August 31st, 2014

The Lent Jewels, by David Hughes (2002)

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Cover of first U.K. edition of The Lent Jewels“Almighty God, who hast created man in thine own image, it so happened in April that our Saab had to be serviced at a garage a few miles west of Carlisle.” This combination of the sacred and the mundane with which David Hughes opens The Lent Jewels immediately establishes the split personality of this book, certainly the most engaging I’ve read this year.

Killing time in Carlisle while waiting for his car to be fixed, Hughes wanders into the Deanery–the residence of the Anglican dean of Carlisle. There he finds a showcase that tells, with bits of paper and a few old photographs, of the death of five daughters of the Dean of Carlisle, Archibald Tait, and his wife, Catharine, over scarlet fever, in the space of one month in 1856:

The five-year-old Chatty, short for Charlotte, was the first to pass over; she died on 6 March.

Her almost two-year-old sister Susan was next to be called home; she died five days later.

Frances breathed her last on 20 March; she died at not quite three years old.

The next, just ten, named after her mother Catharine but called Catty, gave up the ghost on 25 March: the eldest to die.

Her sister May passed on a fortnight later aged nearly nine; she died on 8 April.

Intrigued to understand how two people of faith dealt with such a devastating tragedy, Hughes locates a thick, two-volume biography of Tait, who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury from 1868 to 1882. One short chapter treats of the deaths, mentioning a record written by Catharine some months later as “known and reverenced in every land.” It also quotes Tait’s own diary, an entry written a month after Mary’s death: “Thou hast re-claimed the lent jewels. Yet, O Lord, shall I not thank Thee now? I will thank Thee not only for the children Thou hast left to me [a son and an infant daughter], but for those Thou hast re-claimed…. I thank Thee for the bright hopes of a happy reunion, when we shall meet to part no more.”

The Lent Jewels is the story of Hughes’ attempt, as a non-believing man, a rationalist of the late 20th century, to see life through the eyes of a man and woman whose faith was so profound, so fundamental to their being, that even the loss of five daughters at a stroke could not shake their trust in the wisdom of God.

taits

“What gap was I trying to bridge?” Hughes asks himself:

The time gap was not long, the culture gap subtle, the gap of faith between then and now huge–what else? I wanted to communicate with someone who was in theory better than myself in all human respects: to get in touch with a god, indeed God, who was prepared with good grace to descend an airmile or two, to link the empyrean with the quotidian. It was the gap between what lay within me and what lay beyond.

Perhaps I found The Lent Jewels so engaging because I’ve often looked across the same gap myself. I know people today who seem to hold in their hearts a faith like that of the Taits, who can speak comfortably of the eternity of the soul, of being reunited with their loved ones, and have wondered, like Hughes, just what inspires such belief.

As the book progresses, Hughes traces the lives of the Taits, starting with their residences in London–London House and Lambeth Palace. London House, he remarks, sits not far from the haunts of one of their contemporaries, “Walter,” the anonymous author of the mammoth erotic memoir, My Secret Life, and from this point forward, Hughes repeatedly draws parallels and contrasts between the spiritual life of the Taits and the sensual life of Walter. Despite Hughes’ efforts to obtain some significance from this contrast, it seemed to me unconvincing and distracting.

His pursuit of the Taits evokes in Hughes other thoughts and memories. His visits to the various churches and cathedrals where Tait served reminds him of his time as a member of a boy’s choir while an evacuee from the London Blitz. During this time, Hughes fell under the sway of the assistant organmaster, an elusive character who enticed him into secret corners of the church and masturbated against the boy’s thighs and buttocks.

These experiences, on top of the overwhelmingly secular nature of his everyday life, might have been enough justification for a loss of belief in other men, but Hughes never makes an explicit connection between them. Instead, he wonders repeatedly whether dreams offered the only glimpses we could expect of a spiritual world. “Dreams had an air of permanence, an authority,” he writes at one point, and at another, he says that dreams have a special value because they are “beyond sharing.”

He also seeks to understand the Taits by reaching for a current point of comparison–Geneviève Jurgensen’s book, The Disappearance: A Primer of Loss, which describes the death of her two daughters in a random traffic accident on the autoroute in France in 1980 and Jurgensen’s struggle to cope in its aftermath. “I realised that time numbed but did not heal,” he writes, “time being an anaesthetic applied to the incurable”–a statement I’ve heard echoed in other words by friends who’ve lost children.

