outsiders

NIGHTWOOD BY DJUNA BARNES

They come without being called, dog-nosing the air as though they sense a hard surface upon which they can lean or dash their heads. They claw at my heart, like a dog that has been put out for the night, with tales of infidelity, premature ejaculation, and a knife to the throat. And I sit impassively, sometimes sullenly, saying things like: ‘love means swallowing your pride and not allowing the bitter taste to show on your face.’ Do they believe that I can help them because I was born lost? Born lost, yes, but therefore never having known defeat. For them it is a new feeling, a new state of being, and that is why they are wild, why they writhe and howl in its strong arms. They come without being called and have their say. It is never anything I haven’t heard before. I am the defrocked priest of this parish. I am the comb they drag through their knotted hair. I tell them: read Jean Rhys. Read de Nerval. Christ, read The Daily Mail. Read Nightwood, if you must do something. Here’s your razor; here’s your rope. I cannot help you.

“I was doing well enough until you came along and kicked my stone over, and out I came, all moss and eyes.”

Of the many books that concern themselves with outcasts, with those on the periphery of life, Nightwood is the one I return to most often. Guido: a Jew, at a time – has there ever not been such a time? – when, and in a place where, to be Jewish was inadvisable. Guido: who is, by living in Europe, cut-off from his people both geographically and spiritually; and who, moreover, cannot accept himself, or perhaps dare not, and so pays ‘remorseless homage’ to a nobility that he has no genuine claim to. As does his son, Felix. With his mixed blood, he is perhaps even more rootless, more displaced, than his father. The wandering half-Jew. He is, we’re told, ‘everywhere from nowhere’. He is at odds with the world; and at home, if not at ease, only with the odd. There is something ‘missing and whole’ about him. He dresses, it is written, as though expecting to participate in a great event, and yet there is no event for which he could be said to be appropriately dressed. Even his hair, that symbol of vitality, strength and self worth, is wrong, for it starts ‘too far back’.

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As for the important others, I may deal with them later, if I can find them. Robin, however, is easier to pin down, although she flits around the margins of the story. Easier, because predictable, because like me. Which is to say that she lacks substance, lacks blood and guts. What is love, I once said, without fear? To love truly, successfully, one must be afraid; yet I am not, and nor is Robin. She is ‘fading’ and ‘noncommittal’; her attention, it is felt, has ‘already been taken’. She is easily appropriated – by Felix, by Nora, by Jenny – because she is not looking, or is looking, but somewhere far off, her eyes fixed on some nonexistent thing, on ‘something not yet in history’. Yes, Nightwood has sorrow and pain under its fingernails, nails hidden inside wet gloves. Even the minor characters, the off-cuts, the offal, are maimed: the girl with no legs who has at least a mouth to cry out her lover’s lament, Felix’s and Robin’s sickly and ‘strange’ child. Yes, all, all who are contained within the book are attired in grave weeds.

“We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality. We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it.”

Yet they are not entirely lost; no, I wouldn’t say that. Say: avoiding themselves. Say: trying to be something they are not. Guido, remember, and Felix too, falsely lays claim to a Baronetcy. Dr. Matthew O’Connor is not really a doctor, either. And the Count? ‘Her Gott,’ said the Duchess. ‘Am I what I say? Are you?’ Everywhere there is imitation, pretence. The paintings of Guido’s parents, which show a accidental familial resemblance, are ‘reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors.’ On Jenny’s finger hangs someone else’s marriage ring; Jenny, the ‘bold and authentic’ robber. But more than that: no one is any sole definitive thing. There is ambiguity, fluidity. Hedwig, Felix’s mother, who dies during childbirth, has ‘the masterly piano stroke of a man.’ Robin – a name suitable for both sexes, mark that – is a tall girl with the body of a boy. And O’Connor again? Misericordia.

