elegiac

CONCLUDING BY HENRY GREEN

I had intended to write this yesterday. But I went out drinking instead. This is my life now. This, apparently, is living. I spent a number of years putting people off, in order to read and write. Excuses and outright lies. I was ashamed of myself, and wished I was different. I am different now, yet not in a meaningful way. Different only in so much as I force myself to engage, while being still disengaged mentally and emotionally. I felt I had to try though, so I am trying. I spoke about Henry Green last night. I was asked, as I am always asked, because it is one sure way to make me speak, what are you reading? I had just finished Concluding. It is usually the case that my brief explanations are met with interest, be it genuine or fake. However, on this occasion the response was lukewarm, almost hostile. And it occurred to me then that Green’s body of work might just be the hardest sell in literature.

There is something singularly unexciting about Henry Green’s oeuvre when reduced to its elements. Of plot and character depth or development, there is very little, and the most immediate compensation – the lovely, awkward sentences – is not exactly crowd-pleasing. Yet Concluding, which I have read twice now, is, for my money, one of the great British novels, and I hope that what I am going to write here will give some indication as to why it is deserving of that status. I’m not holding my breath, though. The book was published in 1948, making it one of the last things the author worked on. Green himself was only 43 at the time, so it is unlikely that he felt as though his own life was coming to an end, but perhaps he did have in sight the last days of his career as there is an autumnal, elegiac quality to parts of it. In one scene, for example, he writes about ‘a glare of sunlight concerted on flat, dying leaves’ and a ‘hidden world of spiders working on its gold, the webs these made a field of wheels and spokes of wet silver.’

The central character Mr. Rock plays into this too. He is an old man, in his seventies, a once brilliant scientist, who now wears thick glasses, consistently mishears conversation due to deafness, and rises ‘with a groan.’ In fact, one way of understanding Concluding is as a novel about old age, and specifically the mistreatment, at least in Britain, of the elderly. Certainly, if one’s sympathies lay with Rock, one could argue that he is a highly intelligent, but vulnerable, man, who is preyed upon by various other, younger, characters who want to strip him of a cottage that sits close by an institute for girls; a property, moreover, which was given to him by the State in view of his former importance and contribution to science. However, one is never entirely sure of him. There are too many contrasting opinions, too much contradictory evidence.

In some quarters he is ‘well liked and respected’; and his granddaughter, in particular, idolises him. But for others he is something more sinister; he is a man ‘not of this world’, he is a ‘curious creature’. At no point in the novel does he do anything truly concerning, and yet one is at times given the impression that there may be, or have been, some form of inappropriate involvement, possibly sexual in nature, between him and one or more of the young female students of the institute. Indeed, it is even suggested that he may have had something to do with the disappearance of two girls, which is the central mystery that provides much of the novel’s momentum and tension. In this way, Concluding is very much like the work of another Henry, Henry James. As I wrote in my review of Portrait of a Lady, James’ genius was the ability to somehow hint and imply without ever outright telling you the juiciest bits of his story. There is, I wrote, a whole world beneath the surface of his work. The same could be said of Green.

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In relation to the disappearance of the girls, it is not only Rock who is fingered as a suspect in the reader’s mind. Almost all of the characters are. Everyone raises suspicion, everyone strikes you as dubious, without ever really doing anything to deserve it; except perhaps Miss Edge, the headmistress, who is the most obvious villain of the piece. In fact, one is never sure whether there has even been a crime. It’s really quite magical. There is an atmosphere of unease and strangeness throughout the novel. The girls, for example, are all called names beginning with M. They are essentially faceless, and without personality, and are often described in sexual terms, such as when reference is made to their ‘golden bare legs’ or the ‘brilliant wetness’ of their mouths. Liz, Rock’s granddaughter, is decidedly odd, having recently had a mental breakdown. Edge and Baker, who run the institute in tandem, are ‘devious’, ‘dangerous’, ‘Babylonian harlots.’ The whole cast appear to be plotting and scheming, and they all talk to each other as though they are having two entirely different conversations.

The characters aren’t all of it, either. Perhaps the most significant scene, in terms of understanding the peculiar power of the novel, and something of Green’s art, is when a doll is found dressed in institute pyjamas. One cannot help but he alarmed by it. Is it meant to represent Mary, one of the missing girls? If so, who is responsible for it? The murderer? The kidnapper? Or does it perhaps belong to her? If so, how did she lose it in the woods, and why the pyjamas? All kinds of macabre thoughts run through one’s mind, and yet it is still only a doll. It does not, in fact, signify anything, even if it does belong Mary, as we already know she is missing and we do not know for certain that she has come to any harm. The doll tells us nothing of note, but suggests all kinds of horrible things. Indeed, one spends the majority of Concluding waiting for a dead body to appear, to be stumbled upon, to float to the surface, or at least for some form of closure, but this is not a book that works in that way. There are no answers or conclusions. As Henry Green himself once wrote: “it’s not the truth that matters. It’s what’s believed.”

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DAVID COPPERFIELD BY CHARLES DICKENS

David Copperfield is Dickens’ great nostalgic sigh of a novel. It is, we are told, his most personal, the one he cherished above all his others; it is also one of his most highly rated – Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf were fans – and most loved by the general public. It is, this being Dickens, who is for my money the greatest English novelist of all time, very good, of course. Yet, I couldn’t quite fall for it in the way that I have done with many of his other works. While reading it I felt a little bit like one of those guys who doesn’t think Angelina Jolie is super-hot: no matter how much everyone tells you how incredibly beautiful she is, for some reason you just can’t see it, you think she’s merely alright.

