Vincenzo’s Garden by John Clanchy

Not one friend of mine on GR has read any book by this author. Having randomly plucked this off the shelf at a secondhand shop and never having heard of Clanchy myself, perhaps I should not be surprised. But he has won prizes in Australia and his books typically go through more than one edition.

None of which is surprising. These are highly accomplished examples of the short story form. Perhaps it is the counsellor in him, but I was struck in particular by his deep empathy with people of all types. Whether he is an elderly woman in a nursing home or a young man, an Australian or the family at the inn Van Gough stays at, he does it all to perfection. The stories are beguiling, credible, beautiful. Surprises have you saying, yes, of course, in that appreciative way when you should have seen it coming, but good writers make sure you don’t.

At least four stars and I’m going to be reading more.

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Human Nature, Human Survival by Brian Medlin

Lately I seem to be reading philosophers who live by their sword. Medlin spent the part of his life that most academics use to collect citations and increase their h-indices, living philosophy. He brought philosophy to his work in restoring bushland.  He was a primary leader in the anti-Vietnam war movement in Australia, going to gaol as a consequence.  He fought university administration. He insisted that philosophy courses should bear direct relevance to life: politics, art, feminism. He appalled his employers and no doubt some students, whilst inspiring many. He has been written out of the history books, but now sufficient time has passed that he will be written back into them. A nice little earner for an academic or two.

Presciently he said:

Even intellectual liberty has failed to be a totally liberating force. Confronting bourgeois ideology, in the face of bourgeois authority, it has failed to deliver a general objectivity, a determination to think and act well and effectively about the whole of life. It has tended towards a purchased and partial objectivity, a servile scientism. A remark made in this city illustrates the failure: “I’m an ecologist, not a breast-biting conservationist”. This tendency can be expected to worsen as the concept of private intellectual property gains ground, as universities get tied tighter and tighter to the tail of market forces and become increasingly enslaved by private funding.

A yet darker prospect opens before us: that the large capitalist enterprise should eventually find itself able to dispense entirely with academic research. From that time on the concept of objectivity will be a mere ideological bauble, beads for the natives. The bourgeois philosopher will have joined the Sioux Nation and the Nez Perces on the shrinking reservation.

Going on for three decades later, it is as Medlin predicts here. But he was most certainly not of this corporate slave academic elite.

Although he could write philosophy, he generally chose not to, preferring instead the intimacy of the letter and the poem. A man unmoved by the h-index, if ever there was one. Nonetheless, he did write this small work towards the end of his life and if nothing else, one can see in it the energy, arrogance, the devilish attractiveness and the passion that dictated his philosophical life – for philosophy was his life, not his career. He was a wonderful talker and speaker, and this shines through Human Nature, Human Survival.

It is engaging from the start.

The following essay, though not meant to be beneath the notice of
philosophers, is aimed first at a general audience rather than a specialist one.
It is offered as a serious piece of philosophy, yet I am sure that it can be
followed by any cultivated reader, even by one without philosophical
· training. This doesn’t mean that every such reader can expect to understand
perfectly every word from now on. Here and there I assume a bit more than
general culti'{ation. Mostly I have indicated these places and invited you to
press bravely on. And even where I have not, you may give yourselves the
same excellent advice. I hope that in the end you will be rewarded with a
pretty good understanding of the work as a whole and with something worth
either your acceptance or rejection.

After a brief set of examples of what philosophy is considered to be by others, he sets out his own thoughts. ‘Let me take a rough stab’, he says. ‘Take me seriously enough, but not too seriously.’ Like all good teachers he insists that he should be questioned and doubted. For him, however:

  • Philosophy is the commitment to thinking about the whole of life, the whole universe animate and inanimate, the whole of living nature, human and non-human, about fact and value, about what is and is not, about what might and might not be, about what may and must be, about what ought to be and ought not:
  • All this (and more) together with the commitment to uncompromising rationality:
  • This latter commitment being to rationality in action as well as in thought, the two being not rationally separable:
  • The commitment extending further to the rational ordering of desire and feeling: for
  • The philosophical life is not cold, unemotional, dehumanised; only a passionate, compassionate person could hope to achieve it:
  • Philosophy is not a trade, a craft, a skill, though it involves craft and skill, though people are paid to profess it:
  • Philosophy is a way of life, a passion, an obsession – for those in its grasp, a duty and a right.

