Monday, October 25, 2010

H. P. Lovecraft – ‘At the Mountains of Madness’

        ‘It’s no good, I can’t carry on.’
        ‘Then don’t – I wasn’t going to read it either.’
        ‘It just keeps repeating itself, without ever coming to the point. Or at least... Do you think there are psychological insights in store, or...?’
        ‘No, it’ll just turn out to be something horrible.’
        ‘There’s all this shitty mythology, this made-up book, what’s it called? The Necronomicon.’
        ‘I’ve heard of that. Terry Pratchett’s Necrotelicomnicon refers to it.’
        ‘Why would you refer to it? Why not just completely ignore it?’
        ‘He’s taking the piss.’
        ‘Well, that’s better than nothing. Or, it isn’t better than nothing, but it is better than taking it seriously.’

S. and I may have our differences about Terry Pratchett, but it seems we do agree about H. P. Lovecraft. For thirty pages I was relatively intrigued, having decided to overlook the fact that the opening sentence doesn’t make sense (‘I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why’*). Mostly this was because the story is set in Antarctica and it reminded me of a biography of Shackleton I quite liked. The place names – the McMurdo Sound, Mount Erebus, the Ross Sea – were enough on their own to impress, I was up for an Antarctica story. What I was not up for was a story that belittles Antarctica by pretending that it is actually the back of a gigantic stegosaurus from space**. After sixty pages I couldn’t take the plodding build up any more. Why is there a Vaselines song about this man? Awful, awful.

* Oh, hang on, maybe it does. But it’s still a horrible way of putting it.
** This is a guess, and, so I am told, wrong. But still, it is a story without any interest in character.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Tove Jansson – ‘A Winter Book’ and ‘Fair Play’

It wasn’t until quite late on in Fair Play that I realised I had the characters the wrong way around. Coming to it after the childhood reminiscences of A Winter Book, it was easy to interpret as lightly amended autobiography, with the names changed. Instead of Tove and Tooti, they are Jonna and Mari, living in a pair of nearby apartments in autumn and winter, on a small, isolated island in spring and summer, and travelling Europe and America between times. They spend the daytime apart, working (on printmaking, illustration, painting, writing), and the evenings together watching films (‘Truffaut, Bergman, Visconti, Renoir, Wilder’ (p. 28), though they also run to Chaplin and westerns). Jonna’s is the more forceful personality, the more acute judgement. So intent is she on a discussion about the superiority of watching films to socialising, that she barely registers the phone call she answers from a distressed friend whose cat has jumped out of a window in pursuit of a pigeon. Avoiding any attempt at sympathy, she gives out the number of a vet, and leaves it at that. Mari is soft hearted enough to be a little shocked at this, but Jonna’s argument applies to so much of Tove’s own work that it didn’t click that she is the Tooti character:
make no mistake: great directors know all about the irrational. You talk about things that don’t fit – they use such things, with a purpose, as an essential part of the whole. Do you know what I mean? Apparent quirkiness but with a point. They know exactly what they’re doing. (p. 31)
There are biographical clues later on which confirm this: Mari’s father was a sculptor called Viktor, and her mother founded the Swedish branch of the Girl Guides; she also receives fan mail.

[And here, I want to dart off into A Winter Book because of the wonderful ‘Messages’ chapter, which consists of short extracts from letters received by Tove from fans. My favourite is this:
Insufficient address
Father Christmas Moomin Valley.
Please give current address and surname (p. 167)
Also good is:
Dear Miss Jansson,
I have produced Moomin pictures for my home and also for profit and pleasure and placed them for sale in art galleries and kiosks bordering busy traffic routes. Now, one of my friends is saying one ought to ask permission, can this be true? If I don’t hear from you before week 5 shall go on as usual (p. 166)
 A Winter Book is largely made up of chapters from The Sculptor’s Daughter, an account of Jansson’s childhood, split up, like The Summer Book and Fair Play, into short stories or episodes which are not obviously part of a single narrative, but which add up to a sense of place(s), and of character. It is rather unfair of Sort Of Books to have included the majority but not all of The Sculptor’s Daughter’s chapters, and to have re-ordered them into winter stories (set in the city) and summer stories (on – guess what? – an island). I don’t know what order they were in originally, but if Fair Play is anything to go by, they should probably be mixed in together, with an apparent quirkiness which nonetheless has a point.]

Fair Play is playful with its clues, though. During one chapter, Jonna and Mari’s precious boat Viktoria, moored near their house, is in danger of being dashed on the rocks by a storm. They no longer have the strength to drag it up on to the shore out of harm’s way. It is the late 1980s – soon they will be too old to keep up the island house. Storms in Jansson’s fiction are brilliant because they are exciting (there are some strangers in A Winter Book’s ‘High Water’ who don’t understand how much fun storms are), and the ebbing of this pleasure is a subtly drawn tragedy. The two women talk about their fathers for comfort, and they are both called Viktor. Each talks about her own father as though they were both talking about the same man, and there is a curious blurring of their personalities.