As with all of Dickens’ novels there is much in David Copperfield to admire, and much, actually, that sets it apart from the rest of oeuvre. Perhaps the reason that this novel is so highly rated by other writers and critics, in particular, is that it is his most beautifully written. There are passages in the book, lyrical passages, that genuinely moved me; there is an elegiac, Proustian, quality to the writing, which is something, I must admit, I wasn’t even sure he was capable of. I have been moved many many times by his work previously, but on those occasions it was the characters that drew an emotional response from me. I wish I had bookmarked some of my favourite passages, but unfortunately I didn’t. However, here is a lovely line I found at random:

As the elms bent to one another, like giants who were whispering secrets, and after a few seconds of such repose fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms about, as if their late confidences were really too wicked for their peace of mind, some weather-beaten, ragged old rooks’ nests, burdening their higher branches, swung like wrecks upon a stormy sea.

It is fair to say that some readers find the abundance of zany, eccentric, or larger-than-life people in Dickens’ novels tiresome. I am not one of those. The man simply had an immense talent for creating memorable characters, some of whom are as immortal as Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Ahab and so on. The big deal is that those were all thought up by different writers; Dickens – one man, one writer – created a whole bunch of them. In any case, David Copperfield houses much fewer of these sorts of people; the characters are, to my mind, far more understated, more [and this seems to matter a lot to some of you] real. This may go some way to explaining why I did not enjoy it quite as much as, say, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend or Great Expectations. I spoke about flat characters in my Gravity’s Rainbow review, so I don’t want to repeat all that here, except to say that flat to me doesn’t mean unrealistic, rather it means dull or not engaging. Truth be told, I found quite a few of the characters in this book boring or slightly irritating, people like Peggotty, who is very good and very lovely and well written and all that jazz, but who simply did not hold my interest.

This neatly leads me on towards my biggest issue with the book, which is that I just could not take to David himself. As previously stated, I struggled with Bleak House’s Esther, the only other Dickens first-person narrator, but I at least found her intriguing, or interesting. David, aside from his wonderful prose, is, bafflingly for a narrator, a kind of void; he lacks a strong personality. I came out of the novel knowing almost nothing about him as a man, aside from numerous biographical details. For much of the novel, he seemed oddly distant from the action, was, so to speak, standing apart, in a corner while the action took place. I did wonder whether that was Dickens’ point, that David Copperfield is about how someone sees their life and the people who played a part in it, that it isn’t meant to be a portrait of the narrator; maybe he was trying to say something about the functioning of one’s memory, how it relegates you to a position of observer. If that is what Dickens intended then his book is a success. But the damn thing is called David Copperfield, so if we don’t get to know him that counts, at the very least, as false advertising.

I must confess that the little of David I did get to know I found pretty objectionable. Of course, one doesn’t need to like a narrator, but I couldn’t shake the feeling, what with him being to some extent a stand-in for the author, that I was meant to. It’s strange, because one of the things I most like and enjoy about Dickens is his open-heartedness, his warmth, his, yes, sentimentality. However, David, although absolutely sentimental, isn’t particularly warm or open-hearted; in fact, I found him pompous and judgemental. I don’t think that was intentional. I guess much of that can be put down to a paradigm shift; which is to say that things that were acceptable, or expected, during Dickens’ time are less so now. I’m referring to things like his reaction towards his workmates early in the book, which is sneering and rather unpleasant, and his thoughts and behaviour towards the fallen Little Em’ly. The whole storyline concerning her got right on my tits. She leaves her intended to be with a man who she loves, and it, ultimately, ruins her. Dickens, via David, almost appears to believe that she got her just desserts. I found that surprising. Yes, paradigm shift and blah blah blah, but Dickens always struck me as a morally forward-thinking writer, it’s one of his most admirable qualities, and yet in David Copperfield he doesn’t come across that way at all.

There are, however, still some great characters in the book. Uriah Heep is the most famous, and justly so. His physical appearance, his verbal tics are brilliantly imagined and written. But, once again, I would say that David’s immediate response to him, which is one of suspicion and dislike, perturbed me a bit. Of course, he turns out to be right in his judgement, his negative appraisal, in the end, but I couldn’t help but think he was judging Uriah not on his qualities, or lack of them, as a human being, but rather his status. In any case, Aunt Betsey and Mr Dick are two other memorable creations, and all of their appearances are a joy.

A joy, also, are numerous scenes or episodes throughout the novel. It seems, from the reviews I have read, that many people do not find much to praise in the opening section that features David and his mother, but I did. I found their relationship entirely believable. Furthermore, I was particularly smitten with David’s school days and, later, an awesome chapter in which he gets drunk with some friends. Indeed, this drunk scene is the best description of drunkenness I have ever read, and it was one of the few times I warmed to David. My favourite section of the novel, however, was David’s and Dora’s courtship and marriage. Women, I imagine, might hate Dora because she’s the kind of girl women typically can’t stand i.e. she’s impractical, otherworldly, cute and child-like. As a man, I loved her. She charmed me entirely. The tragic nature of the relationship – that, really, they were ill-suited, despite their love – was heartbreaking, particularly Dora’s acknowledgement of her own failures as a wife. Truly, all that killed me. In fact, I’m feeling emotional just thinking about it. But, then I’m sentimental too. And, I guess, that, that parts of this book still managed to floor me, even though it is not at all my favourite Dickens, is further evidence of the author’s colossal genius.