Popular Posts

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

David Foster Wallace: Reading as a Writer

Foster Wallace's marginalia is fascinating and characterful - almost as if he turns the book he is reading into one that he might write.
As reported in The New Yorker, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas announced their acquisition of the David Foster Wallace archive. Along with many manuscripts, notebooks and juvenilia

There are also some two hundred books from Wallace’s own library. “Virtually all of the books are annotated, many are heavily annotated,” Schwartzburg said, and noted that Wallace was especially fond of taking notes and compiling vocabulary lists on the inner cover. The collection, heavy on contemporary fiction, contains nearly all of Wallace’s friend Don DeLillo’s novels, including some pre-publication typescripts. Other titles include Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink,” and “The Tipping Point,” and Jonathan Franzen’s “Strong Motion.” “Unfortunately,” Schwartzburg said, “there does not appear to be a copy of ‘The Corrections.’ ”

There is, however, a paperback copy of Mary Higgins Clark’s pulpy suspense novel “Where are the Children?” “I have no context for it, but it looked like he was doing a rhetorical analysis of how gender relationships were playing out over the course of the novel,” Schwartzburg told me. “He appeared to really engage with her and looked carefully at how she structured her narrative. Clearly, he read very widely.” There’s even a marked-up edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, in which Wallace circled words like “witenagemot.”

For Wallace scholars, the real jewel in the crown might be a battered, taped-together copy of Pam Cook’s “The Cinema Book,” used as research for “Infinite Jest.” His handwritten notes include multiple references to “IJ” and, according to a blog post by Scwartzburg, display a “particular interest in sections on the idea of the auteur, the technology of deep focus cinematography, new wave cinema, the Hollywood star system, and most film genres (with the notable exception of the ‘gangster/crime film’).”


Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Further Enthusings: Adam Thirlwell on Muriel Spark

This, from Arete, is the best piece I have read on Muriel - and by Adam Thirlwell. It captures what is tricky and goddessy about Muriel Spark and, amongst other things, is an elegant riposte to those who think 'Show, Don't tell' is a commandment, and not simply a useful strategy for writers who need to animate and dramatise character and action - and it's also an instruction that a great writer can spurn.

Between 1959 and 1961 Muriel Spark published four novels: Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means. These novels are great novels; they develop the technique of the novel as a form. And yet they do not seem like great novels. Instead they seem more delicate, less revolutionary, solid with competence. These novels are clean shaven, irreproachable, undiscussable – like lawn.

She is a great novelist who looks like a quieter novelist. An essay on Muriel Spark must be correspondingly loud.