Matthew-mighty-pinch-of-salt-O’Connor. Transvestite. Fabricator. Exaggerator. Drunk. Irish, but not really. Exile, certainly. His bearing is ‘apologetic’, ‘slouching, ‘pathetic.’ And yet he dominates the novel, with his mouth, with the ‘insistent hum’ of his words. Indeed, he acts almost as the narrator, or commentator. He sizes up, he diagnoses, he unleashes. Yes, it is fitting that he is a doctor, or a fake doctor, for Nightwood‘s losers drift towards him for advice, for commiseration, for illumination. He is the rock upon which they intend to lean, or fling themselves to weep, only to find that it is in fact made of sponge. He is necessary, O’Connor. Maddening at times, of course, though he is, he is indIspensable, for them and for us. His moments are the only moments when one isn’t kept at arm’s length, when one doesn’t feel as though one’s nose is pressed against aquarium glass, watching ugly fish swim in unclean water.

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VERTIGO BY W.G. SEBALD

I find the wonderful German writer W.G. Sebald so difficult to review that my treatment of his second novel, The Rings of Saturn, was no more than a long story about a trip I once made with my then partner to her home in Cornwall, during which, mostly on account of her parents, I lost my mind and my girlfriend. I’m not, of course, going to go over all that again, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to, for I have forgotten much of what took place; yet the disquieting thing is that what I can recall or bring back I now doubt the veracity of. For example, my girlfriend’s parents were very rich, but I am sure that it is not the case that their admittedly large home was backed by an even larger field, in which wild horses ran; yet that – the field, the horses, the house – is my strongest memory of the week I spent in Cornwall.

Some years ago I was at college and my philosophy teacher told me a story about how he moved to the Czech Republic, on a whim so to speak, in order to be with a Czech girl he had met whilst she was on vacation in England. When he arrived at her house she showed him in and explained that he ought to say hello to her father. My friend agreed and so she directed him to climb the stairs, where her father could be found in the first room on the right. My teacher may have found this odd, but in any case he climbed the stairs and entered the room and there he saw the old man, sitting in a chair, listening to Wagner, with tears streaming down his face. Now, this did not happen to me. I know that well enough, so why is it that this memory now seems as though it belongs to me? Why is it that I am able to put myself in that situation, in place of my teacher, and see, not what he saw, but my own version of it, with as much assurance as anything that has actually happened to me in my life?

As I sit here and think about those two trips, one to Cornwall and one to the Czech Republic, both of which are a strange mixture of fantasy and fact, the proportions of each unknowable to me, I feel extremely disorientated. This disorientation is, I believe, what Sebald called vertigo, a state that is characterised by the difficulty, or a belief in the difficulty, of putting one’s feet on the ground, of being sure of yourself, and of the world around you. It is this mental, and physical, state that Sebald writes about in this book, the first of his four great novels. In it he tells a series of anecdotes and stories, involving both fictional characters and real people, including himself.

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Sebald’s first vertigo-sufferer is Marie-Henri Beyle, who we are told was a soldier in Napoleon’s army; he was also a writer, and is better known as Stendhal. Throughout his life Beyle’s memories and perceptions, according to Sebald, consistently played tricks on him. For example, he was convinced that the town of Ivrea, through which he once passed, would be indelibly fixed in his mind, only to find, some years later, that what he actually remembered was nothing but a copy of an engraving called Prospetto d’Ivrea.

“Beyle writes that even when the images supplied by memory are true to life one can place little confidence in them.”

For Beyle, the distinction between truth and fiction, reality and imagination, was tenuous at best. Probably the most wonderful, the most moving anecdote Sebald shares with us in this regard involves Beyle’s relationship with a possibly imaginary woman, La Ghita. Beyle, writes Sebald, claimed to have been travelling with La Ghita, to have had involved conversations with her, and to have eventually broken from her, and yet there is no definitive proof that she ever existed; in fact, the likelihood is that she was a composite of numerous women the Frenchman had known.

