The Chintz Couch, 1911 by Ethel Sands (1873–1962)
The Chintz Couch, 1911 by Ethel Sands (1873–1962)
Dora had been in the National Gallery a thousand times and the pictures were almost as familiar to her as her own face. Passing between them now, as through a well-loved grove, she felt a calm descending on her. She wandered a little, watching with compassion the poor visitors armed with guide books who were peering anxiously at the masterpieces. Dora did not need to peer. She could look, as one can at last when one knows a great thing very well, confronting it with a dignity which it has itself conferred. She felt that the pictures belonged to her, and reflected ruefully that they were about the only thing that did. Vaguely, consoled by the presence of something welcoming and responding in the place, her footsteps took her to various shrines at which she had worshipped so often before: the great light spaces of Italian pictures, more vast and southern than any real South, the angels of Botticelli, radiant as birds, delighted as gods, and curling like the tendrils of a vine, the glorious carnal presence of Susanna Fourment, the tragic presence of Margarethe Trip, the solemn world of Piero della Francesca with its early-morning colours, the enclosed and gilded world of Crivelli. Dora stopped at last in front of Gainsborough’s picture of his two daughters. These children step through a wood hand in hand, their garments shimmering, their eyes serious and dark, their two pale heads, round full buds, like yet unlike.
Dora was always moved by the pictures. Today she was moved, but in a new way. She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. Who had said that, about perfection and reality being in the same place? Here was something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour, and by making it part of her fantasy make it worthless. Even Paul, she thought, only existed now as someone she dreamt about; or else as a vague external menace never really encountered and understood. But the pictures were something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly and yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. When the world had seemed to be subjective it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all.
These thoughts, not clearly articulated, flitted through Dora’s mind. She had never thought about the pictures in this way before; nor did she draw now any very explicit moral. Yet she felt that she had had a revelation. She looked at the radiant, sombre, tender, powerful canvas of Gainsborough and felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before it, embracing it, shedding tears.
From Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell.
Our campus library had a few tables piled down with books—mostly ones that came through donations, but also some discards. I tried not to be too greedy and snapped up these five. Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary was the one I was probably most interested in, as well as John Gardner’s , which I’ve read parts of before. Colette has always struck me as one of those authors whose prolific output is daunting, and I’m not sure if her Claudine novels are the best place to start…but…free book. Hellman’s memoir of her HUAC testimony, Scoundrel Time, interested me with its simple, dynamic cover. And I’ve wanted to read more Lessing since The Golden Notebook. I’m not sure if I’ll get to any of these soon, but again…free books.
Bride, 1994 by Paul Rego (b. 1935)
Brighton Pierrots, 1915 by Walter Richard Sickert (1860–1942)
Dora got into the train. It was now very full indeed and people were sitting four a side. Before she sat down she inspected herself quickly in the mirror. In spite of all her awful experiences she looked good. She had a round well-formed face and a large mouth that liked to smile. Her eyes were a dark slaty blue and rather long and large. Art had darkened but not thinned her vigorous triangular eyebrows. Her hair was golden brown and grew in long flat strips down the side of her head, like ferns growing down a rock. This was attractive. Her figure was by no means what it had been.
She turned towards her seat. A large elderly lady shifted a little to make room. Feeling fat and hot in the smart featureless coat and skirt which she had not worn since the spring, Dora squeezed herself in. She hated the sensation of another human being wedged against her side. Her skirt was very tight. Her high-heeled shoes were tight too. She could feel her own perspiration and was beginning to smell that of others. It was a devilish hot day. She reflected all the same that she was lucky to have a seat, and with a certain satisfaction watched the corridor fill up with people who had no seats.
