Sunday, April 22, 2007

G. K. Chesterton – ‘Father Brown: Selected Stories’

This is an Everyman edition from the ’50s (reprinted in 1963) and it has a curiously ambivalent introduction by R. A. Knox, a friend of Chesterton known to have some pretty fixed ideas about what constitutes proper detective fiction. Of the Father Brown stories he says, ‘the didactic purpose tends to overshadow, and even to crowd out, the detective interest’ (p. xvi). By ‘didactic purpose’ he doesn’t mean (as I first imagined) that Chesterton uses the stories to impose his Catholicism on his readership. One of the best stories here, ‘The Blast of the Book’, delights in making us think that a supernatural solution is inevitable, before elegantly pulling the rug out from under us. Drawing perhaps on M. R. James for the diabolical item, the book which must not be opened (but who can resist?) and having a side swipe at Conan Doyle’s Spiritualism into the bargain, Chesterton gleefully has his unassuming Catholic priest explain his lack of foreboding: ‘You see, I am not superstitious’ (p. 340).

No, the ‘didactic purpose’ of which Knox complains is the strangeness of Chesterton’s world, and the shapes into which he will stretch it to get his effects. Nearly every story has an intense and unreal description of a landscape, as if to say: ‘see how nature reacts to wrong doing’. The same devices are used over and over again: the word ‘silver’ appears in most stories, because it gives a certain impression of heightened reality. It is used as shorthand for a visual extreme (white, dazzling) with a hint of the supernatural (the villain of ‘The Dagger With Wings’ makes out that his victim only died because he was shot with an improvised silver bullet). In two stories dwellings are overhung with storm clouds while the sun shines on the surrounding murder-free suburbs. The other side of this strangeness, and the reason why it is effective, is the exaggerated normality of some characters. Father Brown himself is the obvious example, but there are others, and Knox objects to Chesterton’s use of this device to hide clues:

There is something artificial in a convention which allows us to say that nobody has entered a house when in fact a postman has entered it […]. There is something top-heavy about a society in which a fellow guest is indistinguishable from a waiter if he cares to walk in a particular way. (p. xvi)

Maybe I don’t care enough about the integrity of detective story plots, but this strikes me as unfair. Many of these stories achieve their effects through mistaken identity, and it doesn’t seem at all beyond the bounds of reality (let alone Chesterton’s skewing of it) that a criminal might want to disguise himself by posing as a postman or a waiter. If a moral point is being made that such people are unjustly ignored, what of it? And if clues are left undeclared, what of that? The atmosphere is the important thing.

I do agree with Knox when he says:

it may reasonably be maintained that a detective story is meant to be read in bed, by way of courting sleep; it ought not to make us think – or rather, it ought to be a kind of catharsis, taking our mind off the ethical, political, theological problems which exercise our waking hours by giving us artificial problems to solve instead (p. xv).

For years I had the habit of falling asleep to Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, and would be hard put to think of a better way of drifting off. This partly works, of course, because the films are so bad it doesn’t matter how you mistreat them: watched in 10 minute chunks, with gaps of consciousness in which you doze off before half waking and pressing ‘stop’ on the remote, they don’t lose a thing. With his repetitions Chesterton sometimes gives the same impression of flippancy, of insubstantiality. Here is the opening paragraph of ‘The Honour of Israel Gow’, as impressive as it is meaningless:

A stormy evening of olive and silver was closing in, as Father Brown, wrapped in a grey Scotch plaid, came to the end of a grey Scotch valley and beheld the strange castle of Glengyle. It stopped one end of the glen or hollow like a blind alley; and it looked like the end of the world. Rising in steep roofs and spires of seagreen slate in the manner of the old French-Scottish châteaux, it reminded an Englishman of the sinister steeple-hats of witches in fairy tales; and the pine woods that rocked round the green turrets looked, by comparison, as black as numberless flocks of ravens. This note of a dreamy, almost a sleepy devilry, was no mere fancy from the landscape. For there did rest on the place one of those clouds of pride and madness and mysterious sorrow which lie more heavily on the noble houses of Scotland than on any other of the children of men. For Scotland has a double dose of the poison called heredity; the sense of blood in the aristocrat, and the sense of doom in the Calvinist. (p. 95)

Friday, April 13, 2007

E. M. Forster – ‘The Celestial Omnibus’

This collection doesn’t quite give us the Forster of the novels. There are elements of the familiar voice: the snobbery in the air, the foreign travel, the moral certainty that such and such a character is in the right, although neither society nor any other individual can see it. Most of the stories here deal with escape from intolerable social or class-based situations, often into death, and what lies beyond that. A free spirit will feel suffocated, and rebel. But Forster’s imagination, turning on the same themes, comes up with expressions based not on realism, but fantasy. The opening ‘The Story of a Panic’ reminded me a little of M. R. James, with its sleight-of-hand terror. A group of holidaymakers in Italy all at once become ‘terribly frightened’ (p. 11) and run down a hill into a valley, leaving behind Eustace, a schoolboy who thenceforth behaves as though he is possessed. His main adversary in this, the one who tries to keep him in check, is the story’s comically straight-laced narrator. The odd effect of the vagueness on the one hand, and the precisely drawn condescension on the other, is to give the impression that Eustace, who clearly wants desperately to get away from something, is on the run from this very condescension.

