Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Eloquent Object

I am thieving the title of this post from an exhibition of furniture I once saw at the SAM. I'm still turning the phrase over and over in my mind.

I love the thingness of things. My room is cluttered with figures, photos, postcards, colors, and pieces of paper. K, I know, fears I'll end up being like one of the Grey Gardens women. I like being around things to handle and touch, to smell, to hear. Things become repositories of memory; they are capable of giving small parcels of beauty. These are subjectively beautiful, not expensive, things - sometimes changeable things.

Being surrounded by beautiful things, even small snippets of paper and buttons, is important to me. Here is my homage to the things that currently give me aesthetic pleasure.

1. A Book (of course). These Penguin Classics are beautifully cloth-bound (despite what my boss, Robert, says about overpriced books sans dust jackets) and every bit worth the money. I have Cranford, which is green and covered in a recurring pea design. They are books that look and feel like books.

2. A Potted Hyacinth. This is a little potted hyacinth that K gave to me on Valentine's morning. I'm a bit of a black thumb and hope that this bulb will succeed much better than Lord Voldemort (last year's potted plant) did. When I was given it, this hyacinth was nothing more than a grainy bulb and a few green shoots. It is now budding, and growing upwards and outwards thanks to the sun we've had this week.

3. A Vase of Tulips. The tulips are wilting now, but when I see them on our sparse wooden table from across the room, and the stippling sunlight, I think of Vermeer. I love these colors together, the rich yellow and purple. Watching the new BBC Emma last week, I felt gratified when I saw a room at Highbury containing yellow and purple tulips just like these.

4. A Lamp. Almost my favorite item in my room is this patterned lamp. I saw it at Goodwill for $30 and resolve to buy it. It was on sale and I walked away with if for $1. It brings a textured richness to my desk. I read under it.

5. A Mug. A gift from my friend Laura, K and L and I went to Painting the Town and painted a mug, which was subsequently fired. I was quite pleased with the mug, though it was less tidy than I had hoped. It was based on a pattern of a medieval Mediterranean rug pattern.

6. Scarves. Specifically the pink and the green, a color combination worn extensively by Emma in the new production.

7. Paper. I bought a set of writing paper derived from Parisian marketplace designs. I love letters. I'm hoping to write some really good ones on this paper.

8. Buttons. My friend Jessica gave me a tube of buttons, which I sorted and lined up on my window sill so that the sun would create little balls of contained color. This has yet to reach its full effect, but it's coming along nicely.

I join Winifred Potter in hungering after "a vision for living...with beautiful things. With subtle colours, and changing lights, and old wood, and yellow and white roses." A sublime vision. You can hear the wind going through the house.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Potter (Not Harry)

Usually I try to pair what I'm reading: like with unlike, a British drawing room novel with a gritty Southern novel, a book for children with a biography. This - or my half-hearted attempt - is supposed to broaden my palate, to evoke a world rich in contradictions, in divergent styles or visions, with a range of characters, landscapes, atmospheres, and language. This has its drawbacks, though, as I feel from time to time as though I have no context, no measurement, or steady gradient to work through. Writers become pointillist speckles, and their voices part of a larger babble.

It is with great pleasure, therefore, that I have embarked on reading several consecutive works by A.S. Byatt with not the least hint of boredom or book-adultery. Her Frederica Quartet, novels written between 1978 and 2002 and sharing the same and ever-growing cast of characters, is a song cycle which the composition is seamless (at least, it seems so from the vantage point of the third book) and brings back familiar themes as well as introducing new ones.

The four novels center around a family in Yorkshire - Byatt shines the spotlight on the inner workings of a large group of characters in much the same way as Tolstoy, or more particularly, George Eliot - and their friends, colleagues, lovers.

In the first novel, the Virgin in the Garden, we are introduced to the Potters: passionate, flaming Bill, who in another life would have been a Puritanical Preacher, but instead rants and lectures on culture, art, the life of the mind, and literature; Winifred, his ghostly wife; Stephanie, the eldest daughter, back from Cambridge to teaching at the local grammar school, soft and contained; Frederica, the furious, intelligent red-headed enfant terrible, filled with convictions of her future greatness; and Marcus, a pale silent boy, haunted by geometrical visions and spectres of light.

It is 1953, the year of Elizabeth II's coronation and Alexander Wedderburn, a colleague of Bill's, has written a metered play, Astraea, celebrating the life of Elizabeth I. Frederica is cast as the young Virgin Queen, and, in love with Alexander, desperate to lose that adjective. Stephanie is wooed by a large, bullish, angry and socially active clergyman, Daniel Orton (to secular Bill's disgust). Marcus is befriended by a science teacher at his school who sees in Marcus's mathematical visions the possibility of establishing connections to the infinite. This is a rich drama, an paneled interior, rich in allusion, literary tags, quotations, and thought.

Just as Elizabeth I forms the core image of the Virgin in the Garden, so the second novel, Still Life, revolves around the brashly bright and heliocentric imagery of Vincent Van Gogh. Marcus has escaped his tangled web and is living in the wedded home of Daniel and a pregnant Stephanie, and Frederica has gone up to Cambridge. The novel concludes with a shocking event which sets up the consequences that form the stage in the third novel, Babel Tower.

In Babel Tower, Frederica is in her thirties, struggling to liberate herself from a destructive marriage, while caring for her young son, Leo. It is London in the sixties. She is teaching part time, and trying to reignite the intellectual promise she had once exuded. Written post-Possession, perhaps the author was still trying to experiment with the text-within-a-text. The Frederica narrative is set against the text of an "obscene" novel of a group of people fleeing the French Revolution to make the world anew, in a tower far from civilization.

