mayors raising children from the dead and conflicts between romanticism and business and politics and communes and epic struggles with consciences and ghosts and murders. I find that Powys is very good at capturing experience; the ineffable, distinct atmosphere of a particular gathering of people on a particular day. Lots of things happen and lots of people have thoughts about them. God and Jesus have thoughts about things. A woodlouse, admittedly imagined by John Crow, has thoughts about a human louse. It’s a book about connecting to the land and the continuous identity of the land, I suppose, and Powys makes every random scrubby bit of moss, every rotten bit of wood, every mote of dust on an apple part of that. If one could imagine a modern urban equivalent, it might glory in crisp packets. I think there’s something inherently likable about the audacity and generosity of all this.

In a way the book is hard to talk about because it’s too talky itself — most books you have to tease out what they think about things. This one keeps up an overt stream of chat on life, the universe and everything. I read Wolf Solent by Powys in 2007 and loved it, though possibly less than this. After that I kept getting Maiden Castle out of the library and not reading it somehow. For the first 100 pages of this I was thinking, but this is exactly my thing, why did I not read more earlier? Once into the next hundred I thought ah, it’s because Powys fits more into fifty pages than most authors do into a whole novel. Reading a whole book by Powys is like reading twelve books by the same author back to back. You’re going to need strength, or you’re going to need to need Powys at this particular point in your reading life. The good thing is that it’s not like reading twelve books that are exactly the same back to back. Powys keeps on doing different things. I wasn’t surfeited after the first hundred pages. I miss it now I’m not reading it.

Tin Toys Trilogy by Ursual Holden

A trilogy of three novellas about three sisters growing up, pretty uncared for, in the forties. This might be called “I Saw Something Nasty in the Woodshed.” I think that suggests a lot about what this book does and what it ought to do but doesn’t. It’s about childhood confrontation with experience, specifically sex and death. It’s about vulnerability and unhappiness. The problem with this book is that it is too explicit and too overblown. It loses its power over the reader when the narrators tell us too directly how they feel and when there are too many faintly ludicrous disasters and unpleasant incidents. It is dangerously prone to the merely silly and will tip over for some readers. Their mother is too clearly and simply seen by her children as a beautiful, shallow, irresponsible and elusive woman, an instantly recognisable type of bad mother. All this is not what the Something Nasty atmosphere, which this book is all about, thrives upon.

But its effectiveness wasn’t spoiled as much as all that suggests. It does achieve a jumpiness, a frenetic tone that captures something about the vulnerability, the messiness, the uncontrol, of reaction. None of the sisters really act; they can only react to outside circumstances and pressures. It’s the worst of the state of childhood.

The first book is about Ula, who I think is about seven at the time. Her older sisters have formed a self-protective union from which she is excluded. She feels terribly left out and no one is willing to take responsibility for her. She ends up being taken to Ireland to stay with her family’s cook, Maggie. Maggie is sometimes jolly and nurturing, but she is ultimately irresponsible and her care turns out to be intermittent. She comes from a dismally poor, dysfunctional family and a recurring theme of the book is the sisters’ idealisation of down-to-earth family closeness among the working classes and an accompanying disillusionment. Ula does not stay with Maggie; she ends up somewhere quite different, where an unlikely sudden death occurs. Ula is the most resilient of the girls and we are assured she is not really much damaged by all this. This novella has the problem I have noticed with books that are a little more realistically narrated by younger children: this narration is annoying. The children are annoying. There is something shrill about the tone and the children are always wanting and paying attention to the wrong things. It feels like an obscuring of what is real, though I know that the idea is to capture what is real about younger children’s experience.

I preferred Unicorn Sisters. This is narrated by Bonnie, the oldest girl, when she is 11 or 12. The sisters have been sent off to a halfcocked little school for more or less genteel girls. Bonnie suffers a great deal of worry about fitting in. She makes fragile investments in happiness and trust. Then a group of hardboiled London evacuees are billeted at the school and proceed to be a bad influence on the sheltered pupils. The school begins to dissolve, while the girls live for dancing the jitterbug together each night. Clothes are no longer jealously guarded individual status symbols but are carelessly shared common property. Despite some resentment at these girls upsetting the status quo, Bonnie enjoys the relief she gets from her own worries in this communal experience. Obviously it can’t last, and Bonnie witnesses something she finds very distasteful and disturbing when it does. The school collapses entirely and the three sisters return home.

A Bubble Garden is about Eden and Tor, the middle sister. The sisters’ mother has married again and they are marooned in his rundown Irish house while he loses himself in alcoholism. Eden is an old acquaintance of the husband who he has employed to come and sort things out as a kind of agent. It felt as if it should be solely about Tor, for balance, but I suppose she and Eden share the book because the preoccupying desire for both of them seems to be ownership of Bonnie. Eden has a tendency to mythologizing and social climbing and sees Bonnie as delicate and upper-class. Tor is quiet and intense and has been resenting Bonnie’s relationships with others and the loss of their childhood exclusivity since the previous book. Naturally it all ends badly, with perhaps the most sudden and dangerously silly disaster of them all.

I’m not quite, quite sure I’d recommend this, but there is something about the atmosphere that works for me. It does remind me of The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns in its passive, somehow fairytale-ish treatment of outlandishly awful events.

A Fugue in Time by Rumer Godden

“In me you exist,” says the house.

That’s a Rumer Godden sentence, and I’m susceptible to them.  This is about a house and a family and the passing years.  Godden’s China Court is about exactly the same thing and I correctly surmised that China Court was the second attempt and the more successful one.  The book was important enough to her that she wrote it twice.  Neither of them are my favourite Godden book, but there is something distinctively Godden about them all the same.  I think she likes people coming to a realisation and acknowledging the significance of things.  Making things matter.  By which I mean fragments of experience, but literally things too here,  Hence the first chapter is called “Inventory”.  Things resonate as if they are lived, present in both their past and their here and now. 

I liked the stuff about the house and time about as well as I liked it in China Court but the characters here are not really committed to.  I was interested in Griselda, the reluctant matriarch, and Selina, the cold, dominating but lonely daughter of the house, and perhaps the Eye, the patriarch who is really too omnipotent for anyone’s good.  But there was too much of Grisel and Rolls and Lark, and I did not feel I understood what made them tick.  There was more narrative momentum too in China Court, I found, though the sense of everyone living at once is the same.  It is indeed worth doing again, this book, worth doing again better – not that there isn’t that fly in the ointment of the slap in the face in China Court.