In the course of discussing the relationship of science to society, he keeps in mind throughout his keen, but not necessarily philosophically ept audience. After bringing Social Contract theory into the discussion, his aside: ‘(If you haven’t heard of Social Contract theory, don’t worry about it. Allow me to be the first to congratulate you.)’ and on the Invisible Hand ‘(And if you haven’t heard of the Invisible Hand, again don’t worry. Just think of it as the doctrine that if dog eats dog, all dogs grow fat.) ‘

This small monograph must really be imagined as a living thing, being presented to an audience. The point is simply to get human beings to understand that it is necessary to act to save the world in the face of environmental catastrophe. In the end everything always comes down to the earth and what we are going to do about it. The only rational thing we can do is to act, to assume that we can be successful. Nothing has really changed since he wrote, if anything it gets worse. We must, nonetheless, like Medlin, be energetic optimistic activists. To be anything else is irrational.

I have also argued elsewhere (1991) that the Principle of Rational Action requires us to assume as well, what we don’t know for certain, not only that successful social revolution is possible, but also that we can indeed and will indeed find ways of resolving the ecological crisis and of preserving the human species.

First mooted by the bourgeois philosophers, transformed by the disappointment of great hopes, now promulgated as scientific truth and formidably opposed to this enterprise, stands the bourgeois view of human nature. This view would imply that, by our very being, we are too aggressive, say, or too selfish, too greedy, to save ourselves. Even too stupid or too irrational – for it has been the rationalist tradition that has disappointed us.

These claims are not known to be false. But neither are they known to be true. Nonetheless, our agnosticism ought not to paralyse the will. Assuming these claims to be true is the surest way of making them true, the surest path to extinction. Assuming them to be false is the best first step towards making them false. Hence, by the Principle of Rational Action, the rational practical assumption is that these claims are indeed false.

That none of these claims about human nature is known to be true is a large claim itself and not to be established here. I can render it plausible though not here as thoroughly as by S. A. Barnett (1988). I select a couple of positions and examine their support. I shall ask you to consider for yourselves, perhaps after reading Barnett, whether similar positions are not just as lamentably supported.

Apart from the utterances of John Keats, my cases are drawn from popularisations of science – at least in the sense that they come from documents addressed to general audiences. This is because I want to indicate how pervasive are the views I challenge.

We shall only evade extinction by setting about evading it. That we shall never do if we are not bright enough to see through rotten argument claiming to establish our invincible stupidity.

We are not going to evade our peril without careful thought. Not without setting our philosophy in order, without rethinking and refeeling our own nature and our relation to the rest of the world. Nor without strenuous and disinterested scientific enquiry yielding a sensitive technology.

I can’t offer you a philosophy of art. That would be too hard a job for a mere philosopher. I wouldn’t go all the way with R. K. Narayan (1985, vii) for whom all theories of writing are bogus: I do know that the usefulness of literature depends largely on the large fact that intuition is often the better road to truth.