So this, loudly, is the quiet shift at the centre of Muriel Spark’s writing.
She inverts the norms of the implicit and explicit in fiction. Her novels are reversed out, like negatives. Factual detail is given bluntly, authorially, directly. This means that she seems old-fashioned. Psychological detail – feeling, motivation – is withheld, or occluded, or only partly explained. This means that she seems avant-garde.
But she is neither old-fashioned or avant-garde. She is original.
* * * * *
Following Henry James, it was seen as a mark of skill in the serious novelist that factual information should be presented indirectly. This information should be dramatised, leaking out from the plot, as if the book had been merely overheard, not invented by the author.
The technical name for this – not used by James, but by his disciple, Percy Lubbock – was showing, which was superior to telling.
In an interview with the Listener, 7 February 1974, Kingsley Amis offers a wonderful rebuke to the forced stringencies of this tradition, talking about the cherished influence of W Somerset Maugham: ‘What I did learn – not consciously of course – was that there was really no need for shock tactics, obvious originality, experiments in style. One learns a great deal simply from, for instance, the fact that one of his Far East stories begins: “Jim Grange was a rubber planter.” It’s wonderful to think that one could get away with saying “that’s what he was” instead of saying: “The noon heat beat down on his back” – and you don’t find out what his name is for a page and a half. He did, I think, help to restore one’s confidence in traditional forms of writing.’
Sometimes, Muriel Spark is in this pre-Modernist tradition. Characters are introduced with dense factual sentences, clipped and informative – nutritious as protein shakes: ‘Joanna Childe was a daughter of a country rector. She had a good intelligence and strong obscure emotions. She was training to be a teacher of elocution and, while attending a school of drama, already had pupils of her own.’ Or there are these trim introductions in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: ‘Rose Stanley was famous for sex. Her hat was placed quite unobtrusively on her blonde short hair, but she dented in the crown on either side. Eunice Gardiner, small, neat, and famous for her spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming, had the brim of her hat turned up at the front and down at the back.’
When Muriel Spark uses an unsubtle method, however, she uses it with subtlety; she thinks it through. There is a latent preciousness to the Jamesian method of indirection. The Jamesian imperative to dramatise all the narrative material – fulfilled only intermittently in the novels themselves – is motivated by an embarrassment at the contrivance of fiction. It is a way of trying to pretend that this is not a novel at all. In this respect, the blunt simplicity of Somerset Maugham is, quite rightly, to be emulated. It is truer to the materials.
Think of Lars von Trier, who, in an interview with Stig Björkman, remembered his days at film school.
‘If something took place in Vienna, 1934, our teacher wanted us to…Under no circumstances begin with a caption which read ‘Vienna, 1934’. We weren’t allowed to. I remember Zanussi paid us a visit. He said, ‘Yes, well’. He didn’t want to. Instead of writing ‘Vienna, 1934’ – he wanted to take a close-up of a fly crawling over some ink – making smudges on a cheque, and on the top of it was ‘Vienna, 1934’. After everything I learnt from various teachers, I was convinced – that in my film at any rate, there’d be a caption with ‘Vienna, 1934’. Why waste people’s time with a fly wandering over a cheque – when you can do it very simply?’
* * * * *
There are, naturally, two chronologies to a novel – the chronology of the events depicted in a story and the chronology of the order in which these events are told. There is no need for the two chronologies to match.
The great master of the possible disjunctions is Proust and his A la recherche. When she won the Observer’s short story competition in 1951, spark bought a complete set of Proust with her prize money. In an interview with Robert Hosmer – to be published in Salmagundi January 2005 – Spark analyses this technique: ‘my sense of construction in the novel was greatly assisted by [Proust’s] examples. In the matter of construction take for instance the chapter of A la recherche where Swann ends by deciding Odette was not, after all, his style. Next page, new chapter: Swann has already been married to Odette for some years.’ The past, in a novel, can occur after its future. It is a game displayed in one of the first ever novels – Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, with its throwaway ostentatious gags, jamming the past and the future together – ‘a cow broke in (tomorrow morning).’
In a conventional novel, however, the telling of the story follows the chronology of the story itself. In this way, the reader follows the subjective experience of the main characters, and experiences the denouement at the same moment as the characters. It is a method designed to facilitate suspense.
Thus, although flashback is allowable – since it may be necessary to explain the plot – flash-forward, or prolepsis, is not. It is taken as giving up on suspense.
Muriel Spark, bravely and cleverly, uses prolepsis. She states the character’s futures; she states the ends of her plots. All her plots are, in some way, stories about how things end. They are about last things.
Within paragraphs, she uses prolepsis on a small-scale, a constant prefiguring that shadows the characters – as in The Girls of Slender Means: ‘She opened Jane’s door without knocking and put in her head. “Got any sopayjo?”[soap] It was some months before she was to put her head round Jane’s door and announce, “Filthy luck. I’m preggers. Come to the wedding”.’ Or in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where the characters’ futures interrupt the present, sadly, irrefutably:
‘Mary Macgregor walked with Sandy because Jenny had gone home. Monica Douglas, later famous for being able to do real mathematics in her head, and for her anger, walked behind them with her dark red face, broad nose and dark pigtails falling from her black hat and her legs already shaped like pegs in their black wool stocking…. Behind Miss Brodie, last in the group, little Eunice Gardiner who, twenty-eight years later, said of Miss Brodie, ‘I must visit her grave’, gave a skip between each of her walking steps as if she might even break into pirouettes on the pavement…’
But the technique is broader than this. She gives away not only the character’s ends, but also the plot’s ending. Early in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie we know that it is Sandy who has betrayed Miss Brodie, though we do not know why. On page seven of The Girls of Slender Means we know that Nicholas Farringdon – a poet, convert and missionary – has died in Haiti. And on page 60, we know this, the central moment in the novel, that will occur 60 pages later.
‘Meantime, Nicholas touched lightly on the imagination of the girls of slender means and they on his. He had not yet slept on the roof with Selina on the hot summer nights – he gaining access from the American-occupied attic of the hotel next door, and she through the slit window – and he had not yet witnessed that action of savagery so extreme that it forced him involuntarily to make an entirely unaccustomed gesture, the signing of the cross upon himself.’
The crucial thing is this. Prolepsis does not destroy suspense; it creates a new type of suspense. Because knowing the end is not an explanation or a solution. Rather than wondering how the story will end, the reader is forced to wonder how the story could have ended up at its end. And this is a complicated pleasure.
‘I think suspense is often heightened if the author “gives away” the plot from the very beginning,’ Spark told Hosmer. ‘The reader is then all the more anxious to find out how the conclusion came about.’
Compare this with the opening of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude – ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’ – magical, engrossing. But it is the sentence’s start that lingers. The ice is discovered fifteen pages later. It is the firing squad that the reader waits for.
* * * * *
This rendering explicit of what is normally implicit – facts, plots – represents a refusal to lie about the novel as a form. There is a refusal to take up Henry James’s imperative: ‘Dramatise, dramatise!’ There is a refusal to get hung up on showing, rather than telling.
In this, Spark is being very clever and careful about what we mean by mimesis in a novel.
The only thing that can truly be imitated, shown in a novel, is language – and this means dialogue, or billboards. Even thought is not linguistic. Everything else has to be told, described. (‘The famous monologue at the end of Ulysses,’ writes T S Eliot, correctly, in his essay on Charles Whibley, ‘is not the way in which persons of either sex actually think: it is a very skilful attempt by a master of language to give the illusion of mental process by a different medium, that of written words.’)
But there are some things that, perhaps, cannot be described, or not described accurately. These things are feelings. Feelings, for Muriel Spark, can only be shown. The conventional descriptions are only inaccurate.
Her most audacious experiment in showing is The Ballad of Peckham Rye. In this book, there are no expressed feelings or thoughts. This does not mean the characters do not have feelings; it means that they are implied from their actions, from their words.
Compare this with Eliot again, in his essay on Philip Massinger – ‘What the creator of character needs is not so much knowledge of motives as keen sensibility; the dramatist need not understand people; but he must be exceptionally aware of them.’
It is important to see how radical Spark’s reversal of the norms of showing and telling is: external facts which were once shown are now told; internal facts which were once told are now shown.
* * * * *
One of the clever things that Muriel Spark has done has been to vary her influences. There is Somerset Maugham. But there is also Robbe-Grillet, and the tradition of the French nouveau roman, as Spark told Hosmer:
I was very much impressed with Robbe-Grillet, not by the effect of what he did, I wasn’t carried away by his novels, but I was very, very interested in his methods. He got away from the novel of descriptions of people’s feelings: ‘he felt’, ‘he thought’ and ‘he said’. ‘He said’ is a fact, actually an outward fact, but ‘he felt’ and ‘he thought’ are interpolations by the author.
