Monday, 21 August 2017

'I decided not to "write" at all': Willa Cather's O Pioneers!

It took me a long time to get round to Willa Cather, and it's taken me even longer to get round to her first novel (the first in her own voice, after a Jamesian flop) - O Pioneers!
  The first of her Great Plains trilogy (My Antonia is the last), it recounts the struggles of a Swedish family - led by the redoubtable Alexandra Bergson - as they try to make a living on the hostile prairie land of Nebraska. These struggles pay off handsomely, thanks to Alexandra's vision, but at a terrible human cost...  It's an extraordinary book, one that leaves you - well, left me - stunned, shaken and wondering, as always with Cather, how on earth she pulled it off.
 On the face of it, there is so much wrong with O Pioneers! - the faults of the first-timer, perhaps. An uncharitable reader could identify passages of stilted dialogue and lumpy exposition, a thinness of characterisation (as if the characters were in danger of being overwhelmed by those mighty Nebraska landscapes), a wild unevenness of tone, veering between intense lyricism and the plainest of plain speaking, between something like sentimentality and the starkest realism, and an under-writing of key events as if they were incidentals.
 However, I fancy that it is in these very faults (if you can call them that in the context of such a powerfully effective book) that the strength of the novel resides. Cather keeps you guessing, wrongfoots you, softens you up, then lands the punch that takes your breath away. It's a risky way of writing - you'd better be some kind of genius to try it - but, heavens, it comes off in the case of O Pioneers! It's not nearly as assured a performance as the equally remarkable My Antonia, but I'm sure it will live with me for just as long.
 Willa Cather said of O Pioneers! that 'I decided not to "write" at all, - simply to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I'd forgotten'. And that's how it reads - 'like a memory, almost,' to quote a New Yorker centennial review, 'rather than a representation'.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Iniquity of Oblivion


Yesterday my researches took me deep into Essex, to visit an extraordinary monument in the church of Holy Cross, Felsted. It's almost certainly by the great Epiphanius Evesham and it commemorates the 1st and 2nd Barons Rich. I'll spare you the details, but suffice to say that it's a magnificent monument, beautifully designed and executed, with a grand architectural framework, brilliantly modelled figures of the two Barons, father and son, and a range of panels demonstrating Evesham's skills in relief carving and in incised design. The impact is stunning - not for the first time when encountering Evesham's work, I gasped audibly - and, at the same time, decidedly unsettling.
 Look at the 1st Baron Rich [above], who reclines in his Lord Chancellor's robes of office atop the chest tomb - that's not a face you can examine for long without a growing uneasiness. It certainly isn't the face - or the pose - of a man serenely awaiting the afterlife. It seems to be an all too vivid portrait of an angry, impatient man. Rebarbative is the word that comes to mind (reinforced by that absurdly long beard). This is no portrait, though - the 1st Baron R died in 1567. Nor is it a portrait of the son, the 2nd Baron [below], who died in 1581. He kneels at the head of the tomb chest, with one arm missing and his detached left hand, holding his right gauntlet, lying eerily on the plinth of the monument.


The much delayed monument was finally erected some 40 years after the death of the 2nd Baron, the issue having been forced by the 3rd Baron, who stipulated in his will that his illustrious grandfather and father should have their memorial within 18 months of his (the 3rd Baron's) death.
 So, who was the 1st Baron Rich, whose unsettling non-likeness dominates this magnificent monument? He was, even by the standards of the Tudor court, a notably unscrupulous and ruthless operator, of whom no one had a good word to say in his lifetime or since. He not only survived but thrived, amassing wealth and titles, through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and on into the early years of Elizabeth. His modus operandi was to get close to the most powerful personages, then betray and abandon them as soon as it became expedient and move on to the next rising power. He sedulously persecuted Catholics and Protestants alike, as the wind blew, and even participated in torture himself, turning the wheel of the rack on the unfortunate Anne Askew, the only woman ever to have been tortured in the Tower of London. There's a colourful account of the worst of his misdeeds here...
 And yet he lies memorialised by the greatest monument-maker of his time, in his grandest surviving monument. Truly (as Sir Thomas Browne wrote), 'the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.'