We see now the urgent practical importance of philosophy. Unless enough of us get our philosophy right enough and quickly enough, we are all dead. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living (Plato, 38A). That’s false and you can ask any dog out for a walk. But for us, now, the unexamined life is no longer an option. (It never really was.) For us, henceforth, the examined life is the only life on offer. Finally, I hope that I haven’t given you the impression that we are likely to achieve a human life without aggression, selfishness, greed, stupidity, irrationality… That would not be human life. We live by standards, moral, aesthetic and intellectual. This is not a casual, incidental matter. Standards are needed because they are needed, because we frequently fall short of them. That is what it is to be moral, rational animals. Show me reason, I’ll show you unreason.  The saint and the sinner are shackled together by their common humanity. Wisdom and folly are Siamese twins. Imagine a human life without praise and commendation, without sense of achievement. That would be the cost of life without ugliness, wickedness, foolishness and stupidity. The Christian heaven is possible only to lobotomised automata, dehumanised social insects. Angels are merely souped-up flying ants. The enterprise before us is not to achieve heaven on earth. Yet it would be daft indeed to let the unattainability of heaven condemn us to our present hell. The question is not whether we can eliminate our vices. The question is whether our virtues will allow us to survive by carrying us into a better world. Not a question to be answered by speculation about human psychology. To be answered, not by canvassing the possibilities, but by setting about what is necessary. It is a question demanding action. If we want to know whether we are equipped to survive, the best way of finding out is to make sure that we do.

This is a manifesto and we could do worse than read it and take it to heart and mind.

Amnesia by Peter Carey

I don’t understand why people are down on this, I thought it was a cracker. First Carey I’ve wholeheartedly enjoyed for many years. I am only uneasy because it reads like a movie. When you can see the movie reeling along as you turn the page – it makes me wonder whenever I read a novel which seems like it’s waiting to become a movie. If the author wrote the novel aiming for the screen is this okay? Are we reading a movie pitch or a novel?

If you want a book to read on a plane which is well-written, a nicely evoked picture of Australia starting at WWII and ending when children are computer hackers, stereotypical characters whom we all know – really well done, I thought – this is it. I won’t read it again, but I’m glad I’ve read it once.

The facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel

Warning: I’m going to talk about the content of the four stories making up this early steffort by Martel.

I do wonder at the notion we have of marking a line between artists whose commitment involves a profound continuing investigation of a Thing, and commercial hacks who are formula writing for no more than mere money. How do you tell which is which? How do I know that my friend Petrus who spent years making pots, dashing them to the ground and then sticking the pieces back together was of the former class? Is it that if you fail to make money at it, this failure maintains your integrity?

This book comprises four stories which explore the act of repetition. I guess it is a vital part of successful writing, to be able to repeat one’s self without the audience getting restless.

The title story is about the narrator watching a close friend die of AIDS. The repetition is in the horrific detail of his decline. It was strangely gripping and I wished I hadn’t been in a cafe at the point where it had me in tears.

Story two was to my mind the last successful. The repetition consists of describing music in detail and for me that doesn’t work. Maybe I can picture a painting through words – maybe – but music, no.

Story three is a letter written by the head of a prison to inform a mother of the death of her son, it’s an official execution by hanging. The last night and the trip to the gallows is written in some detail. The same letter is then written half a dozen times describing a slightly different last night and death. It was very repetitive, but that was important.

Story four is about listening – or not – to an elderly relative who goes on and on. And on. It’s about what happens when you realise you should have been listening and didn’t. Pages of this one are covered in ‘blah blah blah’. Literally. To begin with you feel it is what the old woman is saying. Later, transformatively, you realise that it is what narrator is hearing. He wishes differently, but it’s too late.

I wonder if Martel suffers from the success of Pi. I note almost none of my GR friends have read this. My recommendation is to read it – but I doubt that you should do so because you like short stories. There is nothing about this collection that really fits that notion. They are short pieces and all are original in structure and technique. Interesting and, if darkly so, enjoyable.

Margery Sharp Lise Lillywhite and Virginia Woolf The Years

One of the things I do in Geneva is hang out at the local flea market trying to suppress my urge to preserve dead lives. Every week you’ll see people disrespectfully pawing over the beloved libraries of the deceased, libraries which with possibly indecent haste, have been taken away by market vendors who, I can imagine, don’t pay a cent for them. It is merely enough that they are willing to cart them off. There in the market they sit in boxes, 2CHF a book. Amongst them will often be intimate belongings such as photo albums, travel diaries or autograph books. Every time I see this, I want to save the memory even if nobody else does. Could I not keep just a skeleton of the library’s existence?

