Patrick O’Brian, sentimentality, & redemption through observation
As I often do as winter shows its unwelcome face, I am turning to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels for solace, energy, and inspiration. This weekend I copied over — dictated via my voice-recognition software, actually — the passage below. It comes from “The Reverse of the Medal,” in which both our heroes, Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend/surgeon/naturalist/spy, Stephen Maturin, suffer horrid reversals.
I read for and find different things every time through this 4000-page opus (20.5 volumes) This time through, as I write my own book about sensitivity to experience, I’m noticing especially how richly responsive to experience both men are, albeit it in very different ways.
So I was taken by this passage, about halfway through the novel, in which Stephen, deeply blackly despondent over setbacks in both his love life and his espionage, finds the deepening blackness brightened by the natural world to which he is so deeply attached. It’s a lovely piece of writing — the sort in which the slight faults make the strengths more evident. It picks up where a horse-drawn coach has dropped Stephen off in a village near Aubrey’s place, to which he will walk. It is just dawn; he has ridden in the coach all night. A couple of observations at end.
A few minutes later Stephen was standing there with his baggage by the side of the road while the dim coach disappeared in the dust-cloud of its own making and a long trail of early-morning rooks passed overhead. Presently the door of the ale-house opened and an amiable slut appeared, her hair done up in little rags, very like a Hottentot’s, and her garment held close at the neck with one hand. “Good morning, now, Mrs. Comfort,” said Stephen. “In time pray let the boy put these things behind the bar till I send for them. I mean to walk to Ashgrove over the fields.”
“You will find the Captain there, with some saucy foremast jacks and that wicked old Killick. But won’t you step in, sir, and take a little something? It’s a long, long way, after a night in the coach.”
Stephen knew that the Jericho could run to nothing more than tea or small beer, both equally repugnant to him in the morning; he thanked her, and said he believed he should wait until he had walked up an appetite; and when asked whether it would be that wicked old Killick who came in the card for his portmanteau he said he would make a point of asking the Captain to send him.
For the first mile his road was a lane between high banks and hedges, with woods on the left hand and fields on the right — well-sprung wheat and hay — and the banks were starred all along with primroses, while the hedges had scores of very small cheerful talkative early birds, particularly goldfinches in their most brilliant plumage; and in the hay a corncrake was already calling. Then when the flatland begin to rise and fall this lane branched out into two paths, though on carrying on over a broad pasture — a single piece of 50 or even 60 acres with some colts in it — and the other, now little more than a trace, leading down among the trees. Stephen followed the second; it was steep going, encumbered with brambles and dead bracket on the edge of the wood and farther down with fallen branches and the dead tree or two, but near the bottom he came to a ruined keeper’s cottage standing on a grassy plat, its turf kept short by the rabbits that fled away at his approach. The cottage has lost its roof long since and was filled up right with lilac, not yet in bloom, while nettle and elder had overwhelmed the outbuilding behind; but there was still a stone bench by the door. Stephen sat upon it, leaning against the wall. Down here in the hollow the night had not yet yielded, and there was still a green twilight. An ancient wood: the slope was too great and the ground too broken for it ever to have been cut or tended, and the trees were still part of the primaeval forest; vast shapeless oaks, often hollow and useless for timber, held out their arms and their fresh young green leaves almost to the middle of the clearing, held them out with never a tremor, for down here the air was so still that gossamer floated with no perceptible movement at all. Still and silent: although far-off blackbirds could be heard away on the edge of the wood and although the stream at the bottom murmured perpetually the combe was filled with a living silence.
On the far side, high on the bank of the stream, there was a badger’s holt. Some years ago Stephen had watched a family of fox-cubs playing there, but now it seemed to him that the badgers were back: fresh earth had been flung out, and even from the bench he could distinguish a well-trodden path. “Perhaps I shall see one,” he said; and after a while his mind drifted away and away, running through a Gloria he and Jack had heard in London, a very elaborate Gloria by Frescobaldi. “But perhaps it is too late,” he went on, when the Gloria was ended and the light had grown stronger, brighter green, almost the full light of dawn. Yet scarcely were those words formed in his mind before he heard a strong wrestling, sweeping bumping sound, and a beautifully striped badger came into sight on the other side of the brook, walking backwards with a load of bedding under its chin. It was an old fat badger, and he grumbled and cursed all the way. The last uphill stretch was particularly difficult, with the burden catching on hazel or thorn on either side and leaving long wisps, and just before the entrance the badger lifted its head and looked round, as though to say “Oh it is so bloody awkward.” Then, having breathed it took a fresh grip on the bundle, and with a final oath vanished backwards into the holt.