As with all of Sebald’s work, in Vertigo he is concerned with melancholy outsiders, or eccentrics. Most people do not have a troubled relationship with reality, like Beyle does, but the few that do tend to not be particularly happy [or mentally stable]. This appears to be borne out when, at the beginning of the second section of the novel, Sebald, or the narrator who so closely resembles Sebald, discusses his own mental breakdown, which occurs when travelling through Vienna, Milan, Verona, Venice and Innsbruck. The narrator’s vertigo manifests itself as a kind of dread or neurotic fear, and by a sense of the uncanny. For example, at one point he tells the story of Casanova’s imprisonment and notices that the day the Italian had set for his escape is the day that he [Sebald] had visited that same prison, Doge’s Palace. When he leaves each town or city he does so as though trying to outstrip his anxiety, as though he is on the run from himself [and possibly the two shadowy figures he believes may be following him]. In the second half of this long second section, Sebald returns, seven years later, to make the same trip and visit some of the same places. This trip is a tour of his memories of those places as much as it is an actual tour of them.

Like Beyle, Sebald is hyper-sensitive; the things that he reads and the art that he engages with often break into reality, the everyday world is often transformed by his imagination [or madness]. At one point in the book he thinks that he is following Dante, at another he mentions that he was once convinced that a black limousine driver was Melchior, one of the three magi [or wise men]. Throughout, there hangs over the book the question, What is reality? Are Sebald’s strange experiences reality? Instinctively one would want to say no, because Dante was dead at the time the narrator claims to have seen him, and yet, for me, the issue is far from clear-cut; what someone experiences, regardless of how impossible it may may seem, is their reality, is as real as anything we would accept without raising an eyebrowThe truth of the world, I once wrote, is like a cloud of blue smoke on a windy day.

“Over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, i said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past actually happened in this or that way.”

According to many of the reviews and articles I have read, Vertigo is the weakest of Sebald’s four novels, but that is not an opinion I share; for me The Emigrants is the least engaging of the bunch. However, what does distinguish this novel from the others, and perhaps accounts for some of the indifference towards it, is that it wears its influences more brazenly. Sebald’s other work all tastes subtly of Marcel Proust and Jorge Luis Borges, but here the flavour is very, very strong. The prose style, involving long complex sentences, with multiple clauses, is recognisably Proustian; and some of the ideas contained within Vertigo are not only similar to some of those found in In Search of Lost Time, but actually appear in it. Furthermore, the structure of this book, in comparison with Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn in particular, is far from sophisticated. For example, while the opening Beyle section is thematically connected to the rest of the work, it still essentially stands alone. Later in his career Sebald would work his anecdotes and stories into his overall narrative and that gave them a satisfying flow that Vertigo does not have.

Yet there are also positive aspects of the book that one will not find in Sebald’s more sophisticated work. First of all, it is at times pretty funny. There is a refreshing lightness of touch, or lightheartedness, in certain passages. Two incidents stand out or me in this regard, there is Sebald getting hit on in a bar in Italy and a scene on a bus when he spies two kids who he thinks are dead-ringers for Franz Kafka. Here, our intrepid narrator approaches the boys and their parents, but receives a frosty reception; he asks for a photograph of the children but is turned down. They probably thought I was a pederast, Sebald notes. Ha! Martin Amis once said that all great writers are also comic writers, and I believe there is some truth in that. A comic writer does not have to mean someone like P.G. Wodehouse, but, for me, and Amis too, includes the likes of Tolstoy and Kafka. The idea is that if you understand the world, and the human condition, you cannot help but be, on occasions, funny, because life is funny; so it pleases me that Sebald showed that he, too, could be humorous. The story of the Kafka kids also highlights another pleasing aspect of Vertigo, which is that it is more obviously fictional than the novels that came after it. One may in fact see that as a negative, but it was nice, in my opinion, to encounter a more relaxed Sebald, one trying stuff out, even some goofy stuff.

RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT BY PATRICK WHITE

It seems to me that the most glorious things are also often the most ridiculous, that there is something almost embarrassing about such flappable, insignificant creatures as ourselves striving for the profound, trying to touch, to commune with, to channel, the transcendent, the truly spiritual [which is, by the way, not the same as Godly]. Recently I was in Barcelona, and one of the things I most wanted to do there was to see the Sagrada Familia, the still incomplete church designed and undertaken by the architect Antoni Gaudi.

