Monday, 21 August 2017

'I decided not to "write" at all': Willa Cather's O Pioneers!

It took me a long time to get round to Willa Cather, and it's taken me even longer to get round to her first novel (the first in her own voice, after a Jamesian flop) - O Pioneers!
  The first of her Great Plains trilogy (My Antonia is the last), it recounts the struggles of a Swedish family - led by the redoubtable Alexandra Bergson - as they try to make a living on the hostile prairie land of Nebraska. These struggles pay off handsomely, thanks to Alexandra's vision, but at a terrible human cost...  It's an extraordinary book, one that leaves you - well, left me - stunned, shaken and wondering, as always with Cather, how on earth she pulled it off.
 On the face of it, there is so much wrong with O Pioneers! - the faults of the first-timer, perhaps. An uncharitable reader could identify passages of stilted dialogue and lumpy exposition, a thinness of characterisation (as if the characters were in danger of being overwhelmed by those mighty Nebraska landscapes), a wild unevenness of tone, veering between intense lyricism and the plainest of plain speaking, between something like sentimentality and the starkest realism, and an under-writing of key events as if they were incidentals.
 However, I fancy that it is in these very faults (if you can call them that in the context of such a powerfully effective book) that the strength of the novel resides. Cather keeps you guessing, wrongfoots you, softens you up, then lands the punch that takes your breath away. It's a risky way of writing - you'd better be some kind of genius to try it - but, heavens, it comes off in the case of O Pioneers! It's not nearly as assured a performance as the equally remarkable My Antonia, but I'm sure it will live with me for just as long.
 Willa Cather said of O Pioneers! that 'I decided not to "write" at all, - simply to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I'd forgotten'. And that's how it reads - 'like a memory, almost,' to quote a New Yorker centennial review, 'rather than a representation'.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Iniquity of Oblivion

Yesterday my researches took me deep into Essex, to visit an extraordinary monument in the church of Holy Cross, Felsted. It's almost certainly by the great Epiphanius Evesham and it commemorates the 1st and 2nd Barons Rich. I'll spare you the details, but suffice to say that it's a magnificent monument, beautifully designed and executed, with a grand architectural framework, brilliantly modelled figures of the two Barons, father and son, and a range of panels demonstrating Evesham's skills in relief carving and in incised design. The impact is stunning - not for the first time when encountering Evesham's work, I gasped audibly - and, at the same time, decidedly unsettling.
 Look at the 1st Baron Rich [above], who reclines in his Lord Chancellor's robes of office atop the chest tomb - that's not a face you can examine for long without a growing uneasiness. It certainly isn't the face - or the pose - of a man serenely awaiting the afterlife. It seems to be an all too vivid portrait of an angry, impatient man. Rebarbative is the word that comes to mind (reinforced by that absurdly long beard). This is no portrait, though - the 1st Baron R died in 1567. Nor is it a portrait of the son, the 2nd Baron [below], who died in 1581. He kneels at the head of the tomb chest, with one arm missing and his detached left hand, holding his right gauntlet, lying eerily on the plinth of the monument.

The much delayed monument was finally erected some 40 years after the death of the 2nd Baron, the issue having been forced by the 3rd Baron, who stipulated in his will that his illustrious grandfather and father should have their memorial within 18 months of his (the 3rd Baron's) death.
 So, who was the 1st Baron Rich, whose unsettling non-likeness dominates this magnificent monument? He was, even by the standards of the Tudor court, a notably unscrupulous and ruthless operator, of whom no one had a good word to say in his lifetime or since. He not only survived but thrived, amassing wealth and titles, through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and on into the early years of Elizabeth. His modus operandi was to get close to the most powerful personages, then betray and abandon them as soon as it became expedient and move on to the next rising power. He sedulously persecuted Catholics and Protestants alike, as the wind blew, and even participated in torture himself, turning the wheel of the rack on the unfortunate Anne Askew, the only woman ever to have been tortured in the Tower of London. There's a colourful account of the worst of his misdeeds here...
 And yet he lies memorialised by the greatest monument-maker of his time, in his grandest surviving monument. Truly (as Sir Thomas Browne wrote), 'the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.'

Friday, 18 August 2017

Marble Motels, Shorter Years

On this day in 1958, Lolita was finally published in the United States, by Putnam's, after four other publishers had nervously turned it down. The nervousness was understandable: Lolita had been widely denounced as pornographic, and banned in France and the UK. When, in 1959, it was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, it effectively ended the political career of partner Nigel Nicolson (father of Adam).
 In the US, Lolita was an instant best-seller on a heroic scale, selling 100,000 copies in its first three weeks - and surely disappointing many thousands of hopeful smut hounds. In a Time interview, Nabokov, now a celebrity, declared that his real interest was not in nymphets but in motels: 'I would like to have a chain of motels - made of marble. I would put one every ten minutes along the highway, and I would travel from one to another with my butterfly net.'
 Checking the dates, I realise that when I first read Lolita, ten years after it came out in the UK, I was at the same distance in time from the first publication of Howards End, Clayhanger and The History of Mr Polly as I am now from the US publication of Lolita. Those post-Lolita years seem so very much shorter.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A Mistake

I recently reread Eça de Queiroz's wonderful novella The Yellow Sofa - about which I've written elsewhere - and, finding that I loved it as much as ever, thought I'd seek out some more of his shorter fictions. I soon found a volume, published by Dedalus, titled Alves & Co and Other Stories and, as it was going for a song, I happily snapped it up. Only to discover that Alves & Co is the selfsame Yellow Sofa under a different title.
 If I still had a functioning memory for names, I might have recalled that Alves & Co is the family firm of Godofredo da Conceição Alves, the (less than heroic) hero of The Yellow Sofa. Ah well - at least, by buying this volume, I discovered that Dedalus, an enterprising small press based in Cambridgeshire, also publish translations of many of Eça de Queiroz's other works. I'll be on the look-out for them now, taking care not to repeat my mistake.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017


Here's something I wrote about Strawberry Hill House for superior interior specialists Pooky.

One More, and Back to England

Good news from Dieppe's other historic church, St Rémy, where a wholesale, long overdue restoration is now under way. Among the first fruits is the lady chapel [above], restored to its former splendour. If the rest of the church lives up to that, it will be quite something - and it might well be finished before the seemingly never-ending restoration of St Jacques is complete. But there’s a long way to go, and many of St Rémy’s side chapels have been, er, awaiting attention for some while [below].


Back in England, we got on the train at Newhaven, that deeply dismal point of arrival, and I took a window seat from which to enjoy the passing scenery. Immediately a burly, stubble-chinned fellow in a below-the-knee floral print cotton dress piped up, informing me, at length, just how ‘rubbish’ the trains on that line are. They should have been scrapped and replaced years ago, he declared - although it would be a waste of time as the replacement rolling stock is rubbish too.
 Moving the conversation deftly along, he asked me what kind of day I’d had, expressing the hope – nay, expectation – that it had been better than his. I mentioned Dieppe and he expressed the hope – nay, conviction – that it was ‘better than this place’. I endeavoured to enjoy the landscape sliding by the window – sheep grazing in the river valley, a horizon of rounded hills, stocky church spires rising among trees – but by the time we got to Lewes he had also assured me that, in fifty years, all that would be gone and there would be nothing but houses. Welcome to England.

Friday, 11 August 2017


Also seen in a side chapel of St Jacques, Dieppe, awaiting who knows what.