“Why do I feel such an intense pleasure, such an intense satisfaction?” asked Stephen. For some time he reached for a convincing reply, but finding none he observed “The fact is that I do.” He sat on as the sun’s rays came slowly down through the trees, lower and lower, and when the lowest reached a branch not far above him it caught a dewdrop poised upon release. The drop instantly blazed crimson, and a slight movement of his head made it show all the colors of the spectrum with extraordinary purity, from a red almost too deep to be seen through all the others to the ultimate violent and back again. Some minutes later a cock pheasant’s explosive call broke the silence in the spell and he stood up.
At the edge of the wood the blackbirds were louder still, they had been joined by blackcaps, thrushes, larks, monotonous pigeons, that a number of birds that should never have sung at all. His way now led him through ordinary country, field after field, eventually reaching Jack’s woods, with honey buzzard said once vested. But it was ordinary country raised to the highest power: the mounting sun shone through a faint trail was never a hint of glare, giving the colors of freshness and intensity Stephen had never seen equaled. The green world of the gentle, pure blue sky might just have been created; and as the day warmed a hundred scents drifted through the air.
“Returning thanks at any length is virtually impossible,’ he reflected, sitting on a stile and watching two hares at play, sitting up and fibing at one another, then leaping and running and leaping again. “How few manage even five phrases with any effect. And how intolerable are most dedications too, even the best. Perhaps the endless repetition of flat, formal praise” — for the Gloria was still running in his head — “is an attempt at overcoming this, an attempt at expressing gratitude by another means. I shall put this thought to Jack,” he said, having considered for a moment. The hares raced away out of sight and he walked on, singing in a harsh undertone “Quoaniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus altissimus” until a cuckoo called away on his left hand: cuckoo, cuckoo, loud and clear, followed by a cackling laugh and answered by a fainter cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo far over on the right.
His happiness sank at once…
As well it might, for the bird spoke with unbearable directness to his love life.
- One of the beauties of O’Brian’s monumental work — over 4000 pages; Proust, but with battle scenes, salt water, deadlier gossip, and better breakfasts — is that he can take the time to stretch out like this, to slow down; to try to capture a smart, sensitive, man being perfectly still. To say nothing of the incomparable English countryside.
- Part of me thinks this does not quite work — that O’Brian’s attempt to have Stephen pay homage to nature’s redemptive beauty, a healing that is open only to slow, attentive observation and a sensitive heart, surrenders to sentimentality. O’Brian recognizes this danger too, which is why he lodges his caveat (via Stephen) that no homage, no thanks, at least in words, will ever quite work: Maybe it takes musical homage, formalized as a recognition of God’s glory, to express the gratitude.
- Thus throughout, O’Brian, even though he writes fast, or at least fluidly — for his manuscripts, in elegant, longhand, bear few revisions — does his best to steer clear of sentimentalism: Other than Stephen’s own critical examination of how deeply he is moved, there is no hand-waving to tell us how beautiful and moving this is; no florid adjectives. One might argue he crosses the line with the dewdrop; maybe that’s a bit much. Then again, Stephen’s observation of that wet prism jibes perfectly with what we’ve seen before in this intensely curious and informed observer; so, arguably, this is not too much. And I like too how, shortly after this, as Stephen gets up and walks through other birdsong, O’Brian ends the list of signing birds with a reference to “monotonous pigeons, and a number of birds that should never have sung at all.”
- Finally, while I always thrill to O’Brian’s vocabulary — various, intricate, always necessary — dictating this passage via my voice-recognition software made me even more aware of how much original and fresh language he brings. Some rich stuff not in the standard vocabulary:
- well-sprung wheat
- trace (for trail)
- fibing, for which I could find no definition
There Are Still Idjits Banning Books Out There
Slaughterhouse-Five continues to be controversial. In August of 2011, the novel was banned at the Republic High School in Missouri. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library countered by offering 150 free copies of the novel to Republic High School students on a first come, first served basis.