As it is, my own library is, as much as anything else, a cemetery of book bones, nothing as whole as a skeleton no doubt, but each death provides my shelves with something more. There are many reasons for loving a book. Some of mine I love simply because they belonged to people who cared about them and I have inherited them if only by chance. Not least, the library remnants of the Hautevilles’ library.

When the sale of the chateau and its contents was first mooted, the best of the books went to a posh auction house. The refuse of that process ended up at the local flea market. Each time I see one of these discarded deceased estates, lying higgledy-piggledy in boxes, I don’t just look at the books one by one, deciding which small treasure to take home. I also read the story of the library itself. Ah, so and so was a jazz and cinema lover, as I see a record collection, the reference books lovingly collected on its side, now the junk man’s province. This Swiss person made trips to Australia in the 1950s, here are the photo albums, the travel books of the period. Oh, and he was into….

So it goes on. Most of these deceased book lovers leave only a small tale. The Hautevilles, however, were a prominent family for many generations and their story is told via important legal battles, their castle and through the auction of the contents of that castle. They loved theatre and put on productions, so the auction included the costumery collected over the years. At the ‘junk’ end, ordinary books not worth anything, was a lovely collection of children’s and adult’s fiction from the pre and post WWII period. It contained many gems of the period including an author, almost forgotten these days, Margery Sharp. She is perhaps due for the requisite revival, not least because it would not be entirely unreasonable to call her the Jane Austen of her day. I hesitate to do that, but as it may get somebody to read her, and as almost nobody on GR – none of my friends – have read this, I will take the chance.

I always hope, going back to writers of this period, not to be disappointed, but often am. Approached with some trepidation, therefore, I am pleased to announce that Lise Lillywhite is a total winner, surpassing even optimistic expectations. Sharp by name, sharp by nature, the author most wittily and insightfully dissects social life and manners of the immediate post-WWII period. London is not what it was. As in every war, men took bullets whilst young girls acquired freedom. As after every war, no doubt the men wanted everything to go back to what it was, but it never does. The story is tight, with surprises I guess I should have predicted but didn’t – maybe that is a mark of a good writer, maybe it’s only if you are bored into thinking ahead that you pick up the clues. I don’t know!

The author has sympathy, if not empathy, for everybody in the story and I expect that makes all the difference in the depiction of character. Is it not so that while you read fiction that you have in your mind’s eye a clear picture of each character and yet, that clarity is in actuality an evasive phantom. That’s how I always am, at any rate. And so on the occasion of a film or play being made of such a book, there are the characters you feel are perfectly cast and the ones that aren’t. You are totally sure about this and yet you could never have made so much as a pen stroke yourself to draw the people you imagine as you read.

As it happened, I read Lise Lillywhite straight after The Years, by Virginia Woolf. The contrast could not have been greater. Some of these differences are per force. The Years is a work which has no plot, whereas Lise Lillywhite is driven by one. But in particular, whilst Sharp’s characters live, and do so now, seventy odd years after being created, Woolf’s are wooden collections of description which for me evoked nothing. Whereas I ‘know’ or perhaps ‘feel’ is more accurate, all of Sharp’s characters, even though I can’t put a finger on exactly what they are; in the case of Woolf’s, I have no mind’s eye picture at all. And being aware of this and trying to assemble a picture from the clues provided, for it isn’t as if there is no physical description, I come up with blankness.

A few days ago a shocking exposé appeared in The Guardian, “VS Naipaul: shockingly disloyal to his literary friend, claims Spurling. Biographer Hilary Spurling unmasks ‘vengeful’ posthumous reviews of Anthony Powell novels by onetime fan”. I suppose when news was a finite thing printed on paper, this never would have seen the day, but now that ‘news’ is an infinite black abyss, it requires a never-ending attempt to fill it. Naipaul wrote to Powell when he was alive saying how much he’d liked what he had so far read of Dance to the Music of Time. After Powell died, he wrote what he really thought. One fails to understand what Spurling finds difficult to comprehend about this. She seems to think that because Powell helped Naipaul, that Naipaul has an obligation to be nice to his writing, rather than to speak his mind. She thinks, in other words, it should be rather like so many people conduct themselves on social media these days. I’ll vote for you if you vote for me. You can read the whole story here.

