Thursday, 19 April 2018

George of the Sofas

George Herbert, the Welsh-born poet, orator and Anglican priest, has again shown up with little warning. In a novel selected before I'd even become aware of his presence in the novel that would introduce me to him. That I should read this next novel directly after was surely preordained by a celestial factor. Why would I choose to look for someone I didn't know anything about, had not even heard of or seen his name dropped anywhere in previous works I'd perused. After all, this is fiction so what are the odds?
But here he is putting in a successive appearance and with an excerpt of his poetry too. True, his inclusion is due to the author's hand, but he doesn't just have the one admirer then who felt he deserved a mention. And for what it's worth I like the little I've seen of his poetry – it strikes the right chord for this particular novel about a Reverend writing a letter to his son since it's sermon-like and Creationist.
Herbert's second coming unlike the first has ceased and seized my writing in a way I couldn't have anticipated and hadn't tried to imagine, though maybe that's because I hadn't (and still haven't!) realised his significance. To me; to this chapter of life. Why this entry now? Why not before? Is it not just a case of universal knowingness, that sense you're unaware you're tapping into, attracting to you, that seems so much bigger than you when occurrences collide and makes them seem all the more mystical?
Did the Universe know Herbert would interest me? Or that novels are the places I'm more open to and accepting of signs? A sign of what? A curious case of physic phenomena and interconnectivity between all matter.
Or perhaps it's nothing like that. It has nothing do with his person and everything to do with the fact that coincidently, at the time of reading but long after selection, the family had adopted a 12-year-old Staffie called George. There'd been some deliberation over his name and the keeping of it because he'd been rechristened so that Georges unlooked for were cropping up everywhere as if to advise us to retain it. George it is then, Gorgeous George. George of the Sofas. Not that he ever answers. He knows rabbit and scratchy.
Is that it – serendipity territory? The path you're on is the one for you to follow, you're heading in the right, though perhaps not altogether sane, direction. Still, carry on, as you were.
It should be heartening then, so why when it occurs does it weird me out? Because there have been rare instances where it's worked against me: Get Out! Don't Do It! This Is A Red Herring! Abort, Abort! not that that realisation has hit until progress has been made so far, further than I would normally go so that a changing of tracks (or tact) would almost certainly provoke an awkward situation that just thinking about gives me cause to regret my earlier actions, even if when those decisions were made the information I had on which to base them was shady. Why is it we, the ones kept in the dark, always feel in the wrong? That we didn't ask the right questions when those answers should have been given without prompting. To not provide when you have it within your power to do so seems dishonourable somehow, unless the circumstances are such that not doing so protects that individual.
How I've got on to this topic I cannot fathom. What has dishonour got to do with George Herbert or George of the Sofas, or any Georges at all? Except they all throw my thinking into disarray. Disorienting Georges. And although it's been largely entertaining coming across them I hope that's the last of them for a good while.
George of the Sofas is happy at least, in what will be his last years. Which bears another similarity to the novel in which Herbert made his second appearance, since the Reverend who professed a liking for his poetry is towards the end of his life too, and DOG is GOD reversed, not that I mean that disrespectfully but as a mild observation. Maybe smaller coincidences matter more than we think, or even give us some clue as to universal laws, rather like the ten commandments.

