Friday, January 1, 2016
Notes on Recent Reading 27 (Forster, Sackville-West, Capote)
Howard’s End (Forster)
I had thought it seemed a lot of fussing around in the secondary elaboration of values expressed in the troubled relations of the upper-class intellectual Schlegels and the bourgeois Wilcoxes. Their initial bridling at each other was amusing, but it had then no sooner begun to seem to me unnecessarily strung out that I began to think that there was something in it, and I found myself wondering if I myself may have taken artistic and progressive values a bit for granted and that there might be something valuable in those of straight people (by which I mean not heterosexual but unhip). Hmm.
The opening of Chapter XX is a magnificent piece of rhetoric, itself sufficient reason to read the book. I can do no better than to quote. The disturbances due to love are in fact “welcoming the new generation, and chafing against the ultimate Fate, who holds all the seas in the palm of her hand. But Love cannot understand this. He cannot comprehend another's infinity; he is conscious only of his own--flying sunbeam, falling rose, pebble that asks for one quiet plunge below the fretting interplay of space and time. He knows that he will survive at the end of things, and be gathered by Fate as a jewel from the slime, and be handed with admiration round the assembly of the gods.”
All Passion Spent (Sackville-West)
Sackville-West’s novel is a very pleasant book full of wit and satisfaction. The satire is bracing; the eccentrics (Bucktrout, Gosheron, and FitzGeorge) not only amusing but individually characterized. Sackville-West mounts a few lovely rhetorical flights, though perhaps it is significant that one of the grandest, the notable butterfly passage, is meant to convey precisely the sort of instinctual flurry of mind the author presumably recommends. The theme is only too comforting, a bit overdetermined and then slightly problematized by the author’s and the main character’s insistence that they are by no means feminists. How nice to think that “once common sense rarely laid its fingers” her, all went well. And how unexpected and apt to introduce the implication of romantic feelings to the superannuated matriarch.
I must be especially liable to swooning over style this season, because I will also quote this breath-taking passage which may seem rather long, but which I have cut off with half the single sentence still to come.
"She remembered how, crossing the Persian Desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting round this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life . . ."
Whew! More succinctly, in Twelve Days she remarks of keeping a travel journal, “How else, indeed, to clasp the net over the butterfly of the moment?” And at that Virginia Woolf could do no better a job, either in the superabundantly exuberant style or the laconic.
The Grass Harp (Capote)
Those who enjoy Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” (and they are many) will like The Grass Harp yet more. It is equally quirky and sweet and has, after all, more pages, more Southern oddballs, and a more casual structure -- Ida Honey intrudes and lingers for a surprisingly lengthy spell. The minor characters earn their way: Morris Ritz, Riley Henderson, the courageous Judge Cool who is cool indeed. The sentiment is unapologetic and mixed with sufficient humor and darkness to be digestible. The reader feels immense sympathy for Catherine, for example, while accepting the fact that she was difficult indeed for anyone on earth with the exception of Dolly. Strange to say, much of the unlikely machinery of the story is more or less factual. The oddly mismatched sisters and the grand treehouse are well-documented from the author’s childhood even if one suspects that his character Collin is a bit more a regular boy than Truman may have been. One need not speculate about what he and Sooky or he and Harper Lee may have spoken of while up among the green of tree-leaves. This book is doubtless better, though the plot is hardly credible. The thought of the bumbling vigilantes defeated by a cascade of rocks from the Honey family above seems entirely fabulous, but so do a good many actual events.