Friday, 18 August 2017

Marble Motels, Shorter Years

On this day in 1958, Lolita was finally published in the United States, by Putnam's, after four other publishers had nervously turned it down. The nervousness was understandable: Lolita had been widely denounced as pornographic, and banned in France and the UK. When, in 1959, it was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, it effectively ended the political career of partner Nigel Nicolson (father of Adam).
 In the US, Lolita was an instant best-seller on a heroic scale, selling 100,000 copies in its first three weeks - and surely disappointing many thousands of hopeful smut hounds. In a Time interview, Nabokov, now a celebrity, declared that his real interest was not in nymphets but in motels: 'I would like to have a chain of motels - made of marble. I would put one every ten minutes along the highway, and I would travel from one to another with my butterfly net.'
 Checking the dates, I realise that when I first read Lolita, ten years after it came out in the UK, I was at the same distance in time from the first publication of Howards End, Clayhanger and The History of Mr Polly as I am now from the US publication of Lolita. Those post-Lolita years seem so very much shorter.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Mistake

I recently reread Eça de Queiroz's wonderful novella The Yellow Sofa - about which I've written elsewhere - and, finding that I loved it as much as ever, thought I'd seek out some more of his shorter fictions. I soon found a volume, published by Dedalus, titled Alves & Co and Other Stories and, as it was going for a song, I happily snapped it up. Only to discover that Alves & Co is the selfsame Yellow Sofa under a different title.
 If I still had a functioning memory for names, I might have recalled that Alves & Co is the family firm of Godofredo da Conceição Alves, the (less than heroic) hero of The Yellow Sofa. Ah well - at least, by buying this volume, I discovered that Dedalus, an enterprising small press based in Cambridgeshire, also publish translations of many of Eça de Queiroz's other works. I'll be on the look-out for them now, taking care not to repeat my mistake.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Meanwhile...

Here's something I wrote about Strawberry Hill House for superior interior specialists Pooky.

One More, and Back to England

Good news from Dieppe's other historic church, St Rémy, where a wholesale, long overdue restoration is now under way. Among the first fruits is the lady chapel [above], restored to its former splendour. If the rest of the church lives up to that, it will be quite something - and it might well be finished before the seemingly never-ending restoration of St Jacques is complete. But there’s a long way to go, and many of St Rémy’s side chapels have been, er, awaiting attention for some while [below].


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Back in England, we got on the train at Newhaven, that deeply dismal point of arrival, and I took a window seat from which to enjoy the passing scenery. Immediately a burly, stubble-chinned fellow in a below-the-knee floral print cotton dress piped up, informing me, at length, just how ‘rubbish’ the trains on that line are. They should have been scrapped and replaced years ago, he declared - although it would be a waste of time as the replacement rolling stock is rubbish too.
 Moving the conversation deftly along, he asked me what kind of day I’d had, expressing the hope – nay, expectation – that it had been better than his. I mentioned Dieppe and he expressed the hope – nay, conviction – that it was ‘better than this place’. I endeavoured to enjoy the landscape sliding by the window – sheep grazing in the river valley, a horizon of rounded hills, stocky church spires rising among trees – but by the time we got to Lewes he had also assured me that, in fifty years, all that would be gone and there would be nothing but houses. Welcome to England.
 

Friday, 11 August 2017

And

Also seen in a side chapel of St Jacques, Dieppe, awaiting who knows what.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Two Tablets, One Story

In a side chapel (La Chapelle des Noyés) of the magnificent church of St Jacques in Dieppe - a church whose much-needed restoration proceeds slowly - I noticed a tablet in memory of the priest Jacques Hamel. Père Hamel was butchered in his old age by a Jihadist fanatic, while celebrating mass at his church in St-Etienne-de-Rouvray. A few yards to the right of his tablet is one in memory of another priest, Clement Briche, who was guillotined in the public square of Dieppe in 1794, a victim of equally fanatical revolutionaries acting in the name of Reason and Enlightenment. The two tablets make a poignant pairing, and a sad reminder of what human beings are capable of when gripped by an Idea that seems to demand the death of all those who do not share it.
 The name Hamel appears on another tablet in the same chapel, this one celebrating the brothers Jean and Charles Hamel, who in 1656 sailed from their native Dieppe to start a new life in Quebec. Several other families are similarly celebrated, in tablets put up by their present-day descendants in Canada. I used to read such things with interest but no particular emotion, until a visit to Quebec a few years ago - and, especially, a reading of Willa Cather's wonderful novel of 17th-century Quebec, Shadows on the Rock - made me realise just what it meant to leave one life behind and try to establish a new one on an alien shore. Fiction, as ever, tells us far more than history can.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

D***** Time Again

Alert regulars might have noticed that it's been a full ten months since I was last in Dieppe - was this going to be that rare thing, a Dieppeless year? The answer is of course no: Mrs N and I are heading that way again tomorrow (after overnighting in Lewes), taking the big lumbering ferry from Newhaven in the early morning.
 It now takes longer to get from London to Dieppe than it did in the later 19th century, when there were boat trains and fast and frequent steam packets delivering les Anglais smoothly into the heart of the old town, within yards of the restaurants on the Quai Henri IV. Even in the 1990s, as I remember, it was still possible to nip over to Dieppe for lunch and return in the early evening... Ah well, at least the ferry - unlike so many others - is still running.
 I might be filing the odd report from Dieppe, but if not I should be back in action some time next week.