I came across that in Wikipedia yesterday as I was preparing to read a passage from Slaughterhouse Five at the ACLU’s Banned Books Event here in Montpelier. It amazes me that people still do this. The Republic High School’s ban on this book directly contradicts a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court wisely ruled that, No, you can’t ban a book from your high school library just because it uses a few naughty words, portrays some of war’s horrors, and shows U.S. soldiers behaving badly.
The reading last night was lovely. We read in the Episcopalian Church here, and while we waited for the place to fill, novelist Kathryn Davis, one of the readers and a member of the church, told us about some of the stained glass windows there. Then it was time to start.
The readings were all splendid, but three in particular just ran me over.
War historian and 7th-generation Vermonter Howard Coffin can read Lincoln so well that he can actually amplify and refine the ring of Lincoln’s words. Last night he read, from Huckleberry Finn, the scene in which Huck, having finally done the right thing and written the letter that will return Jim to his owner, changes his mind and, deciding he will go to hell after all, dammit, tears up the letter.
Poet and playwright David Budbill, who often reads with jazz players, brought a devastating rolling rhythm to the scene in The Grapes of Wrath in which the ragged man tells the Joads and other California-bound strivers that they aren’t going to find what they hope to find in that golden land, for they would find ten men vying for each job, and the owners paid too little to eat on, and he had watched his wife and children starve to death. Then he walked off down the road in the dark, his footsteps sounding for quite some time.
Then the eerily talented novelist Kathryn Davis read the trial scene from Maya Angelou’s Where the Caged Bird Sings. She inhabited utterly the voice of a narrator describing how, as an eight-year-old girl, she faced cross-examination at her rapist’s trial. Though only a child and one particularly innocent, she is, in classic rape-trial fashion, made a suspect on the stand. And when this eight-year-old girl is asked whether the man who raped her — “‘or rather, the man you say raped you’” — had ever touched her before, she realizes, with the brutal wisdom she has earned far too soon, that to this one question she must lie if this man is to be held accountable. Lying horrifies her. Yet she lies.
The jury convicts. The judge sentences: A year and a day. The next morning the rapist is released regardless, and that very evening, found dead. “Probably kicked to death,” the sheriff’s deputy says as he relates this to the girl’s mother that night. The little girl, plays Monopoly on the living room floor with her beloved brother as she overhears this news, feels seeping into her cells the conviction that her own sin of lying makes her complicit in both her rape and its revenge.
Finally Katherine Patterson, a children’s book author who has watched repeatedly over the years as school boards banned her wonderful books for children, read from her marvelous Bridge to Terabithia and then from a short essay she’d written about being banned so many times. She said, in this essay, that she was always careful not to put in a book anything that might disturb unless it was truly necessary to the story, for she could not stand the thought of some school librarian risking her job over something not essential. Yet some things you must include, for “if you write in a way meant never to disturb anyone, you will never move anyone either.” After the earlier readings — moral confrontations with slavery, rape, misogyny, selfishness, and the horrors of war — her final assertion rang true: These books get banned not because they promote sin, but because they expose it.
Beware and respect the brave children’s book author, for there is no one anywhere braver.
Here’s the passage from Slaughterhouse Five.
Nothing more was said about Dresden that night, and Billy closed his eyes, traveled in time to a May afternoon, two days after the end of the Second World War in Europe. Billy and five other American prisoners were riding in a coffin-shaped green wagon, which they had found abandoned, complete with two horses, in a suburb of Dresden. Now they were being drawn by the clop-clop-clopping horses down narrow lanes which had been cleared through the moonlike ruins. They were going back to the slaughterhouse for souvenirs of the war. Billy was reminded of the sounds of milkmen’s horses early in the morning in Ilium, when he was a boy.