Picture credit: George Feeling at Home, P R Francis

Thursday, 12 April 2018

A Woman Grown

Reading authors covered under such terms as 'Vintage' or 'Classic' has led to many musings and feverish writing downs. Sentences taken directly from the narrative and scraps of poetry; the title of a novel or an author's name, for authors too like to refer to their contemporaries or to those they're reading. Pay homage to or mock. I wonder, when they do so because it might lend itself to a character or the tone or their own pursuits of literature, if they realise the curiosity this may spark in future readers.
George Herbert, who he? I said only recently mimicking that Irish comedian and presenter Graham Norton; the answer, an Welsh-born poet, orator and Anglican priest.
Before that (different novel, same author) I'd been tickled by the thought of a Miss Entwhistle that her niece's suitor's way of courting wouldn't be vegetarian. The inference, I supposed, that this Wemyss had been married before and therefore wasn't new to intimacies with women – not in the courting of, the living with or what would be nightly revealed with the removal of clothing. In other words, he wasn't green. How original! And witty to put it like that. Particularly when this novel was, I believe first published in 1914. Though, of course after the courtship and most of the wit there were darker, pervading tones since Wemyss' first wife died, a rumoured suicide, and it wasn't determined whether she slipped or jumped. It never is, so throughout you're always guessing, and yet Vera (the deceased wife) is adjunct to the central theme of husbandly control. An ever-present spectre to upset the new Mrs Wemyss as she learns to appease her new husband's moods.
If this plot sounds familiar, then it is! but Von Arnim's Vera came before du Maurier's Rebecca; some might say the latter is the more-finished work, but both are, in my humble opinion, equally sinister. Vera, however, is easily the more possessive case, and whilst the ending is frustrating I don't see how else she could have ended it. Readers can't always get what they want: an end to the oppression, and neither in that situation (and at that time) could wives easily obtain a separation, but then Lucy (niece of Miss Entwhistle and new Mrs Wemyss) wouldn't have gone about that even if she had wished it, unless of course she finally snapped or felt forced like the first Mrs Wemyss to drastic measures, which is an assumption I've made not unequivocally made in the novel.
What might have happened next is left to the imagination. Does Wemyss continue to wear Lucy down to his ideal? Does her aunt, after being turned out of doors, cease to worry or interfere? Does Lucy begin to rebel rather than appease? A leaden cloud hangs over this trio, for even without the aunt there will always be three in this marriage.
Yes, Von Arnim did tyrannical husbands very well. As she did other matters of the heart and head concerning such relations: the getting of, the getting of and refused, the getting of and once got the subservience to, for some would undoubtedly be required, in order to have some sort of freedom. But she also did bold women. Women that were outspoken and went against convention. Women that would, in all honesty, prefer to remain husband-less or be so after the experience of having one had been realised. Unmarried women with ideas, modest means and scholarly passions. There are entanglements, there are misunderstandings, there is intelligence, there is frankness, there is bravery, there is unsentimental practicality, there is ridicule and an irrepressible urge to take comfort and find beauty in the great outdoors.
Von Arnim novels amuse as well as teach. The world is not turned from, but sometimes its concerns are; the eye turned instead to poets and nature so that the world is seen anew and anything that had the chance to cause anxiety is pushed aside. It's a god-like faith used to soothe and extol the virtues of to anyone that will hear it. How she talks! As well as suffers doses of cold philosophy.
Still, what surprised me, though why should it?, is the allusion to vegetarianism, particularly that of vegetarian economies, in her novels. Most were unexpected and for a vegetarian of some years standing hidden gems, much like the author herself.

Picture credit: Woman, New York City, c.1952, Dorothea Lange

Thursday, 5 April 2018

The Mechanics of Reading

Why do I read when most novels eventually escape me? The remembrance of being read but not what was actually read and a vague sense of plot. Even of characters, their names forgotten when at the time I was immersed, knew exactly who was who or could identify with them.
Perhaps this occurs because I read too much...? It's only in a very few cases it says more about the novel, because I will persevere until the bitter end if none too keen. Life's too short, you might say, but then I'm of the view that once started something has to be finished. I'd rather read and feel increasingly annoyed than admit defeat, and to give up, the contemplation of it or the temptation to throw the book down and say 'Enough!' comes with a large dose of Catholic-like guilt accompanied by doubt: What Am I Missing? Maybe it gets better... especially if the work of fiction being held before my eyes has won a prize like the Man Booker, been read aloud on BBC Radio Four or praised by a Book Club. What does that say I wonder? About me or the rated reviews?
Perhaps I hope to learn how to write, how others write and more about what I do and don't like as a reader. Yes, it's all that but also escapism, which in a few occasions doesn't work because something or other doesn't ring true or a detail or two jars. The characters or the setting don't work for me nor on my imagination. My attention gets sucked back to the here and now; my concentration wanders to matters which would normally wait until the end of a paragraph or chapter. My whole reading bitty, focused in more parts than others.
Quite a few authors too try to write historically when they may not have either lived through that time or that experience, in that particular country. It can't always be pulled off with an aplomb like Hillary Mantel. Then the prose reeks of an explored idea, rather than as an all-consuming subject which has been lived and breathed and researched, and re-researched. Personally I don't mind the exploratory nature but I do if it's sold (not by the writer) as a form of truth, as in this is how it really was, this is what he was like. Or when modernity seems to have infiltrated the plot or characterization.
Readers aren't all that clever (and I include myself in that sweeping generalisation). Some may confuse entertainment with factual truth, so in that sense writers who choose to make history (and reading) accessible have a responsibility either to make it clear it's just an idea or to do a damn fine job.
The generations approaching reading will have different expectations and different educations: certain events will stretch back even further for them, and I worry that they won't be so discerning as to know what is fiction, what is propaganda, what is a downright lie. Maybe I do them a disservice...but as past events recede only relatively recent events will resonate because anything else is out of their realm of experience or that of relatives or the aged population, which must surely affect anybody's ability to empathise.
Truth becomes fabrication; fabrication becomes truth. There are as many truths as there are individuals, but a collective (and fabricated) truth has the greater potential to cause either division or unity. Do we really want society to have those kind of pockets? Or for us, as a people, to distrust everything and everybody? Or conversely, to have belief in everything we're told, to not question or act out of allegiance or fear?
Question everything. Accept nothing as truth, your truth or anyone's else truth, because truth too changes and ages with time. And truths can be made to fit circumstances. A perspective freely given sometimes no longer applies or applies differently as more details become known or emotions, running high, simmer down. Allow for that and don't be too quick to follow yours or anybody else's thoughts.
Reading then, like the body, is a functional tool. And just like using tools, it takes practise as well as regular upkeep to recognise the individual tweaks your mind needs in its reading matter.

Picture credit: Gas, circa 1940, Edward Hopper