Another elderly lady, struggling through the crush, reached the door of Dora’s carriage and addressed her neighbour. ‘Ah, there you are, dear, I thought you were nearer the front.’ They looked at each other rather gloomily, the standing lady leaning at an angle through the doorway, her feet trapped in a heap of luggage. They began a conversation about how they had never seen the train so full. Dora stopped listening because a dreadful thought had struck her. She ought to give up her seat. She rejected the thought, but it came back. There was no doubt about it. The elderly lady who was standing looked very frail indeed, and it was only proper that Dora, who was young and healthy should give her seat to the lady who could then sit next to her friend. Dora felt the blood rushing to her face. She sat still and considered the matter. There was no point in being hasty. It was possible of course that while clearly admitting that she ought to give up her seat she might nevertheless simply not do so out of pure selfishness. This would in some ways be a better situation than what would have been the case if it had simply not occurred to her at all that she ought to give up her seat. On the other side of the seated lady a man was sitting. He was reading his newspaper and did not seem to be thinking about his duty. Perhaps if Dora waited it would occur to the man to give up his seat to the other lady? Unlikely. Dora examined the other inhabitants of the carriage. None of them looked in the least uneasy. Their faces, if not already buried in books, reflected the selfish glee which had probably been on her own a moment since as she watched the crowd in the corridor. There was another aspect to the matter. She had taken the trouble to arrive early, and surely ought to be rewarded for this. Though perhaps the two ladies had arrived as early as they could? There was no knowing. But in any case there was an elementary justice in the first comers having the seats. The old lady would be perfectly all right in the corridor. The corridor was full of old ladies anyway, and no one else seemed bothered by this, least of all the old ladies themselves! Dora hated pointless sacrifices. She was tired after her recent emotions and deserved a rest. Besides, it would never do to arrive at her destination exhausted. She regarded her state of distress as completely neurotic. She decided not to give up her seat.
She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.’
‘How very kind of you!’ said the standing lady. ‘Now I can sit next to my friend. I have a seat of my own further down you know. Perhaps we can just exchange seats? Do let me help you to move your luggage.’
Dora glowed with delight. What is sweeter than the unhoped-for reward for the virtuous act?
From Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel The Bell.
Iris Murdoch’s novel The Bell hooked me with its astonishing opening sentences: “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.”
Those two simple, precise sentences foreground one of the major conflicts of The Bell, and also point towards the novel’s anxiety/comedy axis. There’s a comic beat to Murdoch’s rhythm that, paradoxically, simultaneously belies and highlights the terror under those two sentences. The rest of The Bell’s first chapter fills in the gaps between sentence one and sentence two, detailing the relationship between young Dora and her older husband Paul. The details of their troubled marriage reverberate with the same radical ambiguity we see in the first two sentences, a constant push-pull of desire and repulsion.
What’s most compelling for me here is Murdoch’s command of irony and free indirect speech. Murdoch inhabits Dora’s consciousness in a way that shows how the conflict between thought and emotion germinates, mutates, terminates, and often blooms into actions quite divorced from initial intention or desire. When Paul decides to send his departed wife an “allowance,” we get a wonderful syntactic example of how Murdoch captures the ambiguous disjunctions of thought and action: “Dora decided to refuse the money but accepted it.” Murdoch gives us one complete thought here, tacking on the key idea (“but accepted it”) in a dependent clause.
The long passage I’ve excerpted above (part of Chapter One, by the way) shows the same disjunction of thought and action, but at greater length. Not only did it make me laugh aloud, it also made me recognize part of myself in Dora—the extreme social anxiety, the narcissistic sense that others do not see what is happening within a social setting, the sense of selfish entitlement, etc.
The punchline in the episode is worth repeating: “She decided not to give up her seat. She got up and said to the standing lady ‘Do sit down here, please. I’m not going very far, and I’d much rather stand anyway.'” But that punchline is followed by a second punchline—the woman already has a seat. The episode culminates in a kind of callow but sincere moral victory.
I’m about half way through The Bell right now and loving it. As Murdoch layers the novel with perspective characters other than Dora, the overall picture gains depth, breadth, and complexity. Her sentences convey a psychological complexity that seems both raw and truthful, and yet those sentences are polished, refined, and quite funny. More thoughts to come.
