Facetious Nights

A book blog

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.

The Lost Stradivarius by John Meade Falkner and The Parson by Anna Kavan

The Lost Stradivarius

Novella-length ghost story.  One young man at Oxford picks up some old-fashioned music on his travels and plays it with his friend.  One particular piece summons a ghostly listening presence.  They are both aware of it, but only one of the young men becomes drawn into dishonesty, forbidden knowledge, sacrifice of all he held previously dear, and ruined health.  This is an elegant rendition of the late Victorian/Edwardian ghost story.  The sinisterly intriguing portrait, the wicked dead, the diary, the intuitive experience of the past, the approach to the unspeakable and the lacuna left for the same.  As with M. R. James, the loss of piece of mind is felt as the most terrible consequence of crossing the path of the dead.  What I liked about Falkner’s other two books was the distinctively twilit, quiet, pleasantly sad atmosphere.  This was the first thing he wrote, and that tone lends itself so obviously to the ghost story that I didn’t really notice it here in its own right.


The Parson

Novella about an officer called Oswald and nicknamed The Parson.  Outwardly he is a fine healthy upstanding young man, but he is really rather odd, highly-string and ascetic.  He falls in love with Rejane, a beautiful narcissistic socialite.  Well, really, like Rejane, he is not so much in love as he is engaging with and indulging a phantom of his own psychological needs.  Rejane is intrigued by Oswald in his guise as a voicing of the barbaric, otherworldly North, the landscape of moors and tors.  She is in the habit of adopting various roles she finds herself piquant in, and Oswald offers her a brief fling at being Cathy, though he keeps spoiling it by not being Heathcliff enough.

On the last day of Rejane’s sojourn in Oswald’s part of the world, they have a strange trip to a ruined castle.  Oswald sees Rejane for the witchy soulless creature that she is.  Rejane is almost possessed by the role of cruel queen before nearly falling through the castle into the sea.  Oswald rescues her and, furious with her for despoiling his vision of the perfect woman as an escape from worldliness, he rapes her, though she does not really realise that that is how he means it.  He is traumatised by the knowledge that that is the kind of person he is, and the book ends portentously, which these kinds of stories generally do., and which I’ve come to think is their flaw.  It exceptionalises the characters, makes them too much the people who do what no one ever does except when they do, rather than explaining the strange things that go on inside people as ordinary as anyone.

This was shelved in the Romance section.  The gender dynamics are redolent of Romance, I suppose, but it’s just about told from an angle.  There’s not much that’s new here, I suppose, but it felt new.  Kavan has a kind of distant but intimately knowing approach to her characters’ peculiarities and I quite enjoyed the barbaric North theme, which is something Kavan as well as Rejane is playing with.

The Following Girls by Louise Levene

Amanda Baker is known as Baker because she is friends with three other girls at school named Amanda.  Set in the seventies, this follows Baker in her quest to escape her hostile, disapproving father and the values of the adult world and find validation and meaning in the determinedly unimpressed atmosphere of her friendship group.  Not that it becomes clear Baker is engaged on anything so romantic and coherent as a quest until it fails; the Mandies drift apart and change into everybody else.  Baker tentatively begins a friendship with Julia, the secretly subversive games captain.  Again, we only realise how much hope Baker invested in the connection when it falls apart.  The book is about the search for option and the acceptance of their absence.

A lot of the point of this book is in its specific atmosphere.  Levene emphasises the particularity of the material world of the seventies.  It’s almost a sensuousness, this attention to the environmental details shaping our experience.  In a kind of contrast to any sensuousness, Levene writes with a keen, often unkind eye.  Like her previous book A Vision of Loveliness, Levene portrays a female world where observation is cold and unkindly exact, and unforgiving judgement pervades.  It’s not an environment in which Baker’s romanticism can fully form itself, let alone triumph in any way. 

I think the Mandies could have been characterised a little more distinctly.  Otherwise my biggest quibble is the anorexia which it becomes more and more clear Baker is suffering from, though it’s never directly addressed.  Sure, she’s unhappy, but we’re never shown how that specifically maps onto the refusal to eat.  It seems too much like a haphazard cherry on top.  I felt the novel’s biggest strength was its bitterness of tone.