In his collection of essays Pour un nouveau roman, published in 1961, Robbe-Grillet tried to explain what he was up to. He was stripping the novel of baggage it could no longer sustain. In his essay ‘A path for the novel of the future’ – first published in 1956 – he stated the roots of his perceived problem with the contemporary novel: ‘One could easily go back as far as Madame de La Fayette. Sacrosanct psychological analysis constituted, already at this time, the basis of all prose: it was that which governed the conception of the book, the description of the characters, the unfolding of the plot.’ In place of this psychological analysis, Robbe-Grillet offered flatness, literalism: ‘There is now, in effect, a new element, which separates us this time radically from Balzac, as from Gide and Madame de La Fayette: it is the destitution of the old myths of “depth”.’ Robbe-Grillet was no longer sure that we understood the world, that the novelist could presume to understand the psychology of a character. All that was left for the novelist was the description of externals: ‘the optical, descriptive adjective, that which is content to measure, to situate, to limit, to define, probably shows the difficult path to a new art of the novel.’
It was one part of Muriel Spark’s genius that she could read Robbe-Grillet’s anxious, tendentious novels and essays, and make them her own.
* * * * *
The art of Muriel Spark is an art of concision. It operates on a more reduced scale than most novels. But that is not very helpful. We need to understand what is at stake in this concision.
Take the refusal to give extraneous detail. This is nothing new. There is the dry opening to Diderot’s novel Jacques le fataliste et son maître, written in the 1770s, unimpressed by novelistic scene-setting: ‘How did they meet? By chance, like everyone. What were they called? What does it matter to you? Where did they come from? From the next town. Where were they going? Does anyone know where they’re going?’
And it is there, a 100 years later, in Chekhov, too. Writing to Alexander Kuprin, 1 November 1902, Chekhov says: ‘Your first chapter is taken up with descriptions of people’s appearances – again an old-fashioned device; you could easily do without these descriptions. Describing in detail how five people look overburdens the reader’s span of attention, and ultimately loses all value. Clean-shaven actors resemble one another like Catholic priests, and they’ll go on resembling one another no matter how much effort you put into describing them.’
This concision of extraneous detail is there in another of Muriel Spark’s techniques. She does not observe the normal hierarchies of facts to be depicted in a novel. She does not elaborate where she might be expected to elaborate. Instead, she is constantly interested in sentences which are flatly laid beside each other – even if the information in each sentence is not conventionally of the same order of magnitude. Zeugma is central to her comic method. So, in The Girls of Slender Means, ‘Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of debutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers: “Filthy lunch.” ‘The most gorgeous wedding.” “He actually raped her, she was amazed.” “Ghastly film.” “I’m desperately well, thanks, how are you?”’
This deadpan lack of explanation or emotion can scare some critics. It has scared Christopher Ricks. In an essay in the New York Review of Books, in 1968, Christopher Ricks made the case against Muriel Spark as cruelly seeking to expose her characters’ frailties: ‘human beings cannot but be opaque…so ought our artistic ideal be, above all, to see through them?’
In her great novel Memento Mori, Spark offers this conversation, in a nursing home – an implicit anticipatory rebuke to critics like Ricks.
‘And yet,’ said Charmian, smiling up at the sky through the window, ‘when I was half-way through writing a novel I always got into a muddle and didn’t know where it was leading me.’ Guy thought: She is going to say – dear Charmian – she is going to say ‘The characters seemed to take on a life of their own.’ ‘The characters,’ said Charmian, ‘seemed to take on a life of their own.’
It is a form of literary sentimentality to believe, as Ricks does, that a character can be opaque to his or her author – though, in one crucial respect, Spark’s characters are opaque. When they behave evilly, they behave out of character. Their psychology, psychology in general, will not help us understand them. But this is not the opacity Ricks means.
The reason for Muriel Spark’s concision is this – character is much less complicated than we like to think. Everyone is so much simpler.
In Memento Mori, there is this send-up of the novel’s pretensions to psychological depth: ‘About your novels,’ he said. ‘The plots are so well laid. For instance in The Seventh Child, although of course one feels that Edna will never marry Gridsworthy, you have this tension between Anthony Garland and Colonel Yeoville, and until of course their relationships to Gabrielle are revealed, there is every likelihood that Edna will marry one or the other. And yet, of course, all along one is aware of a kind of secret life within Edna, especially at that moment when she is alone in the garden at Neuflette, and then comes unexpectedly upon Karl and Gabrielle. And then one feels sure she will marry Gridsworthy after all, merely for his kindness. And really, right up to the last page one does not know Karl’s true feelings. Or rather, one knows them – but does he know them?’
* * * * *
In her novels, Muriel Spark rethinks novelistic psychology.
Normally, novels believe in explanations. So a novel about a bad character will be a novel which attempts to explain why a character acts badly. It will attempt to describe a psychology – a set of motivations. Spark is not impressed by this – because it is easy enough, detecting people’s motivations; they are rarely unusual.
Psychology, for Spark, is not an explanation; it is a way of avoiding an explanation. It is a way of offering an explanation, when the crueller truth is that none is commensurate with the facts.
Compare her to D H Lawrence. In a letter to Edward Garnett, 5 June 1914, D H Lawrence tried to explain what he was up to: ‘You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we’ve been used to exercise, to discover are states of the same single radically unchanged element.’ This description is very close to Spark’s novels. She does not describe egos, she describes the allotropic states a character can go through – the sudden slippages of a seemingly stable character.
She describes the behaviour of a character which is not explained by a character’s psychology. This is one reason why all her books are not just stories about last things. They are stories about evil.
The subject of all Muriel Spark’s novels is Original Sin. And this is not an original subject, not in itself. Spark avoids the danger of dullness simply by the force of her precision, and by her economy. She offers no explanation. She offers no lesson. She simply describes how people behave. Spark’s great achievement is to show how accurate religious descriptions of psychology are – how congruent they are with the facts.
Before Hannah Arendt, Spark knew about the banality of evil. But Spark goes further. Evil is not just banal, evil is opaque too – flat, simply there. ‘I am not sure about the devil as a personification,’ said Spark. ‘But the Devil is a very useful personification of what we really do see in the world. Evil exists. Evil is in the world and we know it because we are born with a knowledge of good and evil.’
Spark is not a doctrinal novelist. She does not assert conclusions; instead she invents provocations.
The Girls of Slender Means is exemplary.
The boarding house – where the girls of slender means live – is burning down. Nicholas Farringdon has helped some girls, including his thin and graceful girlfriend Selina, to escape through the narrow bathroom window. Some girls still remain inside – too large to squeeze through the minuscule window. One of these is Joanna Childe, the rector’s daughter and elocution teacher – a devout and gentle Christian. All the girls are saved, except for Joanna, who is too late climbing the ladder to safety. She dies reciting the psalms. Another girl, Selina, re-enters the boarding house – apparently to rescue someone:
Nicholas then saw, through the door of the wash-room, Selina approaching along the smoky passage. She was carrying something fairly long and limp and evidently light in weight, enfolding it carefully in her arms. He thought it was a body…She climbed up on the lavatory seat and slid through the window, skillfully and quickly pulling her object behind her. Nicholas held up his hand to catch her. When she landed on the roof-top she said, ‘Is it safe out here?’ and at the same time was inspecting the condition of her salvaged item. Poise is perfect balance. It was the Schiaparelli dress. The coat-hanger dangled from the dress like a headless neck and shoulders.
Sixty pages earlier, Spark had noted the effect on Nicholas of an ‘action of savagery so extreme that it forced him involuntarily to make an entirely unaccustomed gesture, the signing of the cross upon himself.’ This action turns out to be Selina’s saving of a Schiaparelli dress. After which, the house collapses.
The Girls of Slender Means presents, bluntly, deftly, the problem of all theodicy. A gentle, moral girl dies, unsavable – while Selina saves a Schiaparelli dress. The good things of the world, the permanent things, are unsavable.
In the novel, there are three reactions to the catastrophe. Nicholas, who is converted, becomes a missionary, and dies in Haiti. Selina goes mad. And there is another chaarcter, Jane, who had introduced Nicholas to the girls of slender means in their boarding house. Jane is simply stoical. The novel ends on VJ day:
Jane mumbled, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have missed it, really.’ She had halted to pin up her straggling hair, and had a hair-pin in her mouth as she said it. Nicholas marvelled at her stamina, recalling her in this image years later in the country of his death – how she stood, sturdy and bare-legged on the dark grass, occupied with her hair – as if this was an image of all the May of Teck establishment in its meek, unselfconscious attitudes of poverty, long ago in 1945.
The novel doesn’t ask which of these three reactions is right. The novel is only concerned with putting the question, the problem. Nowhere is safe. The novel opens on the day of the first armistice in 1945, and it ends on the day of the second armistice, in 1946. Because the war is never over. There is no end to evil.
* * * * *
In Spark there is a connection between the precision of the form, and the insoluble discrepancies in morality that are described so precisely.
We cannot explain ourselves to ourselves.
Spark shows us this by telling us, tells us this by showing us.