Spring, 1965 by Rene Magritte
Crawl under your desktop, out of line of windows to avoid heat flash Burns, falling plaster, 2007, by Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977)
“A Haunted House”
Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.
“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered. “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”
But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room …” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come; cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken; we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”
Fairfield Porter #1, 1954 by Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989)
Due Dormienti, 1966 by Domenico Gnoli (1933-1970)
On pages 611-613 of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, St. Patrick meets the archdruid Balkelly:
Tunc. Bymeby, bullocky vampas tappany bobs topside joss pidgin fella Balkelly, archdruid of islish chinchinjoss in the his heptachromatic sevenhued septicoloured roranyellgreenlindigan mantle finish he show along the his mister guest Patholic with alb belongahim the whose throat hum with of sametime all the his cassock groaner fellas of greysfriaryfamily he fast all time what time all him monkafellas with Same Patholic, quoniam, speeching, yeh not speeching noh man liberty is, he drink up words, scilicet, tomorrow till recover will not, all too many much illusiones through photoprismic velamina of hueful panepiphanal world spectacurum of Lord Joss, the of which zoantholitic furniture, from mineral through vegetal to animal, not appear to full up to-gether fallen man than under but one photoreflection of the several iridals gradationes of solar light, that one which that part of it (furnit of heupanepi world) had shown itself (part of fur of huepanwor) unable to absorbere, whereas for numpa one pura —— duxed seer in seventh degree of wisdom of Entis–Onton he savvy inside true inwardness of reality, the Ding hvad in idself id est, all objects (of panepiwor) allside showed themselves in trues coloribus resplendent with sextuple gloria of light actually re-tained, untisintus, inside them (obs of epiwo). Rumnant Patholic, stareotypopticus, no catch all that preachybook, utpiam, tomorrow recover thing even is not, bymeby vampsybobsy tap — panasbullocks topside joss pidginfella Bilkilly–Belkelly say pat — fella, ontesantes, twotime hemhaltshealing, with other words verbigratiagrading from murmurulentous till stridulocelerious in a hunghoranghoangoly tsinglontseng while his comprehen-durient, with diminishing claractinism, augumentationed himself in caloripeia to vision so throughsighty, you anxioust melan-cholic, High Thats Hight Uberking Leary his fiery grassbelong- head all show colour of sorrelwood herbgreen, again, nigger- blonker, of the his essixcoloured holmgrewnworsteds costume the his fellow saffron pettikilt look same hue of boiled spinasses,other thing, voluntary mutismuser, he not compyhandy the his golden twobreasttorc look justsamelike curlicabbis, moreafter, to pace negativisticists, verdant readyrainroof belongahim Exuber High Ober King Leary very dead, what he wish to say, spit of superexuberabundancy plenty laurel leaves, after that com-mander bulopent eyes of Most Highest Ardreetsar King same thing like thyme choppy upon parsley, alongsidethat, if please-sir, nos displace tauttung, sowlofabishospastored, enamel Indian gem in maledictive fingerfondler of High High Siresultan Em-peror all same like one fellow olive lentil, onthelongsidethat, by undesendas, kirikirikiring, violaceous warwon contusiones of facebuts of Highup Big Cockywocky Sublissimime Autocrat, for that with pure hueglut intensely saturated one, tinged uniformly, allaroundside upinandoutdown, very like you seecut chowchow of plentymuch sennacassia Hump cumps Ebblybally! Sukkot?
