Friday, August 14, 2009

On trackless deserts of print and footpaths thinly covered in grass

So The Husband (aka John) is "more than usually depressed ... about the relationship between the Internet and the stupidity of my fellow man".

Well, 'ee's lucky to be depressed about sumthin'. Ahm merely depressed, like.

Having said that, my lingering sense of frustration might be put down to the naturalist novels that I've been devouring lately. You know: hefty (though no longer triple decker) novels with intricate, tragic plots, believable but inevitably long-suffering characters and lengthy passages in local dialect. Usually, they describe the fates of figures born into unfortunate circumstances, who make disastrous decisions (often out of unfulfillable ambitions) and finally die in a garret, while the cheeky-go-lucky triumph.

One of the novels I've read is George Moore's Esther Waters (1894), the story of a humble but headstrong servant girl struggling to bring up her illegitimate son by herself. The most powerful part of the book is about the practice of baby farming which even upset a fundamentally unmaternal person such as myself.

But I couldn't help finding the following passage mildly funny (though I'm sure that this was not Moore's intention). Esther has just returned, pregnant from the relative comfort of the country manor where she had been in service, to her dismal London home and the brutal rule of her vicious stepfather:
"Poor mother!" said Esther, and, taking her mother's hand in hers, she passed her arm round her, drew her closer, and kissed her. "I know what he was; is he any worse now?"

"Well, I think he drinks more, and is even rougher. It was only the other day, just as I was attending to his dinner - it was a nice piece of steak, and it looked so nice that I cut off a weeny piece to taste. He sees me do it, and he cries out, 'Now then, guts, what are you interfering with my dinner for?' I says, 'I only cut off a tiny piece to taste.' 'Well, then, taste that,' he says, and strikes me clean between the eyes. Ah, yes, lucky for you to be in service; you've half forgot by now what we've to put up with 'ere."

"You was always too soft with him, mother; he never touched me since I dashed the hot water in his face."

Charming, what? This is the kind of stuff you come across in The Sun. But is it just me or is there something slightly Pythonesque about this passage? You can just hear Eric Idle's voice, can't you? And I guess that involuntary humour is always a potential danger in Balzacian hyperrealism, especially when it contains scenes of graphic domestic violence told by characters who drop their aitches.

There's nothing Python in George Gissing, another author I've been reading a lot lately, partly because his characters typically are far more genteel and refined - which makes for a very different kind of tragedy. In New Grub Street (1891), the noble Marian Yule, who works as a researcher and amanuensis for her patriarchal father, thinks the following thoughts - which self-critical students of the humanities might share - as she is working in the British Museum:

One day at the end of the month she sat with books open before her, but by no effort could fix her attention upon them. It was gloomy, and one could scarcely see to read; a taste of fog grew perceptible in the warm, headachy air. Such profound discouragement possessed her that she could not even maintain the pretence of study; heedless whether anyone observed her, she let her hands fall and her head droop. She kept asking herself what was the use and purpose of such a life as she was condemned to lead. When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here was she exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day's market. What unspeakable folly! To write - was not that the joy and the privilege of one who had an urgent message for the world? Her father, she knew well, had no such message; he had abandoned all thought of original production, and only wrote about writing. She herself would throw away her pen with joy but for the need of earning money. And all these people about her, what aim had they save to make new books out of those already existing, that yet newer books might in turn be made out of theirs? This huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to become a trackless desert of print - how intolerably it weighed upon the spirit!

Need I say more? Gissing has an uncanny knack of speaking my mind (as well as expressing the gist of his character's thought in the format of his text). Some (most) of the debates led in my field are of an exasperating scholastic futility, even though those who fight them act as if they were in the process of saving the planet. Things would be easier if people stopped searching for an objective raison d'être for what they're doing and simply got on with life.