Arthur Rimbaud

Certain writers have to be read at a certain age, and in Rimbaud's case it feels as if that age might best be the same age as Rimbaud when he wrote his poems. This biographical piece by Daniel Mendelsohn will both introduce the poet to those yet to discover him and remind others why Rimbaud had such an impact on them. His silence, to me, is more fascinating and bewildering than the poems, but I suspect we should attend to both. Here's the opening to Mendelsohn's New Yorker article.

On a winter day in 1883, aboard a steamer that was returning him from Marseilles to the Arabian port city of Aden, a French coffee trader named Alfred Bardey struck up a conversation with a countryman he’d met on board, a young journalist named Paul Bourde. As Bardey chatted about his trading operation, which was based in Aden, he happened to mention the name of one of his employees—a “tall, pleasant young man who speaks little,” as he later described him. To his surprise, Bourde reacted to the name with amazement. This wasn’t so much because, by a bizarre coincidence, he had gone to school with the employee; it was, rather, that, like many Frenchmen who kept up with contemporary literature, he had assumed that the young man was dead. To an astonished Bardey, Bourde explained that, twelve years earlier, his taciturn employee had made a “stupefying and precocious” literary début in Paris, only to disappear soon after. Until that moment, for all Bardey or anyone else in his circle knew, this man was simply a clever trader who kept neat books. Today, many think of him as a founder of modern European poetry. His name was Arthur Rimbaud.

What Bardey learned about Rimbaud that day is still what most people know about Rimbaud. There was, on the one hand, the dazzling, remarkably short-lived career: all of Rimbaud’s significant works were most likely composed between 1870, when he was not quite sixteen, and 1874, when he turned twenty. On the other hand, there was the abrupt abandonment of literature in favor of a vagabond life that eventually took him to Aden and then to East Africa, where he remained until just before his death, trading coffee, feathers, and, finally, guns, and making a tidy bundle in the process. The great mystery that continues to haunt and dismay Rimbaud fans is this “act of renunciation,” as Henry Miller put it in his rather loopy 1946 study of Rimbaud, “The Time of the Assassins,” which “one is tempted to compare . . . with the release of the atomic bomb.” The over-the-top comparison might well have pleased Rimbaud, who clearly wanted to vaporize his poetic past. When Alfred Bardey got back to Aden, bursting with his discovery, he found to his dismay that the former wunderkind refused to talk about his work, dismissing it as “absurd, ridiculous, disgusting.”