Somehow I doubt that Spurling would have found it any better if Naipaul had trashed Powell whilst he was alive, which presumably would have been a worse act of ‘betrayal’ as she likes to see it. Pretending that your friend can write is all but impossible to avoid. Certainly my experiences have taught me to err on the side of discretion at such moments. Spurling doesn’t seem to understand, if it comes to that, the significance of Naipaul declining to praise Powell in public – if he did so, she fails to mention it. Rather Naipaul sent Powell a discreet fan letter, which left him all the freer to speak his mind when the obvious moment came.

I, fortunately, having the acquaintance of neither Powell or Woolf can say what I like about them. I have no idea if Powell was equally unrestrained in his opinion of Woolf while she was alive. Certainly he made his distaste loudly known post her demise. I wonder if his stealing from her had anything to do with it, the old idea that we behave badly towards those we have wronged. (Of course, it may be as simple as his liking his upper class women to be cleaner than Woolf.)

For as I read the unfailingly tedious and instantly forgettable The Years, it was impossible not to dispel the boredom with speculation as to the similarities between this and Dance to the Music of Time. Similarities that go well beyond the tedium they share. Indeed, look at this passage by Woolf and surely all but the most one-eyed supporter of Powell for the Cup will see what I mean:

But his glance was a little vague. His attention was distracted. He was looking at a lady who had just come in; a well-dressed lady, who stood with her back to the bookcase equipped for every emergency. If I can’t describe my own life, Eleanor thought, how can I describe him? For what he was she did not know; only that it gave her pleasure when he came in; relieved her of the need of thinking; and gave her mind a little job. He was looking at the lady. She seemed upheld by their gaze; vibrating under it. And suddenly it seemed to Eleanor that it had all happened before. So a girl had come in that night in the restaurant: had stood, vibrating, in the door. She knew exactly what he was going to say. He had said it before, in the restaurant. He is going to say, She is like a ball on top of a fishmonger’s fountain. As she thought it, he said it. Does everything then come over again a little differently? she thought. If so, is there a pattern; a theme, recurring, like music; half remembered, half foreseen? …a gigantic pattern, momentarily perceptible? The thought gave her extreme pleasure: that there was a pattern. But who makes it? Who thinks it? Her mind slipped. She could not finish her thought.

‘Nicholas…’ she began; but she had no notion how she was going to finish her sentence, or what it was that she wanted to ask him. He was talking to Sara. She listened. He was laughing at her. He was pointing at her feet….But they are very happy, Eleanor thought: they laugh at each other.

‘Tell me, Nicholas…’ she began again. But another dance was beginning. Couples came flocking back into the room. Slowly, intently, with serious faces, as if they were taking part in some mystic rite which gave them immunity from other feelings, the dancers began circling past them, brushing against their knees, almost treading on their toes. And then someone stopped in front of them.

‘Oh, here’s North,’ said Eleanor, looking up. [Sally and Nicholas dance off.]

‘What an odd-looking couple!’ North exclaimed. He screwed his face up into a grin as he watched them. ‘They don’t know how to dance!’ he added. He sat down by Eleanor in the chair that Nicholas had left empty.

‘Why don’t they marry?’ he asked.

‘Why should they?’ she said.

‘Oh, everybody out to marry,’ he said. ‘And I like him, though he’s a bit of a – shall we say ‘bounder?” he suggested, as he watched them circling rather awkwardly in and out.

”Bounder’?’ Eleanor echoed him.

‘Oh it’s his fob, you mean,’ she added, looking at the gold seal which swung up and down as Nicholas danced.’