Billy sat in the back of the jiggling coffin. His head was tilted back and his nostrils were flaring. He was happy. He was warm. There was food in the wagon, and wine—and a camera, and a stamp collection, and a stuffed owl, and a mantel clock that ran on changes of barometric pressure. The Americans had gone into empty houses in the suburb where they had been imprisoned, and they had taken these and many other things.
The owners, hearing that the Russians were coming, killing and robbing and raping and burning, had fled.
But the Russians hadn’t come yet, even two days after the war. It was peaceful in the ruins. Billy saw only one other person on the way to the slaughterhouse. It was an old man pushing a baby buggy. In the buggy were pots and cups and an umbrella frame, and other things he had found.
Billy stayed in the wagon when it reached the slaughterhouse, sunning himself. The others went looking for souvenirs. Later on in life, the Tralfamadorians would advise Billy to concentrate on the happy moments of his life, and to ignore the unhappy ones—to stare only at pretty things as eternity failed to go by. If this sort of selectivity had been possible for Billy, he might have chosen as his happiest moment his sundrenched snooze in the back of the wagon.
Billy Pilgrim was armed as he snoozed. It was the first time he had been armed since basic training. His companions had insisted that he arm himself, since God only knew what sorts of killers might be in burrows on the face of the moon—wild dogs, packs of rats fattened on corpses, escaped maniacs and murderers, soldiers who would never quit killing until they themselves were killed.
Billy had a tremendous cavalry pistol in his belt. It was a relic of World War One. It had a ring in its butt. It was loaded with bullets the size of robins’ eggs. Billy had found it in the bedside table in a house. That was one of the things about the end of the war: Absolutely anybody who wanted a weapon could have one. They were lying all around. Billy had a saber, too. It was a Luftwaffe ceremonial saber. Its hilt was stamped with a screamingeagle. The eagle was carrying a swastika and looking down. Billy found it stuck into a telephone pole. He had pulled it out of the pole as the wagon went by.
Now his snoozing became shallower as he heard a man and a woman speaking German in pitying tones. The speakers were commiserating with somebody lyrically. Before Billy opened his eyes, it seemed to him that the tones might have been those used by the friends of Jesus when they took His ruined body down from His cross. So it goes.
Billy opened his eyes. A middle-aged man and wife were crooning to the horses. They were noticing what the Americans had not noticed—that the horses’ mouths were bleeding, gashed by the bits, that the horses’ hooves were broken, so that every step meant agony, that the horses were insane with thirst. The Americans had treated their form of transportation as though it were no more sensitive than a six-cylinder Chevrolet.
These two horse pitiers moved back along the wagon to where they could gaze in patronizing reproach at Billy—at Billy Pilgrim, who was so long and weak, so ridiculous in his azure toga and silver shoes. They weren’t afraid of him. They weren’t afraid of anything. They were doctors, both obstetricians. They had been delivering babies until the hospitals were all burned down. Now they were picnicking near where their apartment used to be.
The woman was softly beautiful, translucent from having eaten potatoes for so long. The man wore a business suit, necktie and all. Potatoes had made him gaunt. He was as tall as Billy, wore steel-rimmed trifocals. This couple, so involved with babies, had never reproduced themselves, though they could have. This was an interesting comment on the whole idea of reproduction.
They had nine languages between them. They tried Polish on Billy Pilgrim first, since he was dressed so clownishly, since the wretched Poles were the involuntary clowns of the Second World War.
Billy asked them in English what it was they wanted, and they at once scolded him in English for the condition of the horses. They made Billy get out of the wagon and come look at the horses. When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears. He hadn’t cried about anything else in the war.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut Series) (pp. 248-252). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Photo: Dresden after the bombing, overlooked by the allegory of goodness. Courtesy Wikipedia and Deutsche Fotothek
Graham Greene’s Wartime Bookshop
From Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear. This is a side-scene: a shop to which our strange, haunted, rumpled and unshaven main character, Rowe, who’s getting pulled deep into some wartime intrigue he doesn’t even come close to understanding at this point, has repaired so he can watch the door to the office of a Mr. Rennit. In other words, Greene doesn’t need to do what he does here; he needs merely a viable spot, any ordinary shop. Instead we get this.