That Rimbaud’s repudiation of poetry was as furious as the outpouring of his talent had once been was typical of a man whose life and work were characterized by violent contradictions. He was a docile, prize-winning schoolboy who wrote “Shit on God” on walls in his home town; a teen-age rebel who mocked small-town conventionality, only to run back to his mother’s farm after each emotional crisis; a would-be anarchist who in one poem called for the downfall of “Emperors / Regiments, colonizers, peoples!” and yet spent his adult life as an energetic capitalist operating out of colonial Africa; a poet who liberated French lyric verse from the late nineteenth century’s starched themes and corseted forms—from, as Paul Valéry put it, “the language of common sense”—and yet who, in his most revolutionary work, admitted to a love of “maudlin pictures, . . . fairytales, children’s storybooks, old operas, inane refrains and artless rhythms.”

These paradoxes, and the extraordinarily conflicted feelings of admiration and dismay that Rimbaud’s story can evoke, are at the center of a powerful mystique that has seduced readers from Marcel Proust to Patti Smith. It had already begun to fascinate people by the time the poet died, in 1891. (He succumbed, at thirty-seven, to a cancer of the leg, after returning to his mama’s farm one last time.) To judge from the steady stream of Rimbaldiana that has appeared over the past decade—which includes, most recently, a new translation of “Illuminations,” by the distinguished American poet John Ashbery, and a substantial novel that wrestles with the great question of why Rimbaud stopped writing—the allure shows no sign of fading.

Tired Old Queen at the Movies

Irresistible and essential, the Tired Old Queen at the Movies - No 83: a witty, benign enthusiast, fautlessly researched and wicked fun. Watch them all.

Philip Larkin - The Novelist's Poet

Robert Browning is most often thought of as the Novelist's Poet - Hardy, being successfully both, somehow doesn't qualify - but Martin Amis makes a powerful - even moving - argument for Philip Larkin taking this role:

Particularly in his longer poems, which resemble Victorian narrative paintings, Larkin is a scene-setting phrasemaker of the first echelon. What novelist, reading ‘Show Saturday’, could fail to covet ‘mugfaced middleaged wives/Glaring at jellies’ and ‘husbands on leave from the garden/Watchful as weasels’ and ‘car-tuning curt-haired sons’? In ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ the fathers of the brides ‘had never known/Success so huge and wholly farcical’; in ‘To the Sea’, immersed in the ‘miniature gaiety’ of the English littoral, we hear ‘The distant bathers’ weak protesting trebles’ and ‘The small hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse ... ‘

Many poems, many individual stanzas, read like distilled short stories, as if quickened by the pressure of a larger story, a larger life. The funny and terrrifying ‘Mr Bleaney’ (a 28-line poem about the veteran inhabitant of a bedsit) has the amplitude of a novella. And Larkin’s gift for encapsulation is phenomenal. Admire this evocation, in ‘Livings, III’, of the erudite triviality of high-table talk in, as it might be, All Souls, Oxford – and Larkin does it in rhyme:

Which advowson looks the fairest,

What the wood from Snape will fetch,

Names for pudendum mulieris,

Why is Judas like Jack Ketch?

‘Livings, I’ begins: ‘I deal with farmers, things like dips and feed.’ And after a single pentameter the reader is lucidly present in another life.

Larkin began his career as an exceptionally precocious writer of fiction: he had two pale, promising (and actually very constricted) novels behind him, Jill and A Girl in Winter, by the age of 25. Twenty-five, and two novels. The reason he gave for abandoning his third (to be called A New World Symphony) is, in my view, dumbfoundingly alien. Which brings us to the more fugitive and subliminal component of the fascination Larkin excites in all novelists and in all students of human nature. The poems are transparent (they need no mediation), yet they tantalise the reader with glimpses of an impenetrable self: so much yearning, so much debility; an eros that self-thwarts and self-finesses. This is what rivets us: the mystery story of Larkin’s soul.

You can read the rest of the article here

Philip Roth - Nemeses

Stumbled upon the excellent Quarterly Conversations (and it will not be my last visit) via a link to Ben Jeffrey's thoughtful essay on the late - or latest - works from Philip Roth. The Nemeses quartet of books are often met with consternation and dissatisfaction, it seems, but Jeffries take on them, while not overly sympathetic, is both bracing and and embracing.

Here's an extract:
  • The Nemeses are weak stories, although that isn’t exactly the same as saying they’re badly written. In particular, The Humbling is an intellectual puzzle-box you could spend a lot of time with if you wishedbut it’s also not much of a novel. Consider one of the stock critical responses to a bad book by a famous author—that it’s like someone “doing a bad impression.” Axler’s story is infected with the idea of being a bad copy, a zombie-version of what you used to be. It courts the suspicion that The Humbling is itself is a deliberately poor imitation of a Philip Roth book. A great deal of the novel’s art is expended in what could be interpreted as apologies for its failings, with a result that’s an odd mixture of craft and lack of craft. Subtle allusions are cast to players trapped in roles (besides Prospero and Macbeth, there’s James Tyrone in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and an almost-too-obvious nod to Chekov’s dictum about the gun seen in the First Act having to go off by the Third), and once you start parsing the various motifs of role-play, rehearsal, and façade you begin to appreciate how many interesting lines could be drawn between Axler, his author, and Roth’s back-catalog. Yet in spite of the evident skill in design, The Humbling also has a narrative that is no better than skeletal, featuring characters waved into place and barely filled. Axler’s solution to his crisis is an affair with a 40-year-old ex-lesbian, Pegeen, the daughter of old friends of his. Their relationship is intensely erotic, but Axler realizes long in advance that it will end sooner or later, and that this will destroy him. “Pegeen’s history was unmalleable and Pegeen unattainable and… he was bringing a new misfortune down on his head”. So it transpires. Pegeen cheats on Axler and then abandons him. She is written out to be capricious, inscrutable, an agent of destruction as unmanageable as chance, but also—so we’re told—an insignificant weakling. “She’s not at all beautiful. She’s not that intelligent. And she’s not that grown up,” complains one of Pegeen’s former lovers to Axler. “It’s we who endow her with the power to wreck. Pegeen’s nobody”.
  • Is The Humbling plausible? In one sense, yes: terribly so. The notion that an ageing man, in failing health and stripped of his self-assurance, would throw himself into an affair with a younger woman—would then desperately cling to it though fully aware that it will rip him apart—is certainly believable. That someone could suffer from senseless bad luck or be made into the plaything of his own desires is nothing if not plausible. But The Humbling defies reason, too. As a character, Pegeen is incoherent. Her sex-life with Axler is (quite literally) beyond belief, featuring effortlessly arranged threesomes and green strap-on dildos. Sub-plots and minor players arise but then come to nothing. The rest of the Nemeses have similar failings. Partly, the trouble is technical. None of the books are long enough to properly identify with. The main characters haven’t got enough in them to be genuinely likeable or dislikeable; they never earn the reader’s total engagement. Even the production—with extremely generous margins and a very low word-to-page ratio—makes the stories feel somehow flimsy, like novellas artificially extended into novels. More seriously, except in expiring flashes, the Nemeses simply lack the magnetism of their predecessors. Everything is thinner, flatter, purged of scenery; lacking a third dimension. Yet this also gives the books their strangely compelling (and appropriate) quality. The Nemeses are largely unconvincing and vigorless stories about how unconvincingly feeble any story seems when set against blind fate. If the telling was too good—as in Roth’s earlier work, say—the very bleak and unengaging point would be more easily missed. In one of The Humbling’s other significant references, we’re told Pegeen is named after a character from Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, a play about how people would rather let themselves be entertained by a story than think about what it means.
  • Is that to say that these late novels of Roth’s are actually good instead of bad, not beautiful but somehow “serious”? It’s a genuine question, one that cuts straight down to elemental issues about what we really mean when we describe a piece of fiction (by definition, something untrue) as convincing. In Exit Ghost Zuckerman occupies himself writing a stilted erotic play about a young woman he meets in New York. The infatuation is even less reasonable than most, since prostrate surgery has left Zuckerman hopelessly impotent. His play, alongside the passages describing the exploits of Everyman’s “cunthound” hero and the chunks of porn-fiction in The Humbling are where Roth comes the closest to self-parody. (Sample dialogue: “Wait’ll the police see you in just that top and those shorts. They won’t leave either. You’ve got the prettiest cunt and the basest instincts.”) In Christopher Hitchens’s unimproveably blunt phrase, the suspicion begins to nag that Roth might really just be writing these scenes “to give himself something to masturbate about”. The Nemeses make it hard to avoid the thought that a dirty mind ages especially badly. But at the same time, Roth could scarcely fail to be aware of the grotesque impression he is making. The inability to escape desire’s humiliatingly relentless pressure (even as you become less and less able to satisfy it) is one of his tested subjects—most explicitly via David Kepesh in The Dying Animal, another short, late novel, although one that stands up rather better than the Nemeses thanks to Kepesh’s magnetically repulsive voice. “No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex,” he declares. “Every last vanity will come back to mock you.”
The rest of the article can be read here