In a similarly disillusioned vein, though differently executed is the little-known work of Richard Jefferies, in whose post-apocalyptic novel After London or Wild England (1885) the sense of despair about mankind is replaced by the triumph of nature:

This is how the novel opens:

The old men say their father told them that soon afte the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.

The meadows were green, and so was the rising wheat which had been sown, but which neither had nor would receive any further care. Such arable fields as had not been sown, but where the last stubble had been ploughed up, were overrun with couch-grass, and where the short stubble had not been ploughed, the weeds hid it. So that there was no place which was not more or less green; the footpaths were the greenest of all, for such is the nature of grass where is has once been trodden on, and by-and-by, as the summer came on, the former roads were thinly covered with the grass that had spread out from the margin.

And so it continues, paragraph after paragraph, an early version of Life After People that sends shivers down your spine. Clearly, for Jefferies there is grandeur in this vision of resilient nature and the attendant awareness that the world will continue to exist even after mankind has failed (as fail it does). I find it as comforting as certain passages in Jim Crace's Being Dead (1999) - a novel that might have been inspired by After London - such as the following:

But once the tent and bodies were removed, and once the unsustaining night had passed, the wounded lissom grass perked up. Hope springs eternal in the natural world. Its leaves and blades sprang straight again. They dragged their bodies from the gluey sand to face the morning. They latched their protein-eyes on daylight. They photosynthesized. The grass's stored supplies of water and carbon dioxide conspired with the thin light of that misty, cloudy day to make its carbohydrates and put back into the world its by-product of oxygen. At last its bludgeoned chloroplasts could go about their work, capturing the enrgy of sunlight. They were the master craftsmen of the grass, the conjurors of chlorophyll. Gradually, as dawn was thickening, as day grew fat to slumber through the heavy afternoon, the pigments of the vegetable scar, its corpse stretched out across the grass, returned. By dusk the rectangle of time-paled lissom grass had gone. By dusk, next day, the ghost was sappy at its tips, and only yellow lower down where the leaves were closest to their stems. After that the lissom darkened, day after day. Spring green, then apple green. And bottle green. Envy green, and green as grass.

By final light on the ninth day since the murder all traces of any life and love that had been spilt had disappeared. The natural world had flooded back. The brightness of the universa returned. If there was any blood left in the soil from Joseph and Celice's hort stay in the dunes then it could only help to fortify the living murmur of the grass.

This sense of comfort is a not inconsiderable aspect of post-apocalyptic writing in general and explains its enduring attraction across genres and contexts. There is hope that someone, somewhere, will begin again, will turn tabula rasa into an inhabitable world, only one based on better, saner principles. To do that, however, there has to be tabula rasa first.

But then again, wouldn't we all like to start from scratch, at least once in a while?


mikeovswinton said...

As promised, I have finally got my hands on the novel that Mr Blair had a right good go at - "Angel Pavement" by J.B.Priestley. I shall report in due (but not too due - its nearly 500 pages long) course. Interestingly there is in the preface to the Everyman's library 1962 edition I bought a rather sly little set of digs at what Orwell said about the book. Anyway, that's the next few weeks taken care of.
Re the Jefferies: have you ever come across "The City" by Hermann Hesse? Sounds a bit similar in theme, but it is only 10 pages or so long, and old Hermann could write at his best, couldn't he.

KB Player said...

On the return of nature theme, I really enjoy The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which describes the process of the decay of the man-made and the regeneration of nature very graphically. The big destroyer is water rotting wooden beams and rusting metals, then bringing whole structures down. As someone who lives in a damp house, where wetness is like a guerilla force that you can never completely conquer but only keep at bay for a short time and then find it sneaking back again, I know about the destructive powers of water.

I love New Grub Street and Marian does seem like a proto-academic, only without tenure or even a short-term contract, poor girl. I wonder that the BBC doesn't dramatise Gissing. There are strong distinct characters and dramatic situations and they do a lot of other Victorian novel adaptations. The Odd Women has loads of good roles for women.