Nearly opposite Mr Rennit’s was an auction-room which specialised in books. It was possible from before the shelves nearest the door to keep an eye on the entrance to Mr Rennit’s block. The weekly auction was to take place next day, and visitors flowed in with catalogues; an unshaven chin and a wrinkled suit were not out of place here. A man with a ragged moustache and an out-at-elbows jacket, the pockets bulging with sandwiches, looked carefully through a folio volume of landscape gardening: a Bishop – or he might have been a Dean – was examining a set of the Waverley novels: a big white beard brushed the libidinous pages of an illustrated Brantôme. Nobody here was standardized; in tea-shops and theatres people are cut to the pattern of their environment, but in this auction-room the goods were too various to appeal to any one type. Here was pornography – eighteenth-century French with beautiful little steel engravings celebrating the copulations of elegant over-clothed people on Pompadour couches, here were all the Victorian novelists, the memoirs of obscure pig-stickers, the eccentric philosophies and theologies of the seventeenth century – Newton on the geographical position of Hell, and Jeremiah Whiteley on the Path of Perfection.
It’s been a while. I’d forgotten how good he is.
Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams”
Reading, as I ride a train toward the old rebounded forest I live amid, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. It’s fabulous. He has early forestry work and its people down beautifully.
Sometimes Peeples set a charge, turned the screw to set it off, and got nothing for his trouble. Then a general tension and silence gripped the woods. Men working half a mile away would somehow get an understanding that a dud charge had to be dealt with, and all work stopped. Peeples would empty his pockets of valuables — a brass watch, a tin comb, a silver toothpick — lay them on a stump, and proceed into the darkness of his tunnel without looking back. When he came out and turned his screws again and the dynamite blew with a whomp, the men cheered and a cloud of dust rushed from the tunnel and powdered rock came raining down over everyone.
It looked certain Arn Peeples would exit this world in a puff of smoke with a monstrous noise, but he went out quite differently, hit across the back of his head by a dead branch falling off a tall larch — the kind of snag called a “widow maker” with just this kind of misfortune in mind. The blow knocked him silly, but he soon came around and seemed fine, complaining only that his spine felt “knotty among the knuckles” and “I want to walk suchways — crooked.” He had a buber of dizzy spells and grew dreamy and forgetful over the course of the next few days, lay up all day Sunday racked with chills and fever, and on Monday morning was found in his bed deceased, with the covers up under his chin and “such a sight of comfort,” as the captain said, “that you’d just as soon not disturb him — just lower him down into a great long wide grave, bed and all.”
The allure of Ted Hughes’ letters, especially in typescript
In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm’s meta-biography of Sylvia Plath, Malcolm at one point describes reading some letters that Ted Hughes, who was married to Plath when she killed herself in 1962, wrote in the 1980s to Anne Stevenson, who was then writing a biography of Sylvia Plath. Stevenson Malcolm read the letters during a visit Malcolm paid to Stevenson in England. Earlier, Stevenson had mentioned to Malcolm, as a way of explaining what it was like to be around Hughes, that “One thing you must understand about Ted is that he was and still is an electrically attractive man.”
Here’s Malcolm reading the letters. It’s obviously mostly about Hughes, but it’s interesting as well for its sensitivity (in this highly sensitive writer) to the experience of reading letters written in different media — a letter printed from a word processor being in a different media, though the paper be the same, than one typed on an Olivetti.
The letters from Hughes immediately drew me, as if they were the electrically attractive man himself. As I looked at the pages of dense, single-paced typing, punctuated by x-ings-out and penned-in corrections, I had a nostalgic feeling. The clotted, irregular, unrepentantly messy pages brought back the letters we used to write one another in the 1950s and ’60s on our manual Olivettis and Smith Coronas, so different from the marmoreally cool and smooth letters young people write one another today on their Macintoshes and IBMs. Reading the letter giving Hughes’s response to the chapters Anne had sent him of her short biography, I felt my identification with its typing swell into a feeling of intense sympathy and affection for the writer. Other letters of Hughes’s that have come my way have had the same effect, and I gather that I am not alone in this reaction; other people have spoken to me with awe of Hughes’s letters. Someday, when they are published, critics will wrestle with the question of what gives them their peculiar power, why they are so deeply, mysteriously moving.