Monday, 14 February 2011

Alice Munro: Dimension

Well, I have an idea. Some of the stories I admire seem to zero in on one particular time and place. There isn't a rule about this. But there's a tidy sense about many stories I read. In my own work, I tend to cover a lot of time and to jump back and forward in time, and sometimes the way I do this is not very straightforward. I feel that this is something that people may find they have to adjust to, but it's a way of saying whatever it is that I want to say, and it sort of has to be done this way. Time is something that interests me a whole lot —past and present, and how the past appears as people change.
Alice Munro[1]
One  of the distinguishing features of Munro’s stories – most particularly in the latter half of her writing career - is the boldness with which she treats time in her fiction. Early stories may focus on a moment or specific event or series of consecutive moments or events  - such as ‘Red Dress’ - moments often  recollected from some present vantage point, or, increasingly, they will take great leaps in time (and the progression need not  be chronological), as in ‘Friend of My Youth’.
A typical Munro story may begin as a memory and then slip back  further to an explanatory past and then race ahead into a future that has been created out of such a past, but then slip back to  a memory of something left unsaid or a detail left unnoticed that will change our understanding or just tilt it so that it no longer seems complete or definitive.
Consider the story, ‘Dimension’ in this chronological summary:  a young girl meets an older man and moves out to the country with him; they have children; the relationship disintegrates; he kills all three children, and is put away as criminally insane; she visits him several times; he tells her that he communes with her dead children; despite his crimes and because of her grief, she realises that he is the only link to her lost children, but, traveling to see him again, she is involved in  a traffic accident in which she helps the crash victim,  and she decides to discontinue her visits.
This is the story, a list of stark sensational events, but this is not the plot as Munro fashions it, weaving as it does back and forth in time.
The story begins in media res – to be precise, as Doree takes her third trip to the prison, -  but, in truth, it feels like it begins in ultima res; it is as if we have come in at the end of the story: the worst has happened and we are waiting to be told what that might have been.
Doree had to take three buses – one to Kincardine, where she waited for one to London, where she waited again for the city bus out to the facility. She started the trip on a Sunday at nine in the morning. Because of the waiting times between buses, it took her until about two in the afternoon to travel the hundred-odd miles. All that sitting, either on buses or in the depots, was not a thing she should have minded. Her daily work was not of the sitting-down kind.
Considering the story’s events, this is a quiet and deliberately undramatic opening – almost dull. It is not a hammering of the organ keys to announce that marital abuse, infanticide and burning grief are ahead – or even behind us. It’s a paragraph only possible – that one might only dare write – once a writer has organised the material in her mind and then on the page: a long slow labour, built out of many decisions, of other choices made and then abandoned. ‘Dimension’ is the sum of Munro’s thoughts on the story: we may read it as if she is unfolding it for us as we read, but the carpet we tread has been woven and, indeed, nailed into place in advance. This is a finished piece. It is we who are dreaming it for the first time and not her. Only on a second, less dreamlike reading, would we realise why ‘all that sitting’ is something Doree might ‘mind’ and realise that this enforced stillness is also a terrible space of time that forces her to meditate on what has become of her and her family.
            Munro does not rush to tell us the story. The contrary. Doree’s work is a dull and dulling routine, but she likes it:
…it occupied her thoughts to a certain extent and tired her out so that she could sleep at night. She was seldom faced with a really bad mess, though some of the women she worked with could tell stories to make your hair curl.
It's only in the first sentence of the third paragraph that Munro presses down on the accelerator and even then quite gently:
None of the people she worked with knew what had happened. Or, if they did, they didn’t let on. Her picture had been in the paper—they’d used the photo he took of her with all three kids, the new baby, Dmitri, in her arms, and Barbara Ann and Sasha on either side, looking on. Her hair had been long and wavy and brown then, natural in curl and color, as he liked it, and her face bashful and soft—a reflection less of the way she was than of the way he wanted to see her.
And even here – on rereading the piece – we can see that what concerns Munro in this story, signalled by that phrase ‘as he liked it’, is not so much loss, but its seeming opposite, possession.
            The next section takes us back to the previous year, and her sessions with her counsellor, Mrs Sands. We learn only that Doree’s husband is in prison, that Doree lives alone, and the children are not there. Only Mrs Sands’ blush at using the word ‘death’ suggests the children’s fate – a fate that is not made explicit until the story is halfway told.
             One of the beats that reverberate in this tale of lost children is how Doree is most often in the company of those who are older than she is. Doree works with women who are older than she is. Even the women on the prison bus seem older than she is, and only look young from a distance.
The next section slips back seven years when Doree is sixteen years. We are at another institution, a hospital, not a prison. Doree’s mother is dying, and Lloyd is an ‘orderly’ – a quiet wordplay here: Munro’s prose offers a smooth surface but there are games and tricks at work beneath it. Lloyd is popular and assured. He kisses her in an elevator – a confined place – and tells her that she is a flower in the desert – a compliment, but also a foretelling that he will cut her off from others, and then, in the space of paragraph, she is pregnant, married, they have moved to the country and a child is born.
Munro then returns us to Mrs Sands – after Doree’s third prison visit and their conversation – and we are circling around a trauma that has occurred but without ever mentioning it directly, and we are given Doree’s memory of her visit with Lloyd.
We then fall back, this time to five years ago. A third child is born and the slow slide into abuse suddenly accelerates in seven sentences and then it is immediately ‘resolved’ in the eighth:
She told him that her milk had dried up, and she’d had to start supplementing. Lloyd squeezed one breast after the other with frantic determination and succeeded in getting a couple of drops of miserable-looking milk out. He called her a liar. They fought. He said that she was a whore like her mother.
All those hippies were whores, he said.
Soon they made up.
             In the next section, Munro returns us to the present – although it’s a year from the story’s opening – and her first visit with Mrs Sands. These leaps in time can sometimes, as here, seem like leaps to safety. Munro could have continued with the slow disintegration of the marriage and the horror tale of abuse and finally the murders that result from it, but theses rushes forward (and away) also act like breathing spaces, times to pull back from what is becoming a sensational narrative. Here, Doree and Mrs Sands touch on God, redemption, and Hell. Doree can’t conceive  of an afterlife because the thought of her murdered children – what Munro here glosses as a ‘familiar impediment’ - is like ‘a hammer hitting her belly.’
But we must circle back to those familiar impediments, and the next section throws us back to the time when the children reach school age and it introduces Maggie – yet another adult who befriends Doree, this child-mother. Maggie provides a perspective on the story – on Lloyd – as  do the meetings with Mrs Sands  – and, through her, Doree begins to realise slowly and with shame:
…that there were things that she were used to that another person might not understand…The truth of things between them, the bond, was not something that anybody else could understand and it was not anybody else’s business. If Doree could watch her own loyalty it would be all right.
In the next four sections Munro foregoes the established rhythm, the counterpointing of Doree’s past and her present condition. Look at the opening sentences of these four sections and how their opening phrases meet the terrible actions they will record with significant bluntness, crashing through the 'familiar' impediments.
             It got worse gradually...
            And in fact it turned out as he had said…
            In the morning, Maggie drove her home…
            The verdict was that he was insane…
Yet even here, the narrative pace accelerates, Munro circles the violent events, writes with a seeming bluntness but then a respectful discretion, almost withdrawing from them even as she records them.
Doree is either driven from the house by Lloyd’s behaviour – it is made to seem like her decision, but we are not told what has triggered this exactly - and she spends the night with Maggie. It is another breathing space akin to those with Mrs Sands, but it is in this lull that the horror happens – off stage or off page, as it were.
Note the quietness with which Munro delivers this moment – and not once but thrice. A crasser writer would detail it and insist on the horror, but, look, there is no need: it is horror enough, isn’t it?
We get:
Dimitri still in his crib, lying sideways. Barbara Ann on the floor beside her bed, as if she’d got out or been pulled out. Sasha by the kitchen door—he had tried to get away. He was the only one with bruises on his throat. The pillow had done for the others.
“When I phoned last night?” Lloyd said. “When I phoned, it had already happened.
“You brought it all on yourself,” he said.
And then a section break that leap forward to give us Lloyd’s fate:
The verdict was that he was insane, he couldn’t be tried. He was criminally insane—he had to be put in a secure institution.
And an immediate switchback to the moment of horror, not seen by Doree, but by Maggie who, we are told bluntly, finds what she ‘expected to find’.
And then the next paragraph goes to Doree, and the paragraph acts like a special effects shot in a movie: a vivid close up that zooms out, then up and away in both time and place.
For some time Doree kept stuffing whatever she could grab into her mouth. After the dirt and grass it was sheets or towels or her own clothing. As if she were trying to stifle not just the howls that rose up but also the scene in her head. She was given a shot of something, regularly, to quiet her down, and this worked. In fact she became very quiet, though not catatonic. She was said to be stabilized. When she got out of the hospital and the social worker brought her to this new place, Mrs. Sands took over, found her somewhere to live, found her a job, established the routine of talking with her once a week. Maggie would have come to see her, but she was the one person Doree could not stand to see. Mrs. Sands said that that feeling was natural—it was the association. She said that Maggie would understand
Munro does not linger on the scene because Doree cannot. Munro circles it, as Doree will do, unable to face it directly, as who, involved in such a trauma, could.
We return to Mrs Sands. It is after the third prison trip. And only now do we get the reason for this last argument – the trigger for the terrible event: a dispute over a dented tin of spaghetti.
Two thirds of the way through, the story’s big event done with – at last in terms of covering it in the narrative – and the story’s progress through time begins to straighten like an arrow, but not quite, not yet.
There is a fourth and a fifth trip to the prison and then a letter from Lloyd.
The letter is a shift in the narrative point of view: we have had Lloyd as Doree has imperfectly seen him, Maggie's guess at his true nature, and how Mrs Sands encourages Doree to think of him, but this is our first direct contact.
His letter is less about loss and more about possession – the theme Munro so quietly establishes in the story’s third paragraph: he writes of other people’s materialism while he is intent on things of the  spirit,  on the good he has made out of grief, which is, he claims, self-knowledge, and he offers this to Doree who has so lacked knowledge of both herself and others, of him most crucially: this child woman dependent on and alone among adults.
The letter ends:
Doree, if you have read this far, there is one special thing I want to tell you about but cannot write it down. If you ever think of coming back here then maybe I can tell you.
What do you as a storyteller when your stories climactic events seem to have been delivered? You let your reader know that there is more.
Doree’s sixth visit to the prison has him withholding the story’s next twist – the unexpected ratchet, the turn of the screw we could not have anticipated, but it is delivered in the second letter
I will just say then: I have seen the children.
I have seen them and talked to them.
I say they exist, not they are alive, because alive means in our particular Dimension, and I am not saying that is where they are. In fact I think they are not. But they do exist and it must be that there is another Dimension or maybe innumerable Dimensions.
…Now I wish that you could be granted this chance as well because if it is a matter of deserving then you are way ahead of me. It may be harder for you to do because you live in the world so much more than I do but at least I can give you this information—the Truth—and in telling you I have seen them hope that it will make your heart lighter.
And Doree’s response:
Doree did think that he was crazy. And in what he had written there seemed to be some trace of the old bragging. She didn’t write back. Days went by. Weeks. She didn’t alter her opinion but she still held on to what he’d written, like a secret. And from time to time, when she was in the middle of spraying a bathroom mirror or tightening a sheet, a feeling came over her. For almost two years she had not taken any notice of the things that generally made people happy, such as nice weather or flowers in bloom or the smell of a bakery. She still did not have that spontaneous sense of happiness, exactly, but she had a reminder of what it was like. It had nothing to do with the weather or flowers. It was the idea of the children in what he had called their Dimension that came sneaking up on her in this way, and for the first time brought a light feeling to her, not pain.
            It is in the final section that the arrow of time flies without swerving. We take it that Doree might now return to her husband – to become his again:
Who but Lloyd would remember the children’s names now, or the color of their eyes? Mrs. Sands, when she had to mention them, did not even call them children, but “your family,” putting them in one clump together.
Going to meet Lloyd in those days, lying to Laurie, she had felt no guilt, only a sense of destiny, submission.
And then she witnesses the accident. In the scale of things,  this is  a far lesser trauma that Doree witnesses but she does witness it – unlike the murder of the children – and so do we:
She was sitting on the front seat across from the driver. She had a clear view through the windshield. And that was why she was the only passenger on the bus, the only person other than the driver, to see a pickup truck pull out from a side road without even slowing down, to see it rock across the empty Sunday-morning highway in front of them and plunge into the ditch. And to see something even stranger: the driver of the truck flying through the air in a manner that seemed both swift and slow, absurd and graceful. He landed in the gravel at the edge of the pavement, on the opposite side of the highway...
How did he fly out of the truck and launch himself so elegantly into the air?...
A trickle of pink foam came out from under the boy’s head, near the ear. It did not look like blood at all, but like the stuff you skim off the strawberries when you’re making jam.
Doree crouched down beside him. She laid a hand on his chest. It was still. She bent her ear close. Somebody had ironed his shirt recently—it had that smell.
She is the one who saves the boy – and he is a boy, younger than she is - not the ‘adult bus driver’, not the passer by. She saves him with her knowledge given her by Lloyd: how to give CPR, how the tongue can block the breathing, how not to move the victim so you don’t injure the spinal cord, and -  the phrase is not given, is not needed – how to give the kiss of life.
           The story reaches it conclusion when Doree decides for herself at last her own direction. The bus moves on – to prison, to Lloyd - and Doree stays where she is. At last, she is moving on.

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/interviews/int2001-12-14.htm

Sunday, 23 January 2011

DH Lawrence: Odour of Chrysanthemums

A DH Lawrence story might not survive a writer’s workshop. Many texts don’t, and not always for the right reasons. Paradise Lost might eventually be hacked to the length of a short narrative poem as, for example, its opening lines:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit

Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast

Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat…

are met with the kindly-meant questions? ‘John, why tell us what your story means before it has even begun? Surely these lines can go? I like ‘fruit’ and ‘tree’, but, otherwise, isn’t all a little too abstract? And is that how you spell “taste”?’[1]

Editing, too often, means hacking. And often hacking is what might be required, but it was not required of Paradise Lost because Milton’s intention was to write in a grand style, to write an epic poem, to use the English language to create a work that equaled in scope what Homer’s Greek did with The Iliad and The Odyssey, what Virgil did with Latin in The Aeneid, what Dante did in Italian with The Divine Comedy.