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If you have never been inside it, I hope the above picture gives you some idea of what an incredible, mind-boggling, thing it is. Apparently, the interior is meant to resemble a forest, with the pillars/columns acting as tree-trunks, etc. Despite the overly zealous staff and naff TV screens, and despite it being a church and having myself no religious feeling at all, I found being inside the Sagrada Familia a powerful experience. That Gaudi died without ever seeing the building completed goes to show what folly it was to attempt it; and, sure, from a purely functional, rational, economic perspective the church is ridiculous; in fact, it looks kind of ridiculous too, if you try and judge it objectively, because it’s all over the place; and, yet, it’s the most beautiful building I have ever seen in my life; it is one of the most beautiful things I have seen, period. I love the folly; I love the daring, the ambition, the striving.

It is for these same reasons that I love the work of Patrick White. The Australian is a footnote these days, a writer who is so seldom read or written about. And I totally understand why that is the case. For some people, White’s novels are, like Gaudi’s church, always going to be just too much. White was, and I write this with a straight face, while simultaneously cringing, a mystic, his books are visionary, and that is not what you want in your life all that often. I was reading today [for the umpteenth time] the perfect first thirty or so pages of The Tree of Man and I came across this line:

‘…and there in the hollow afternoon swallows flew, the scythes of their wings mowing the light.’

And I genuinely had to catch my breath. How beautiful is that? How important, even? Is it just me? And it’s not as though there is only this one great mind-buggering image in the novel, there are thousands of them, rushing at you with great speed like you’ve walked head first into a cloud of flying ants. It is just too much. White wrung poetry out of the everyday, out of our world, with frightening regularity. And, sometimes, you might even want to laugh at what White wrote; his intensity, his exalted concerns, the strange beauty of his prose: it can seem silly when you consider that before picking up the book you were picking your toenails.

Riders in the Chariot is nearly seven hundred pages long; at some point in that journey you’ll probably yearn for something normal. Try and stick with it though. In the right mood and circumstances it is, like the Sagrada, a sublime experience. In fact, the Sagrada Familia is how I imagine Xanadu, the lavish, but crumbling, house in which the first part of the novel is set. The house is owned by Mary Hare, an eccentric spinster, who appears to be almost cosmically in love and in sympathy with nature. The relationship between man and nature is something that White was clearly preoccupied with, it playing a major role in his two other great novels, his masterpiece Voss and the aforementioned The Tree of Man. Indeed, it was when describing the natural world that White himself, who was, generally speaking, a caustic writer, displayed a genuine love and warmth; one never feels as though he quite saw humanity in the same way. Yet, having said that, the four characters who dominate this novel are by some distance the author’s most likeable and sympathetic. I wrote before that White was a mystic, and it is almost as though he saw himself in Mary Hare, Ruth Godbold, Himmelfarb and Dabbo, who are all, in some way, subject to visions.

All four of the book’s major stories are engaging and often lovely, but Hare’s narrative is particularly strong and beautiful. It focuses both on the present and her childhood past, where we are introduced to the mad father who built Xanadu. In the present Hare has engaged a housekeeper, the inappropriately named Mrs Jolley, and this relationship is a source of both comedy and tension. The two women couldn’t be any more opposed in terms of personality and interests; they are the archetypal odd couple; indeed, they [often hilariously] terrify each other. It would have been easy for the author to mishandle the animal-like Mary Hare, for her to become twee and irritating, but she never does; she is touching and fragile. Mrs Jolley is also a wonderful [albeit loathsome] creation.

The world’s small-minded, pompous, busy-bodies were frequently the target of White’s greatest ire; the opening of The Solid Mandala, for example, is dripping with disdain:

“Yairs,” said Mrs Dun. Then, because never let it be hinted that she did not make her contribution, she added: “Yairs.”

And there is this, my favourite line in the book under review here, about Mrs Jolley and her friend, the even more monstrous Mrs Flack [who is, in this Passion Play, perhaps the devil]:

‘…as they continued sitting, the two women would drench the room in the moth-colours of their one mind.’