‘No, not a bounder,’ she said aloud. ‘He’s -‘

But North was not attending. He was looking at a couple at the further end of the room. They were standing by the fireplace. Both were young; both were silent; they seemed held still in that position by some powerful emotion. As he looked at them, some emotion about himself, about his own life, came over him, and he arranged another background for them or for himself – not the mantelpiece and the bookcase, but cataracts roaring, clouds racing, and they stood on a cliff above a torrent.

The question which naturally presents itself, as it does when we look at Powell, is whether it is bad on purpose. As in Dance to the Music of Time, The Years is populated by an entire tribe of unpleasant upperclass bores who seem between them to have no good reason for existing. At the same time, O’Neill’s Strange Interlude came to mind. Just as his characters address the audience in those frozen asides, it seemed to me in some odd way that Woolf’s characters in their stream of consciousness delivery do the same thing with us. It’s a very long book of sentences and conversations and thoughts that never end, and it is really we who know that. The characters in the book are always oblivious to what they miss. They are just living (if you call that living) whilst we see the inadequacy of it all. The unfinishedness of it. Nothing ever ends, not thoughts, not conversations, meetings. Things simply fade away, and then flush back in.

This may be an interesting idea, but the execution is lacking. If you need evidence of the shortcomings of the skills of Woolf in this book, look at a section where she hangs her anti-semitism out for all to see. It’s not just morally repugnant, it’s badly written. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know the characters. Nor do we who  have the the book. The characters are unknowable.

“That’s Eleanor,” said North. He left the telephone and turned to Sara. She was still swinging her foot up and down.

“She told me to tell you to come to Delia’s party,” he said.

“To Delia’s party? Why to Delia’s party?” she asked.

“Because they’re old and want you to come,” he said, standing over her.

“Old Eleanor; wandering Eleanor; Eleanor with the wild eyes . . . ” she mused. “Shall I, shan’t I, shall I, shan’t I?” she hummed, looking up at him. “No,” she said, putting her feet to the ground, “I shan’t.”

“You must,” he said. For her manner irritated him — Eleanor’s voice was still in his ears.

“I must, must I?” she said, making the coffee.

“Then,” she said, giving him his cup and picking up the book at the same time, “read until we must go.”

She curled herself up again, holding her cup in her hand.

It was still early, it was true. But why, he thought as he opened the book again and turned over the pages, won’t she come? Is she afraid? he wondered. He looked at her crumpled in her chair. Her dress was shabby. He looked at the book again, but he could hardly see to read. She had not lit the lamp.

“I can’t see to read without a light,” he said. It grew dark soon in this street; the houses were so close. Now a car passed and a light slid across the ceiling.

“Shall I turn on the light?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “I’ll try to remember something.” He began to say aloud the only poem he knew by heart. As he spoke the words out into the semi-darkness they sounded extremely beautiful, he thought, because they could not see each other, perhaps.

He paused at the end of the verse.

“Go on,” she said.

He began again. The words going out into the room seemed like actual presences, hard and independent; yet as she was listening they were changed by their contact with her. But as he reached the end of the second verse —

Society is all but rude —

To this delicious solitude . . .

he heard a sound. Was it in the poem or outside of it, he wondered? Inside, he thought, and was about to go on, when she raised her hand. He stopped. He heard heavy footsteps outside the door. Was someone coming in? Her eyes were on the door.

“The Jew,” she murmured.

“The Jew?” he said. They listened. He could hear quite distinctly now. Somebody was turning on taps; somebody was having a bath in the room opposite.

“The Jew having a bath,” she said.

“The Jew having a bath?” he repeated.

“And tomorrow there’ll be a line of grease round the bath,” she said.

“Damn the Jew!” he exclaimed. The thought of a line of grease from a strange man’s body on the bath next door disgusted him.

“Go on —” said Sara: “Society is all but rude,” she repeated the last lines, “to this delicious solitude.”

“No,” he said.

They listened to the water running. The man was coughing and clearing his throat as he sponged.

“Who is this Jew?” he asked.

“Abrahamson, in the tallow trade,” she said.

They listened.

“Engaged to a pretty girl in a tailor’s shop,” she added.