Understanding what a writer intends should always be at the forefront of your mind when looking at the work of others. Helping the writer to realise that intention is the true work of the editor.

The most controversial editing of recent times centres around the work of Raymond Carver.

At an early stage in his writing life, Carver came under the aegis of Gordon Lish. No one can question that Carver’s influential style – as pervasive in its influence as Hemingway’s, which it only seems to resemble – was the result of Lish’s interventions.

One only needs – and one should – read ‘Beginners’, the original draft of ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’[2] with its published version.[3]

It is impossible to read both versions without falling into debate. Which is better? Which is truer? Are all Lish’s edits wise? Does the story become Lish’s? Why did Carver accept them – although he was deeply troubled by them? Is his widow wise to release the original versions?

The story of Carver and Lish has become something akin to the short story world’s version of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath: the argument has become a soap opera, the relationship more discussed than the work itself.

What can be said is that Carver’s original is a kinder, more Chekhovian work, intent on sympathy and understanding; Lish’s version takes the heart out of Carver’s draft, but this creates so heartless a prose that it shocks even now as something starkly bold and new. It is not the story as Carver originally intended. It is, however, Carveresque in a way that ‘Beginners’ is not: with ‘Beginners’, Carver wrote a fine story and, in editing it, Lish created a brand.

Imagine DH Lawrence Lished.

Consider the second page of ‘The Odour of Chrysanthemums’, written in 1909, and published in Lawrence’s first collection, A Prussian Officer, so it’s a work that, like Carver’s story comes early in Lawrence’s career. Page 2 is where, I imagine, Lish would have had Lawrence begin the story.

Do we really need all that cumbersome scene-setting?

The edits are in strikethrough and additions to the text underscored/in red.

“John!” There was no answer. She waited, and then said distinctly: “Where are you?”

“Here!” replied a child’s sulky voice from among the bushes.

The woman looked piercingly through the dusk.

“Are you at that brook?” she asked sternly.

For answer the child showed himself before the raspberry-canes that rose like whips. He was a small, sturdy boy of five. He stood quite still, defiantly.

“Oh!” said the mother, conciliated. “I thought you were down at that wet brook — and you remember what I told you —”

The boy did not move or answer.

“Come, come on in,” she said more gently, “it’s getting dark. There’s your grandfather’s engine coming down the line!”

The lad advanced slowly, with resentful, taciturn movement. He was dressed in trousers and waistcoat of cloth that was too thick and hard for the size of the garments. They were his clothes evidently cut down from a man’s clothes.

As they went slowly towards the house He tore at the ragged wisps of chrysanthemums and dropped the petals in handfuls along the path.

“Don’t do that — it does looks nasty,” said his mother. He refrained, and she, suddenly pitiful, She broke off a twig with three or four wan flowers and held them it against her face. When mother and son reached the yard her hand hesitated, and instead of laying the flower aside, she and then pushed it in her apron-band. The mother and son stood at the foot of the three steps looking across the bay of lines at the passing home of the miners. The trundle of

A small train was imminent. Its engine loomed past the house and came to a stop opposite the gate.

The engine-driver, a short man with round grey beard, leaned out of the cab high above the woman.

“Have you got a cup of tea?” he said in a cheery, hearty fashion. It was her father. She went in, saying she would mash. Directly, she returned. “I didn’t come to see you on Sunday.began the little grey-bearded man.

“I didn’t expect you,” said his daughter.

The engine-driver winced; then, reassuming his cheery, airy manner, he said:

“Oh, have you heard then? Well, and what do you think —?”

“I think it is soon enough.she replied.

At her brief censure the little man made an impatient gesture, and said coaxingly, yet with dangerous coldness:

Well, what’s a man to do? It’s no sort of life for a man of my years, to sit at my own hearth like a stranger. And If I’m going to marry again it may as well be soon as late — what does it matter to anybody?”

The woman did not reply, but turned and went into the house,. The man in the engine-cab stood assertive, till she returneding with a cup of tea and a piece of bread and butter on a plate. She went up the steps and stood near the footplate of the hissing engine.

What’s gained by this bareness?

The pace increases. The spareness of the writing, the deliberate paucity of detail, explanation, qualification, and the blank setting make the characters more alienated from each other, their exchanges more hostile and the tone more heartless.

What’s lost?

The dusk in which the boy hides, the darkness the woman looks piercingly through – and, remember, the story ends in a meditation on death and how it divides us, with a woman attempting to pierce an even greater darkness. The raspberry canes like ‘whips’ that are of a piece with the first paragraph’s depiction of a world that is essentially cruel. The boy’s hostility and distance from the mother – the ripping of the flowers, the throwing away of the petals so that the mother’s holding of the flowers to her face is both a riposte that shows her essential gentleness and love of beauty as the boy apes the manners of the men in this world. Even excising the position of her father, high in his cab or ‘standing assertive’ while the woman looks up, we lose another detail that evoke this world where women fetch and carry. The details are no longer there to catch in the reader’s mind; meanings are made blunter, less resonant or are just lost.

If you think this is just an exercise, then – for less severe but still telling revisions – study the University of Nottingham site: Odour of Chrysanthemums: A Text in Process, where one can compare Lawrence’s original version with the corrected proofs from The English Review, the magazine that first published the story in 1910[4] and the story as it appeared when published in A Prussian Officer in 1914. You can click on each page and compare what has been excised, amended and rewritten at each stage, (highlighted in yellow, blue and red). The cuts are far less severe than those incurred by Lish in Carver’s original story, but they still intrigue:

For example, in Lawrence’s original, we have:

"Here!" replied a child's sulky voice from among the bushes that crowded darkly on the bank of the brook. The woman looked piercingly through the dusk.

The highlighted phrase is excised for the magazine version of the story and for its published version too. The edits to the story in the magazine version were imposed on Lawrence –– but the version we read today is the one that appears in 1914, the one in The Prussian Officer.

Lawrence sent the original manuscript of ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ to the English Review on 9 December 1909; it seems likely that the magazine’s editor Ford Madox Hueffer, who first suggested that Lawrence should write a story drawing upon the working-class colliery life that he knew so well.

Lawrence corrected the proofs in March, and he was asked to reduce the length of the story by five pages. In March 1911, Austin Harrison - now the magazine’s editor - asked for more changes. Lawrence heavily revised the old page proofs, but this time added eight manuscript pages to contain his new corrections (see Corrected proofs); his fiancée, Louie Burrows, wrote out a fair copy, which was sent to the English Review and the story was published in June 1911 (see English Review (1911)).

In July 1914, for the volume publication, Lawrence inserted additional material into the text and rewrote the ending yet again; in October, he corrected the proofs heavily. The story in its final form appeared in The Prussian Officer in November 1914 (see The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (1914)).

None of the edits caused him the heartache that Lish’s edits were said to cause Carver’s, but, as was Lawrence’s situation, Lish had insisted that the story would not be published without the cuts and so Carver said yes, no matter how deep, complicated and lingering his regret.

Lawrence’s editors were people like Ford Maddox Heuffer, Colin Duckworth and Edward Garnett - it is through his wife, Constance Garnett, and her translations that most of us know Chekhov – but Carver was also fortunate in that Iowa his tutors were John Cheever and John Gardner.