The Victorian House by Judith Flanders

The title is shorthand for “The domestic life of Victorian middle-class women.”  The main thrust of this book, I think, is to emphasise that our image of the standard middle-class Victorian domestic set-up is often erroneously high-faluting.  Advertising campaigns and housekeeping advice books conspired to suggest that the women buying and using soap and cookery books had the type of establishments where there were servants to do everything – while the fact that there was a market for this combination of product and ploy indicated that the mistress of the house was obliged to get involved.  And a governess, for instance, was not de rigeur; many women would simply have been taught by their mothers.  The biggest reason why all this sort of thing doesn’t really register in our idea of these people’s lives is because there was an obligation for women to be silent on much of what their womanly domestic duties actually consisted of.  For all that men were so very keen on women wanting to carry them out, and finding that willingness sexually attractive, Flanders portrays men as being actually quite viscerally repelled by exposure to housekeeping inaction, finding the petty necessity of its details sordid and unseemly.  There’s also the fact that knowledge of what goes into maintaining a house and family elicits acknowledgment that it is work, extra specially so in this period, and that women were therefore active and skilful.

There’s a lot of emphasis on the Augean Stables nature of Victorian housekeeping, with chimneys and smuts and lavatories with cess pits and gas lamps that ruined their surroundings and varying amounts of running water and the terrible business of laundry, and sewing sheets side to middle.  So much of the baggage of housekeeping in days gone by has been forgotten.   Also there’s the hopeless business of trying to keep people alive and some very strange ideas about the kind of nourishment babies could live on.  And the terrible nuisance of crinolines in omnibuses and a wealth of other random details.  Flanders is quite keen on emphasising the unattractiveness of the Victorians; they are more likeable in novels in which it becomes clear that people didn’t always, or even usually, behave just as they ought than in their nonfiction confident prescriptions and demands.  They seem very rigid here, full of very precise rules for every social interaction, which were different depending on your exact social circle.  This book isn’t particularly well-organised, and the question of what makes it into the book and what doesn’t seems very random sometimes, but if you’d like to know more about the nitty-gritty of how these people actually lived you should find something to interest you. 

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

I’m not usually a reader who finds that a weak ending spoils even the most enjoyable of reading experiences, but I can’t say anything about this without a first oh dear for the fumbled dismount.  Port and Kit are a dysfunctional American couple travelling aimlessly through North Africa, just after WWII, I think.  Kit is a tightly wound neurotic, engrossed in her obsessive compulsive magical thinking interpretation of the world.  Port is distant and wry, seeming recklessly set, in his own way, on finding some experience that will make him feel, or perhaps make him not feel at all.  Both drift into infidelity.  Both intend to restart their relationship, re-establish true communication, at some vague future period.  I’ve read another book by Bowles, Let It Come Down, and what I found with that book was true of this; Bowles writes on Heart of Darkness territory, but manages to circumvent my usual response to nullness.  As well as the sleepwalking characters, there’s the alien land and culture, the exposure of which to the Western characters making both too vulnerable, and the sense of dread caused by the characters’ increasing loss of control combined with this setting and situation.

I liked all this – Kit and Port’s slide into automation, the sense of an unidentified quest or flight, the mounting dysfunction.  Then there is a disaster, like we all knew there would be, and Bowles drops the ball with Kit’s reaction to it.  She goes into the desert with two Arabs on camels and loses her sense of identity and memory of disaster in enjoying being raped by them.  More follows, but it’s all in the same vein.  I was all set up to buy quite a lot, but no one can sell that.  No one gets to sell that Ethel M. Dell stuff while wearing their Serious Psychological Drama hat.  It’s irredeemably silly and the book does depend on being taken somewhat seriously.  It’s also terribly sexist, of course.  The deadpan use of the trope assumes even more about the desirable rapist situation than more overt breathless fantasy type stuff.