‘The Other Side of the Hedge’ is also about escape, but a bit clearer in its allegory. It is a protest against the competitive state of living: if hell is other people, heaven is other people released from their targets. Or as it’s put in the story, once the hedge has been breached and the road (that is, normal, competitive life) left behind:

‘Where does this place lead to?’

‘Nowhere, thank the Lord!’ (p. 43)

And then:

I amused [my guide] by stopping suddenly and saying disconsolately, ‘This is perfectly terrible. One cannot advance: one cannot progress. Now we of the road –’

‘Yes. I know.’

‘I was going to say, we advance continually.’

‘I know.’

‘We are always learning, expanding, developing. Why, even in my short life I have seen a great deal of advance – the Transvaal War, the Fiscal Question, Christian Science, Radium.’ (p. 44)

Progress is measured in activity – it feels a very modern idea, but it is useful to be reminded that this kind of rush pre-dates the internet age. I’m reminded of a recording I heard the other day of Quentin Crisp’s Naked Civil Servant talk, a wonderful find. The whole talk is concerned with finding a style of one’s own, and doing it deliberately – reacting to others’ reaction to you and playing up to their expectations. On the subject of competition, Crisp drawls that it is a mistake to keep up with the Joneses: ‘You must drag them down to your level.’

Another kind of constraint, almost the opposite of the above, is that Harcourt Worters imposes on his fiancée Evelyn Beaumont in ‘Other Kingdom’. She is to be a trophy wife, and must be as superficial as possible, in order that he (not so deep himself) might plausibly be her master. He gives her Other Kingdom Copse, part of the grounds of his house, saying it is absolutely hers, then builds a fence and a bridge against her wishes. She wants to leave it accessible to local couples, who have a tradition of carving their initials on the trees:

They cut their names and go away, and when the first child is born they come again and deepen the cuts. So for each child. That’s how you know: the initials that go right through to the wood are the fathers and mothers of large families, and the scratches in the bark that soon close up are boys and girls who were never married at all. (pp. 99-100)

Evelyn escapes from the man who has prevented this, who would get in the way of her natural vivacity with his pretensions, by turning into a tree. This story finds itself echoed in ‘The Road from Colonus’, in which an old man narrowly escapes being crushed by a tree when he is only just persuaded by his party that he shouldn’t spend the night at the doomed ‘tiny Khan or country inn’ (p. 132) which has so taken his fancy. He believes that staying there will undo the terrible malaise into which his old age has cast him, and his escape is not at all a happy ending (unlike Evelyn’s) – curious, then, that it should be the final ending in the book.

The other thing to escape from (apart from social pretension, clamorous competition and belittling) is literary pretension. Mr Inskip, the ludicrous narrator of ‘Other Kingdom’, provides this as part of the service he understands his employer to require. He relieves an awkward moment between Evelyn and Harcourt:

For us the situation was intolerable. I had to save it by making a tactful reference to the view, which, I said, reminded me a little of the country near Veii. It did not – indeed it could not, for I have never been near Veii. But it is a part of my system to make classical allusions. And at all events I saved the situation. (p. 93)

‘The Celestial Omnibus’ is a more concentrated attack on literary pretension (pitting it against – guess what? Youthful vivacity!), and suggests rather splendidly that up in heaven Achilles and Mrs Gamp are side by side, seeing round visitors. It feels odd, reading in Forster what you’d expect more in an E. Nesbitt book, or even a Harry Potter (the platform you can only reach by running through a wall is similar to the omnibus’s blind alley stop). Or, as I’ve said, an M. R. James story. He brings his purpose to bear, however, and manages to make this collection a light-hearted meditation on the soul in polite torment. Business as usual, then.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Alice Munro – ‘Runaway’

When is a short story not a short story? When it occupies 110 pages and spans several generations? Three of the stories here join up and do this, though possibly they would work individually too. There’s no reason at all why this book shouldn’t contain a novella, of course, I’m just looking to get a handle on it. Speaking vaguely, I enjoyed lots of bits of Runaway, but having just finished reading it I don’t know what it was getting at, what it adds up to. Perhaps an interpretation of the one-word titles might help:

  • Runaway is obvious, Carla runs away from her husband Clark; their pet goat Flora does a parallel disappearing trick. There are more runnings away in the stories which follow, most obviously in Silence and Passion.
  • Chance refers to a meeting on a train which leads to a relationship.
  • Soon means the proximity of death, and the nagging desire to see family members who live far away.
  • Silence reflects what happens when this nagging desire goes unfulfilled.
  • Passion contrasts a sensible love affair with some reckless behaviour which, whilst it spoils everything, is truer to the natures involved.
  • Trespasses invokes a fairly horrific emotional blow dealt by a family to a single woman.
  • Tricks marvels at the fairy tales people will weave to keep themselves happy, and the slender margins which can thwart them. This was my favourite story.
  • Powers are psychic powers. While they seem to have some currency in 1927, when the story begins, they have been completely devalued by the 1970s.

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