From what I can tell from reader comments on Goodreads (always an interesting litmus test), readers have found Byatt over-handed, obscure, artificial, overly intelligent, self-conscious, and her characters unlikeable.

I admit that the Potters are not a lovable family, and Frederica is a sharp, little prickly inflated hedgehog. Despite their unlikable-ness, as I pass through the novels, I find myself deeply moved by the Potter family and their society warms me. Bill's flamboyant anger affects his children, and we are able to roll our eyes, along with the author and the characters, as they reference his relentless ranting. We have witnessed those rants, too. We know how it goes. Byatt chronicles her characters' consciousness so that the readers and characters share ideas and emotions and reactions. Her rooms and settings are so elaborately named that we may feel dizzy in the surreal world of incredibly described and named things - a world where language calls into being, and words are the physical boundaries of things.

As for Byatt's obscurity and ornament - there is no doubt that she makes no concessions and writes for readers in the same way that she is a reader: with passion, hunger, obsession, and frightening intelligence. Her influences are clearly George Eliot and Iris Murdoch, incorporating a Murdochian emphasis on philosophical thought, with ideas, and passions of the body and the mind, as well as Eliot’s large social awareness. This is a web of characters which relate to each other – they are each other’s husband, lover, sister, child, teacher. These are novels that play with ideas, with concepts, with language.

Just discovered: In the author's note to Babel Tower, Byatt writes "Writers whose ideas changed me in the sixties and are still important to me are Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and George Steiner." I think it is telling that the author emphasizes "ideas" over plot, language, etc.

I am about to finish Babel Tower and run on to the last volume, A Whistling Woman. Also tempted by Byatt's criticism and short stories but perhaps that would be overkill...

Photo borrowed from here

Friday, February 12, 2010


Aside from what felt like an Arctic first week of December, it's been a very warm winter this year. Not yet Lent, flowers are already crowning trees, and the grasses and patches of moss are growing outside our front door. The latest issue of the arts journal Image, for which I proudly volunteer, has the following poem by Luci Shaw which seems to trickle down just as a poem should.

Psalm for the January Thaw - Luci Shaw

Blessed be God for thaw, for the clear drops
that fall, one by one, like clocks ticking, from
the icicles along the eaves. For shift and shrinkage,
including the soggy gray mess on the deck
like an abandoned mattress that has
lost its inner spring. For the gurgle
of gutters, for snow melting underfoot when I
step off the porch. For slush. For the glisten
on the sidewalk that only wets the foot sole
and doesn’t send me slithering. Everything
is alert to this melting, the slow flow of it,
the declaration of intent, the liquidation.

Glory be to God for changes. For bulbs
breaking the darkness with their green beaks.
For moles and moths and velvet green moss
waiting to fill the driveway cracks. For the way
the sun pierces the window minutes earlier each day.
For earthquakes and tectonic plates—earth’s bump
and grind—and new mountains pushing up
like teeth in a one-year-old. For melodrama—
lightning on the sky stage, and the burst of applause
that follows. Praise him for day and night, and light
switches by the door. For seasons, for cycles
and bicycles, for whales and waterspouts,
for watersheds and waterfalls and waking
and the letter W, for the waxing and waning
of weather so that we never get complacent. For all
the world, and for the way it twirls on its axis
like an exotic dancer. For the north pole and the
south pole and the equator and everything between.

It makes me think of - and I think it's meant to - Gerard Manley Hopkins' Pied Beauty, which is one of my favorite poems with its piercing and iridescent language: "Glory be to God for dappled things...Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;/ Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough..."

At any rate, look around Image's website here. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Only Connect

In the quiet hours of the morning, I've taken to cleaning my room to a costume drama first thing. There's nothing like a vigorous re-placing of possessions - refolding the clothes on the floor (that I've sometimes perversely thrown around just so that I can refold them in the morning), making the bed, exorcising the stuffy night air by opening windows and lighting candles - accompanied by familiar faces and arch British accents.

I did not get very far into Brideshead Revisited before it had to be returned to the library, but I did have time to develope a crush on young Jeremy Irons. Now I am watching the 2005 production Bleak House, with Cranford (Judi Dench; 2007) in the wings.

Bleak House is one of the few Dickens novels I've read, and though I found the lawyerish talk of Jarndyce & Jarndyce soporific, and I didn't much like Esther Summerson at the time, I liked the book. (Though, in retrospect, this might be only because of the mysterious and very gothic figure, Lady Dedlock; gothic romances were my thing.) Watching the miniseries has convinced me to head back to Dickens and embrace his manic and silly cast of characters, his neglectful Jellaby-philanthropists, his sponging Skinpoles.

It seems, I said to Chris last night, that we've lost the kind of novel with a large cast of characters, where every one is important. No one writes like Dickens anymore. Or Gaskell.
Chris said that the Great American novels were largely - not always - about solo figures (Bellow, Roth, etc.)and couples on the East Coast (Updike). These novels are about individualism and self-determination. No manic philanthropists.
We agreed that Indians do Dickens now. In my (uneducated) opinion, Indian novels draw some potency from Dickens; it is difficult to find one which is not large and manic and overpopulated with characters in the Dickensian vein - Rushdie, Seth, etc.

And then, this morning in our fiction bin, waiting to be put on the front table, was Philip Hensher's Northern Clemency, which was - on the front cover - compared to both Dickens and Gaskell. So there. Serendipitous.

Monday, February 1, 2010

I think that the instrument of the morning is a cello (Bach's) and the instrument of the afternoon is the piano (Chopin's). And the evening? Unaccompanied voices, I think.