In John Cheever, Carver met a fellow-drinker and short story writer and, although different in class and kind as men and writers, it is curious how, after death, their names are often mentioned in conjunction[5]. But it is John Gardner who is most relevant to this discussion. Less well-known now as a novelist, through his books, The Art of Fiction and Becoming a Novelist and others, he has become a major influence on the way Creative Writing is taught in universities. The two books are testy, sometimes, dense, often dogmatic, but genuinely helpful books on the craft of writing, and in the first, he writes of an exercise that returns us to ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’, and that page I completely Lished.

John Gardner in The Art of Fiction describes an exercise in which students are asked to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not, he insists, mention the son or the war or death.

If worked or hard enough, a wonderful image will be evoked, a real barn would stand before us but one filled with mysterious meaning.

Another variant has a woman who has just given birth looking out of a window at a tree. Her child may be well and hale, sickly or stillborn, but we will only know from the way the writer describes the tree[6].

Written long before Gardner suggested the exercise, the first page of ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ – in fact, every page Lawrence ever wrote – exemplifies the practice. It is soaked in the author’s intention, every word choice, verb or noun, adjective or adverb, and the syntax itself. If Lish made Carver monochrome, taciturn and skeletal, Lawrence is purple, full-throated and generously made, but he is just as purposeful in his writing.

The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston — with seven full wagons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed, but the colt that it startled from among the gorse, which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, outdistanced it at a canter. A woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black wagons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass. The fields were dreary and forsaken, and in the marshy strip that led to the whimsey, a reedy pit-pond, the fowls had already abandoned their run among the alders, to roost in the tarred fowl-house. The pit-bank loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides, in the afternoon’s stagnant light. Just beyond rose the tapering chimneys and the clumsy black head-stocks of Brinsley Colliery. The two wheels were spinning fast up against the sky, and the winding-engine rapped out its little spasms. The miners were being turned up.

The engine whistled as it came into the wide bay of railway lines beside the colliery, where rows of trucks stood in harbour.

Miners, single, trailing and in groups, passed like shadows diverging home. At the edge of the ribbed level of sidings squat a low cottage, three steps down from the cinder track. A large bony vine clutched at the house, as if to claw down the tiled roof. Round the bricked yard grew a few wintry primroses. Beyond, the long garden sloped down to a bush-covered brook course. There were some twiggy apple trees, winter-crack trees, and ragged cabbages. Beside the path hung disheveled pink chrysanthemums, like pink cloths hung on bushes. A woman came stooping out of the felt-covered fowl-house, half-way down the garden. She closed and padlocked the door, then drew herself erect, having brushed some bits from her white apron.

That first sentence, before any character is introduced – before any character can be introduced – gives us the locomotive engine clanking, stumbling, and loaded full of coal. Whatever human struggles the story will tell, the setting is given first because setting determines what happens here: the price of those full wagons is paid by the lives of the people who live and work in this environment, necessary, discordant, rapacious.

Its loud threats of speed startle the colt and the woman must draw back into the hedge at its advent as it thumps heavily past, slow and inevitable, while she crouches, insignificant and trapped.

Here the oak leaves are withered and birds make off into the dusk: a deadly land where the smoke sinks and – such an animate verb - cleaves to the grass.

The pit looms up, flames like red sores licking its ashy sides. The wheels spinning against a sky stagnant with light, the chimneys, the head-stocks, the winding engine in spasms as it pulls the miners – appropriately the last sentence of this darkly majestic paragraph – out of the bowels of the earth (where at the end one of them will be returned) to pass like shadows diverging home in the next. [7]

The editor of The English Review, Ford Maddox Heuffer who accepted the story in its entirety – the edits made were done by another, less impressed editor and total some five pages - said of this story:

…this man knows. He knows how to open a story with a sentence of the right cadence for holding the attention. He knows how to construct a paragraph. He knows the life he is writing about in a landscape just sufficiently contrasted with a casual word here and there. You can trust him for the rest. [8]

A contemporary editor might quarrel with so heavily adjectival a piece of writing. A workshop might quarrel with ‘still flickered indistinctly’ – how distinct is a flicker – and a workshop might question ‘thumped heavily’ – aren’t thumps generally taken to be heavy unless distinguished as light? Individually, one might argue each choice – and if you were its writer, you should, and we should witness only the results of that quarrel – but the general effect is to create a world imbued by thought, by spirit, a world in which this story can happen fully and resonantly.

It is full-blooded writing because the approach is full-blooded. This is fine writing, and never before had such attention been lavished on subjects like this. Lawrence is writing here of characters, of a class, a region that went either under-represented or unrepresented both in his time and before it – certainly not represented in this fulsome manner.

His aim is not political – except that might be one of its effects[9] – but moral, psychological, even spiritual. The language he develops gives these characters the dignity, the depth, the importance of aristocrats. The world they inhabit, the world that crushes them to death or into ignominious living and thwarted relationships, is evoked in full seriousness.

I have the impression with Lawrence – and with other writers not otherwise or immediately comparable such John Keats, Colette or Whitman – that, when he was at his desk, he just sat more deeply in his chair, that he more deeply inhabited his body as he wrote. Whatever the thread he span his webs from, it came from deeper within than most other writers. There isn’t a page of Lawrence, from his novels, his short stories, his poems, his essays, his plays, his letters – that feels like writing that isn’t aimed at reaching a deeper level of understanding or a more sustained apprehension of the physical world and how it works on us and how we exist within it, no matter that, at times, he is maverick, wrong-headed or perverse - although the wonder is how often he is none of these things, as here in ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums.’ So much of what he is was doing – and he did so much in a life that was a restless pilgrimage complicated by poverty, sickness and controversy – he was doing for the first time, doing it alone, and against the will of the world.

I have concentrated on the opening pages of this story, but a study of the final pages is yields riches, its meanings multiple and eloquently made[10]. The uncorrected proofs show a more contracted ending that comes to be amplified in the magazine version and re-addressed significantly for the book version. The original version of the story is rich with a mothers contempt of her spendthrift alcoholic husband; Lawrence described it as “full of my childhood’s atmosphere”’[11]; and his novel, Sons and Lovers, is the best expression of this, but in the final version of this story, the one we read, there is a fuller understanding of both husband and wife, and the world made both of them.

[1] This not being a patch on Billy Collins’ ‘Workshop’: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=176048

[2] http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2007/12/24/071224fi_fiction_carver?printable=true

[3] http://www.newyorker.com/online/2007/12/24/071224on_onlineonly_carver?printable=true

[4] He was paid £10: see, p93, DH Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider, John Worthen, Penguin, 2006

[5] For example, David Means, a peerless short story writer from this generation, who discusses both writers before reading a Carver story. ‘Chef’s House’, for this New Yorker podcast: http://www.newyorker.com/online/2010/10/18/101018on_audio_means

[6] This is only tangentially related but it allows me to mention a favourite poem: ‘The Transparent Man’ by Anthony Hecht: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-transparent-man/

[7] The uncorrected proof of the story does not have so swift a transition between the miners rising up from the earth to pass like shadows diverging home but a more detailed description of their manner and appearance, albeit in the same register as the rest of the paragraph.

[8] p67 , Worthen. Ford Maddox Heuffer, later and now better known as Ford Maddox Ford, knew something about how to write a paragraph, too, and ‘how to open a story with a sentence of the right cadence for holding the attention: Here is the opening of his peerless and perfect novel, The Good Soldier:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy—or, rather with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove's with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom, till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair, I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England, and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

[9] Ford was particularly welcoming of a writer from Lawrence’s background and the editing of the magazine version - made by anther editor - emphasises the social commentary more than the original and the final published version: Lawrence was not keen on being so pigeonholed.

[10] The Nottingham site has four related essays on the manuscripts of the story that address all the key changes and shifts in emphases http://odour.nottingham.ac.uk/critical.asp

[11]quoted p11 Worthen