While Hughes is following the steps of the Taits, his own life is being taken up with endless details. He and his wife are in the process of selling their farmhouse in Wales, which involves meetings with estate agents, trips back and forth from London, and the long hours and minutiae of moving day. Stretching up to try to peak into the next world, he is constantly being pulled back down to deal with the business of this one.

Hughes’ investigation leads him to locate Hallsteads, the house along the shores of Ullswater, in the Lake District, where Catharine Tait wrote her account of the death of her daughters as a means to recovery in the first few following months. He admits that, by this point, his interest in Catharine had developed into something of an infatuation: “I saw her as a tenderly human guide to the manners–purity, prayer, propriety, sheer goodness–now lost in me, a language I could only stutter.”

In the end, Hughes cannot bridge the gap: “The thinnest of membranes, if an opaque one, divided me from the reality of belief, but at least I knew it was real.” And if his search did not end in any great revelation or break-through, he takes some consolation in the fact that “Not a step fo the way had been attended by angst or hollowed by tedium or taken for granted.” A careful, precise writer, Hughes never rushes to a conclusion or overstates his case, and that precision and delicacy make The Lent Jewels a book one reads carefully, making sure to stay close in step with its writer. Although at no point does Hughes pretend to posses the spirituality of the Taits, in the end, he managed to produce a profound meditation on life in a time when the connection between spirituality and eternity is not taken as a matter of faith.


The Lent Jewels, by David Hughes
London: Hutchinson, 2002


 

August 27th, 2014

“Sociability of the Subconscious,” from The Pursuit of Happiness by Benjamin R. C. Low

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readinginwindow

Sociability of the Subconscious

Thought gives it rarely. It must happen so.
The perfect hour blooms up unheralded.
Perpend. “Let’s take our books with us, and go
Out to the cabin for a quiet read !” she said.
In lazy mood
I took my tome and followed after.
(The back way for adventure.) Soon
Across the warm, gold afternoon,
She led me, with light feet and laughter,
Into a wood.
A sabbath journey only, through the pines.
One cleft of sunlight caught it; good bark brown,
With easy roof and unassuming lines;
Door open; a play cabin. We sat down.

There was, I think, some virtue in the clothes we wore:
She, a stout skirt and simple sailor blouse,
No hat, and sneakers; I,
Old flannels, outlawed many years before,
A tennis shirt and shoes. (Comfort allows
The mood care’s quirks deny.)
We squandered little time on speech:
Each took a corner of the window; guided
Plump pillows to best use, and then subsided
Into a swoon of silence, each.

Books held the foreground. Books were of that hour
Pre-eminent, we thought.
(In winter’s footprints April hides her flower.)
We read; while fortune wrought,
Not romance, but a rarer thing, diviner.
I read John Milton; she, an Olive Schreiner.
Books held the foreground. Half-sensed, all the while,
Were soft intrusions, seas,
Far-heard when winds touch trees;
Sweet, distant laughter dwindled to a smile;
The Peter Piper of a motor-boat,
Throbbing beneath bright voices, then
A pool of silence, stirred a
By seagulls in falsetto, a harsh note.
But mostly — peace. One almost felt the sun
A-westering, while one small bee
Droned all the world indulgence, in his run
Round one small room: so still were we.
And all the while, I was aware of her;
Reading anew
L’ Allegro, Penseroso, Lycidas,
The Cyriack, and the Blindness
. Ghostlier
As, eyes drawn down, I watched the old friends pass,
That still room grew.

I was aware of her in a new way.
Milton absorbed me. I remember well
The joy of winging that proud upper air,
And, once, how scrannel keyed the seagulls. (They
Still own it.) Whence it came I cannot tell,
But we waked, somehow, and–I was aware.

An inroad ended it:
A megaphone
Called: “We are starting!” Books closed, out we ran,
The world of common-sense resumed. No plan.
Neither intended it.
The hour unknown.
But something wrought with us. I was aware. . . .
We waked in some eternity, it seems,
Brains are but barriers of, with their poor dreams.
Who runs may read; only–such hours are rare.


from The Pursuit of Happiness, and Other Poems, New York: John Lane Co., 1919

This is a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link).

From The Biographical Dictionary Of Contemporary Poets. The Who’s Who Of American Poets (1938), we learn that Benjamin Low was born in Massachussetts, earned his bachelor’s at Yale and a law degree from Harvard and practiced insurance law in New York City.

One wonders if he ever compared poetical notes with Wallace Stevens–though Low was no match the Hartford’s man. Of another of Low’s books of poetry, Saturday Review wrote, “there is ever and again the glitter of the true precious metal in this thin vein of ore.” This lovely vignette of an hour captured alone/together reading is certainly one.