Monday, 7 August 2017

God: Certainly a Gentleman

In the closing years of the 19th century, the young Somerset Maugham was befriended by the elderly Augustus Hare and paid several visits to the eminent Victorian's home, near Hastings. Here Hare followed the morning routine that was still standard in the great houses of the time, reading prayers and passages from the Bible to the assembled guests and servants before the hearty breakfast was broached.
 Maugham noted that some of the prayers were not spoken in the familiar form, and discovered that the book used by Hare had been edited, certain phrases being removed. When Maugham asked his host why this was, Hare replied: 'I've crossed out all the passages in glorification of God. God is certainly a gentleman, and no gentleman cares to be praised to his face. It is tactless, impertinent and vulgar. I think all that fulsome adulation must be highly offensive to him.'
 I rather think my father (whose mindset was decidedly Edwardian) would have endorsed the idea of God as a 'gentleman' - though he would surely have added the adjective 'English'.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Suspected Resident

One of these strange creatures was nectaring on the Buddleia outside my bedroom window this morning. It's a Hummingbird Hawk Moth - a moth that looks and behaves like a cross between a Hummingbird and a Bee Fly (Bombylius). The wings are a blur, while the body hangs in the air absolutely static and the long tongue probes deep into the flower. It moves with all the suddenness of a hoverfly, here one second, somewhere else the next, with no visible movement from A to B. And, of course, unlike most hawk moths, it's day-flying. It's quite common and widespread in the UK, but it's still a strange and wonderful sight. Butterfly Conservation UK lists its status as 'Immigrant, suspected resident' - let's hope it's not in breach of regulations.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Larry Knechtel


Born on this day in 1940 was the great keyboard player and all-round musician Larry Knechtel, a core member of Phil Spector's legendary Wrecking Crew - probably the greatest-ever concentration of talent in one band - and, later, of Bread. Knechtel worked with everyone: that's him on piano in Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water (a turn that won him a Grammy), on keyboards in the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and on bass in the Byrds' Mr Tambourine Man. And, among much else, Knechtel played keyboards on John Phillips' ill-fated solo album (along with James Burton, Buddy Emmons and Red Rhodes on guitars, Joe Osborn on bass and Hal Blaine on drums - what a band). Phillips deeply disliked the album (though it contains much of his best work) and thought it would have sounded better if his voice had been mixed out altogether. Well, with those musicians, it would certainly have sounded good - but who'd be without a song like this?


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

What Happened?

In Bloxham church, Oxfordshire, Sir John Thornycroft (d. 1725) reclines at ease, perfectly confident that the life to come will be every bit as agreeable as the present one, with frequent toga parties and ample opportunities for him to strike elegant poses and coin equally elegant bons mots. Pevsner describes the figure of Sir John, in periwig and 'diaphanous draperies', as 'effete' - and so he is, but his monument is sadly typical of an unfortunate phase in the history of English church monuments.
  The chapel that Sir John's monument attempts to dominate is a beautiful building, lit by large and magnificent Perpendicular windows. Its builders could have had no conception that it would one day house a monument of such absurd pretension (and such entire lack of any Christian content). What happened? And, more to the point, what happened in the decades between the golden age of English church monuments - the age of Evesham and Stone and the great artists from the low countries - and the coming into fashion of overblown Baroque monuments of this type?
 I guess the answer to that is the Civil War and the Restoration, a period that brought about a revolution in taste and attitudes. However, it still seems extraordinary that English men (and women) could suddenly regard it as perfectly normal to pose for their monuments in Roman dress, quite at ease in an imagined version of classical antiquity, as if nothing had happened between Roman times and the new Augustan age - except that periwigs came into fashion. No wonder there was, eventually, a reaction against these excesses in the form of an austere and 'correct' classicism. Being alien to the English temperament, however, this did not last long before the revivalist excesses of the Victorians swept it away, beginning the last great flowering of monument-making. After which - or in the course of which - this once great English art form went into decline and petered out.

I came across the Thornycroft monument in the course of a very fine church-crawl that took in three of Oxfordshire's finest - St Mary Bloxham, St Peter and St Paul Deddington, and St Mary Adderbury. After that I spent a few days with my cousin in Derbyshire where, among other things, I enjoyed a cello and piano performance in the magnificent setting of the StarDisc, and a muddy but very wonderful walk along the beautiful Chee Dale - that's a part of it below.