They could hear the sounds through the thin walls very distinctly.

He was snorting as he sponged himself.

“But he leaves hairs in the bath,” she concluded.

North felt a shiver run through him. Hairs in food, hairs on basins, other people’s hairs made him feel physically sick.

“D’you share a bath with him?” he asked.

She nodded.

He made a noise like “Pah!”

“‘Pah.’ That’s what I said,” she laughed. “‘Pah!’— when I went into the bathroom on a cold winter’s morning —‘Pah!’— she threw her hand out —”‘Pah!’” She paused.

“And then —?” he asked.

“And then,” she said, sipping her coffee, “I came back into the sitting-room. And breakfast was waiting. Fried eggs and a bit of toast. Lydia with her blouse torn and her hair down. The unemployed singing hymns under the window. And I said to myself —” she flung her hand out, “‘Polluted city, unbelieving city, city of dead fish and worn-out frying-pans’— thinking of a river’s bank, when the tide’s out,” she explained.

“Go on,” he nodded.

“So I put on my hat and coat and rushed out in a rage,” she continued, “and stood on the bridge, and said, ‘Am I a weed, carried this way, that way, on a tide that comes twice a day without a meaning?’”

“Yes?” he prompted her.

“And there were people passing; the strutting; the tiptoeing; the pasty; the ferret-eyed; the bowler-hatted, servile innumerable army of workers. And I said, ‘Must I join your conspiracy? Stain the hand, the unstained hand,’”— he could see her hand gleam as she waved it in the half-light of the sitting-room, “’— and sign on, and serve a master; all because of a Jew in my bath, all because of a Jew?’”

She sat up and laughed, excited by the sound of her own voice which had run in to a jog-trot rhythm.

“Go on, go on,” he said.

“But I had a talisman, a glowing gem, a lucent emerald”— she picked up an envelope that lay on the floor —“a letter of introduction. And I said to the flunkey in peach-blossom trousers, ‘Admit me, sirrah,’ and he led me along corridors piled with purple till I came to a door, a mahogany door, and knocked; and a voice said, ‘Enter.’ And what did I find?” She paused. “A stout man with red cheeks. On his table three orchids in a vase. Pressed into your hand, I thought, as the car crunches the gravel by your wife at parting. And over the fireplace the usual picture —”

“Stop!” North interrupted her. “You have come to an office,” he tapped the table. “You are presenting a letter of introduction — but to whom?”

“Oh, to whom?” she laughed. “To a man in sponge-bag trousers. ‘I knew your father at Oxford,’ he said, toying with the blotting- paper, ornamented in one corner with a cartwheel. But what do you find insoluble, I asked him, looking at the mahogany man, the clean-shaven, rosy-gilled, mutton-fed man —”

“The man in a newspaper office,” North checked her, “who knew your father. And then?”

“There was a humming and a grinding. The great machines went round; and little boys popped in with elongated sheets; black sheets; smudged; damp with printer’s ink. ‘Pardon me a moment,’ he said, and made a note in the margin. But the Jew’s in my bath, I said — the Jew . . . the Jew —” She stopped suddenly and emptied her glass.

Yes, he thought, there’s the voice; there’s the attitude; and the reflection in other people’s faces; but then there’s something true — in the silence perhaps. But it was not silent. They could hear the Jew thudding in the bathroom; he seemed to stagger from foot to foot as he dried himself. Now he unlocked the door, and they heard him go upstairs. The pipes began to give forth hollow gurgling sounds.

“How much of that was true?” he asked her. But she had lapsed into silence. The actual words he supposed — the actual words floated together and formed a sentence in his mind — meant that she was poor; that she must earn her living, but the excitement with which she had spoken, due to wine perhaps, had created yet another person; another semblance, which one must solidify into one whole.