Punc. Bigseer, refrects the petty padre, whackling it out, a tumble to take, tripeness to call thing and to call if say is good while, you pore shiroskuro blackinwhitepaddynger, by thiswis aposterioprismically apatstrophied and paralogically periparo-lysed, celestial from principalest of Iro’s Irismans ruinboon pot before, (for beingtime monkblinkers timeblinged completamen-tarily murkblankered in their neutrolysis between the possible viriditude of the sager and the probable eruberuption of the saint), as My tappropinquish to Me wipenmeselps gnosegates a handcaughtscheaf of synthetic shammyrag to hims hers, seeming-such four three two agreement cause heart to be might, saving to Balenoarch (he kneeleths), to Great Balenoarch (he kneeleths down) to Greatest Great Balenoarch (he kneeleths down quite-somely), the sound salse sympol in a weedwayedwold of the firethere the sun in his halo cast. Onmen.
That was thing, bygotter, the thing, bogcotton, the very thing, begad! Even to uptoputty Bilkilly–Belkelly-Balkally. Who was for shouting down the shatton on the lamp of Jeeshees. Sweating on to stonker and throw his seven. As he shuck his thumping fore features apt the hoyhop of His Ards.
Good safe firelamp! hailed the heliots. Goldselforelump! Halled they. Awed. Where thereon the skyfold high, trampa-trampatramp. Adie. Per ye comdoom doominoom noonstroom. Yeasome priestomes. Fullyhum toowhoom.
Woman with a Guitar, 1920 by Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938)
“Certain Cheeses are converted into Stones, and many Wicked Men are drowned”
And certain wicked and envious men, who lived in the country of Ferros, contriving to destroy the life of the saint, offered unto him poisoned cheeses, as if for his benediction; the which he blessed, and immediately converted into stones, to the admiration of many, the honor of God, the veneration of himself, and the confusion of the poisoners. And unto this day remain these stones in the place where the miracle was done, and show the virtue of Patrick, though mute, because they underwent mutation. Then did these poisoners, seeing that their machinations redounded to the glory of the saint and to the shame of themselves, gather together fifty armed men to spill the blood of this just one. And they, being assembled against him, entered the ford of a certain river, journeying along the bank whereof the man of God met them; and when he beheld their countenances, he understood their thoughts, and raising against them his left hand, with a clear voice he cried out, “Ye shall not come unto us, nor shall ye return unto your own people, but in this river shall your bodies remain, even to the day of judgment.” Then, according to the word of the man of God, immediately they sank as lead in the mighty waters; nor even to this day were their bodies found, though long and often sought. Thus, at the divine mandate, did the water punish them who conspired the death of Saint Patrick, as erewhile the fire from heaven punished them which were sent by King Achab to the prophet. And the place wherein they sank in the waters is called even to this day the Ford of the Drowned Men.
Self Portrait as Big Head, 2008 by Julie Heffernan (b. 1956)
R. J. Bowman, who for fourteen years had traveled for a shoe company through Mississippi, drove his Ford along a rutted dirt path. It was a long day! The time did not seem to clear the noon hurdle and settle into soft afternoon. The sun, keeping its strength here even in winter, stayed at the top of the sky, and every time Bowman stuck his head out of the dusty car to stare up the road, it seemed to reach a long arm down and push against the top of his head, right through his hat-like the practical joke of an old drummer, long on the road. It made him feel all the more angry and helpless. He was feverish, and he was not quite sure of the way.
This was his first day back on the road after a long siege of influenza. He had had very high fever, and dreams, and had become weakened and pale, enough to tell the difference in the mirror, and he could not think clearly. . . . All afternoon, in the midst of his anger, and for no reason, he had thought of his dead grandmother. She had been a comfortable soul. Once more Bowman wished he could fall into the big feather bed that had been in her room. . . . Then he forgot her again.
This desolate hill country! And he seemed to be going the wrong way -it was as if he were going back, far back. There was not a house in sight . . . . There was no use wishing he were back in bed, though. By paying the hotel doctor his bill he had proved his recovery. He had not even been sorry when the pretty trained nurse said good-bye. He did not like illness, he distrusted it, as he distrusted the road without signposts. It angered him. He had given the nurse a really expensive bracelet, just because she was packing up her bag and leaving. Continue reading “Read Eudora Welty’s short story “The Death of a Traveling Salesman””