And this, describing Mrs Flack’s encounter with the telephone!:

‘Because the telephone is the darkest most sepulchral oracle of all, Mrs Flack would stalk around the instrument for quite a while before she was persuaded to accept the summons. Although a considerable pythoness herself, it might have been that she felt the need for invocation before encounter with superior powers.’

Seriously, White could write like a motherfucker.

Of course, these close-minded women are, at least in part, used to contrast the spiritually or emotionally rich Mary, Himmelfarb etc; they are, in a way, classic villains, as they are there to judge and plot against and oppose and attempt to bring down the good guys; they are, indeed, almost Shakespearean or Dickensian in proportions, by which I mean there is very little in the way of subtle characterisation. They are both huge personalities, and obviously bad. There is no way that one could read Riders in the Chariot and be in any doubt as to how one ought to feel about Flack and Jolley: they are objects of hate and ridicule. It’s worth noting that although his work is, in many ways, obscure and ambiguous, White’s morals were anything but. Therefore, like Dickens, he could be accused of moral preachiness; yet, for me, this would only be a problem if I didn’t completely agree with his targets [I certainly do].

As you can tell, from what I have written so far, there is a lot going on in the book; but it isn’t nearly as daunting or as hard to follow as I have perhaps made it seem in this review. It is long and weighty, yes, but it is also strangely light and frothy at times, certainly very funny. The structure of the book also makes it easy to read, in that it, initially at least, is not particularly sophisticated. Mary Hare is the one who appears to tie together the main players: she finds Himmelfarb in her garden one day; Ruth Godbold is her friend; Jolley is her housekeeper, etc. Due to these tenuous connections Riders in the Chariot reads, at first, like a series of novellas with a framing narrative. However, the more the book progresses the more the relationships between the characters develop, become more satisfying, and as a result the structure seems less rigid. For example, I particularly liked the chance meeting between Ruth Godbold and Alf Dubbo, who come together in a brothel, with Alf’s presence there only explained some 100 pages later.

Each of these novellas or stories are singular and yet certain themes, symbols and ideas are present in them all. The four principle characters are very different in personality, but are united by their experiences; all four are outsiders, are down-trodden or have been in some way rejected by, or have dropped out of, conventional society. If I have any criticism to make of the work it is that once or twice White overstretched himself, particularly in relation to Himmelfarb, who is a holocaust survivor. Not only is his story at times generic, but it features one or two scenes that caused me genuine consternation. The first concerns a snotty, supercilious woman, with whom Himmelfarb travels to the camp. Once there, she is stripped and shaved and sent into the chamber. Himmbelfarb remains outside and as the door of the gas-chamber bursts open to reveal the grotesque, naked woman, he calls out to her something like they can take our skin but never take our name! And, well, that made me very uncomfortable. It would have made me laugh if it wasn’t dealing with something so horrific, because it sounds like a line from a cheesy Hollywood movie. In fact, doesn’t Gibson say something similar in Braveheart? And it’s a shame because, generally speaking, White deals with this material, which was obviously outside of his own personal experience, sensitively.

The other problem I had with the book is the mock-crucifixion towards the end. Could that really happen? Does it matter? I don’t know. But I know it felt as though he had gone too far. Furthermore, I did not buy that a bunch of adults, who had previously shown no psychopathic tendencies, would, in the middle of the day, take part in, or stand around and watch, a man being strung up and literally crucified. I don’t, either, buy White’s justification that it could happen as long as everyone believed it was a joke. But, as I said, does it matter? Does it have to be believable? The crucifixion is clearly symbolic; the scene is about betrayal, outsiderism, guilt, passivity, etc, rather than the possible or probable actions of certain people in certain kinds of conditions or circumstances. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t heavy-handed. It is, although that struck me as less of a problem one or two days after I finished the book. Again, perhaps we come back to the relationship between the sublime and the ridiculous; White was striving for, was dealing with serious, heavy stuff here, and, I guess, it’s not always easy to control this kind of material, to keep a firm grip on it. In essence, Riders in a Chariot is a fable; a big, beautiful, crazy, surreal, poetic, sublime and, yes, occasionally ridiculous one.