 

August 24th, 2014

Left Bank of Desire, by R. V. Cassill (1955)

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leftbankofdesireDown to the last few of R. V. Cassill’s pulp novels, I started Left Bank of Desire curious if I could detect any significant differences in style or approach between this novel, which Cassill co-authored with Eric Protter, and the rest, which he wrote solo.

I did, quite quickly and easily. Most of Cassill’s pulps are at least interesting as literary experiments, texts in which he tried out narrative techniques or played around with subjects (e.g., wife-swapping in The Wound of Love, even if they’re not always successful as stories. To be honest, having started and failed to finish several of Cassill’s mainstream novels, I’d even say they’re better reads than the books he wanted us to take seriously.

In contrast, Left Bank of Desire is just crap. I don’t know if the fault lies with Cassill or with Protter or with a collaboration that simply proved less than the sum of its parts. Frankly, it’s not a matter worth investigating. But this is a book with an implausible premise, a meandering narrative, characters either flat or caricatured, incredible motivations, and undistinguished style.

The only distinctive element–which, sadly, I cannot now shake from memory–is the strange substance to which a number of the book’s characters are addicted: ether. This is a story set in France around 1947 or 1948. At least a half-dozen or more times, someone is tipping a bottle of ether into a handkerchief, taking a great whiff, and either flying off on a high or passing out. Several times the protagonist runs off to buy a bottle at the pharmacy so he can satisfy the cravings of his would-be girlfriend or other denizen.

“Aiaiiiiiieeeeeeee.”

It sounded like someone badly hurt. It sounded like the machinery of the Loch Ness monster starting up.

What I’d smelleed before–mixed in with the turpentine smell–was stronger now. I saw the two girls sitting on a bed with their legs stretched out and their backs against a rough wall. Each of them was holding something to her nose. They looked like there were afraid they would sneeze.

“Aiaiiiiiieeeeeeee.”

… The guy took the cotton pad she had been holding to her nose and slopped ether onto itt from a bottle. He passed it back to her. Again the girls started kicking the bed. The drumming sound they made was faster than any sound could be without turning into steady roar.

I was familiar with the fact that ether addiction became a widespread problem soon after its introduction as a medical anaesthetic around 1820–particularly among physicians–but I assumed it had died out a century ago. Its appearance in the book seemed the crowning bit of evidence of its absurd awfulness. A quick check with Wikipedia (article), however, revealed that it continued, with serious social costs, in Poland and–more relevantly–in France. The sniffing, kicking, and screaming described in the book seems to have been something Cassill and/or Protter saw while living in Paris in the early 1950s.

So there’s the one thing we learn from Left Bank of Desire: French bohemians were still sniffing ether when Camus and Sartre were becoming household names.

And now that we know that, no one else ever has to read the book.


Left Bank of Desire, by R. V. Cassill and Eric Protter
New York: Ace Books, 1955


 

August 21st, 2014

“The Rats in Council,” from Old Saws, Newly Set, by George Linley

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rats

The Rats in Council

A certain colony of rats,
Was ravaged by a chief of cats,
The foe his rounds so slily went,
No rat his skill could circumvent;
So that, as none from home dare stray,

Their rations dwindled day by day;
And visions of that demon gaunt
Grim Famine, ‘gan their hearts to daunt.
One noon (’twas after a good dinner,
Which made the rat race somewhat thinner,)
Grimalkin, with complacent air,
Went forth to court a neighb’ring fair.

The coast is clear, with hearts elate,
The chiefs in council hold debate.
A knowing Rat, grown grey with age,
By all his brethren deem’d a sage,
Describes a remedy most pat,
Which is — forthwith to bell the Cat;
So that, the tinkling larum may show,
The whereabouts of the prowling foe.

Th’ assembled multitude agree
No means could shorter, surer be;
And, as the orator speaks well,
Propose to him to hang the bell.
To this, however, he demurr’d;
I bell the Cat, the thing’s absurd!
Methinks, if I the plan devise,
Others the scheme should realize.”

From rat to rat the word goes round,
But not a volunteer is found,
With military pluck or zeal
To battle for the common weal.
Too oft we find that talkers fluent,
When call’d to action, play the truant.

From Old Saws, Newly Set: Fables in Verse, by George Linley the Younger
Available on the Internet Archive: Link

This is one of a series of neglected poems found on the Internet Archive.


 

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