The house was quiet now, save for the sound of the bath water running away. A watery pattern fluctuated on the ceiling. The street lamps jiggering up and down outside made the houses opposite a curious pale red. The uproar of the day had died away; no carts were rattling down the street. The vegetable-sellers, the organ- grinders, the woman practising her scales, the man playing the trombone, had all trundled away their barrows, pulled down their shutters, and closed the lids of their pianos. It was so still that for a moment North thought he was in Africa, sitting on the verandah in the moonlight; but he roused himself. “What about this party?” he said. He got up and threw away his cigarette. He stretched himself and looked at his watch. “It’s time to go,” he said. “Go and get ready,” he urged her. For if one went to a party, he thought, it was absurd to go just as people were leaving. And the party must have begun.

I was willing, whilst reading the tawdry anti-semitic tripe, to think okay, that’s the story talking, but it isn’t. Woolf simply felt like that, and talked like it all the time. She didn’t just talk in this way about Jews. The lower classes coped it too. Her opinion of Ulysses was based entirely on her upper class snobbery:

An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me; the book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw?

Enter Sharp. Sharp who is as economical with words as Woolf is loose, whose structure is tight, who makes useful observations about life in interesting and hilarious ways, and who hates nobody. Sensing while reading Lise Lillywhite, that Margery Sharp is the sort of writer who has affection for all those in her work, I was pleased to come across genusrosa’s Sharp-dedicated website, which confirms this trait: ‘It is obvious that Margery Sharp loves people; equally obvious that she understands them very well and forgives them a great deal.’

The literary canon being the opinion of males, for whom humour and observation of society is never a comfortable choice, it is no wonder that Sharp is forgotten. But how wrong that is. To quote genusrosa again:

We relate to the work of the humorist because he/she deals with reality. They distill their own experience through a fresh vision that enables us to recognize (with a thrill) that it is our experience, too.

If it is true, as Marcel Proust said, that ‘in reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self’, then the task of the humorist makes our touch with that awareness more palatable. We feel we know these people they write of….However removed we are from the era or geography of the story, we welcome the feeling of identification that we can have with the characters.

Humor establishes continuity. If we can share a laugh with someone who lived fifty years or two hundred years ago; if we can identify with the scenes or people chronicled there, then we have formed a bridge with the past. The resulting sense of interrelatedness can be reassuring. In an ever-changing, sometimes frightening world, this is by no means a ‘light’ accomplishment. So even while we laugh with the humorist, we take their work and their vision very seriously.

To live at all as a writer is a small miracle. To do it when your metier is humour, so much the more impressive. However, it would be wrong to suggest, despite how often I found myself laughing out loud during this book, that it is straightforwardly funny. Its observations of human behaviour are not only acute, they are also poignant. Both Woolf’s The Years and Sharp’s Lise Lillywhite end up in the same place, a sense of wasted lives. I shall say no more on that for fear of spoiling the latter. It is interesting, however, to compare the delicacy of the one with the flatfootedness of the other.

I am  now on the hunt for all of Sharp’s books. I shall leave it to others to convince me that I should give Woolf another shot.

The Calvin and Hobbes 10th anniversary book, or: Bill Watterson’s adieu.

A few years ago I thought having a cartoon book sitting by my bed at night would be the best way of going to sleep. For a  long time now it’s been this Calvin and Hobbes collection, but today I binged on it, finishing it with a cup of tea after breakfast.

The publication is a treat, not only because it consists of the choices of the author along with his commentary, but also for his account of the industry as a whole. In retrospective, it shouldn’t surprise, reading this book, to see that he was about to throw in the towel. Like many comics and cartoonists, he is an utterly earnest type, but poignantly so here, energy bypassing the creative process to fuel his constant fights with big corporations. One can only admire his utterly moral stand throughout on all these issues. Not everybody is motivated by money – easy to feel like that when it isn’t in front of you, but he had it waved at his nose and still turned it down. Good to know that every time you see a Calvin and Hobbes ‘product’ it’s a piece of thievery which should be given a wide berth. One can also admire his resolve to give up while he was ahead.

I wish cartoonists weren’t so sad – at least my favourites, the others being Schultz and Leunig – but I guess that’s what makes them funny and wise and makes  us laugh and become wiser.