Even in the midst of this storm, less fun than its predecessors, Jonna is able to remind Mari of what use she should put it to. Mari remarks the storm’s ‘long, humming tone’, and Jonna steps out of the moment to say:
You can use that acoustical stuff. […] You seem to work a storm into almost everything you write. Did you check the stern lines? (p. 112)
And although these two books feel utterly familiar, absolutely of a piece with The Summer Book and any Moomin story you could name, there is a difference. Art looms large in the background of both – for Tove’s parents in A Winter Book, and for Jonna and Mari in Fair Play. You have the same insistence on a certain attitude to life – non-judgemental yet critically alive, with that ‘mysterious blend of perfectionism and nonchalance’ (Fair Play, p. 22), compassionate and capricious, interested and fun. In the other books, these qualities are ends in themselves, but here they have a reason to be: work. All that matters is work.


Bits and bobs:
  • A Guardian interview with Sophia Jansson, star of The Summer Book.
  • Convolvulus (1931) by Viktor Jansson, modelled on Tove (from this page).
  • Tuulikki Pietilä / Tooti’s Super 8 films of most of the above are available on two DVDs.
  • I’m half convinced this is a practical joke, but apparently the UK premiere of Moomins and the Comet Chase is in Dundee next Saturday. Be there if you can.
Update: Moomins and the Comet Chase kept a cinema full of young folk reasonably quiet, so I think they enjoyed it, but it ditched much of the characterisation which makes the Moomin books enjoyable for adults. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but I can see why they wanted to let it tour the provinces before its west end run.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Claire Tomalin – ‘The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens’

This paperback edition has a ‘new postscript’, after the final ‘Myths and Morals’ chapter, called ‘The Death of Dickens’. He has already died once, 76 pages previously, as the result of a stroke suffered at his home, Gad’s Hill, over dinner with his sister-in-law Georgina in June 1870. The remainder of the book deals with Nelly’s fortunes afterwards, and the afterlife of the story of her association with Dickens, which continues into the 1930s and beyond, having an especially unfortunate effect on her son Geoffrey. Three months after the book’s publication, the postscript tells us, its author received a letter from the grandson of a Nonconformist minister, who had worked at a church in Peckham from 1872, and had heard from the caretaker that
Charles Dickens did not die at Gad’s Hill, as was generally supposed, but at another house ‘in compromising circumstances’. (p. 271)
Although the minister would not have known this, his church was ‘almost opposite’ Windsor Lodge, the house in which Nelly Ternan lived in 1870. From this interesting but unverifiable claim, Tomalin imagines an itinerary for Dickens’ penultimate day alive (he didn’t die until the evening of the day after the stroke), following him from breakfast at his home, via Higham station to New Cross, catching a cab from there, and spending time with Nelly, ‘perhaps [giving] her the Windsor Lodge housekeeping allowance’ (p. 277), before falling ill between one and two in the afternoon. After he had collapsed, Nelly, it is suggested, colluded with Georgina to get him secretly back to Gad’s Hill, with the help of the caretaker from the nearby church, to prevent scandal.

Tomalin makes it clear that this story is mostly supposition, but it is simultaneously, deliciously convincing. It is typical of the way the book as a whole works: facts are scarce, and gaps can be equally important. For nearly a whole year, 1867, there exists a pocket diary which Dickens kept of his day-to-day movements, and this is used to show how he divided his time into equal thirds, spending it with Nelly (using the alias Charles Tringham), with his public (he performed many readings that year), and with Georgina at Gad’s Hill, keeping up appearances. Rather odd appearances, one might think, Georgina being the sister of his estranged wife, but still, this is the version of himself he wished to project. At an earlier period, Nelly disappeared from the record for four years, during 1862-5. Tomalin’s explanation is that she was abroad, somewhere near Paris, and that she gave birth to a child who died in infancy. Michael Slater’s biography steers clear of this interpretation, and he points out that it is not known for certain whether Dickens’ relationship with Nelly was ever consummated. He’s right, but what does he expect – witnesses? (there are witnesses who confirm the existence of a child, including Dickens’ son Henry). Tomalin puts the affair in an interesting context: several of Dickens’ friends also kept mistresses, but far more openly than he was willing to do. Wilkie Collins, for instance, gave his two mistresses ‘simultaneous seaside holidays in adjacent resorts’ (p. 169). George Cruikshank and William Frith are also given as examples, not of men who indulged in dalliances, but who maintained long term relationships (and had children) with more than one woman at once. We hear about Dickens’ ‘dandy’s streak’ with a moustache and beard of which
there was nothing patrician […], rather a hint of the raffish and piratical; he didn’t look or seem old. (p. 83)
But his behaviour belied this easy going appearance. When he fell in love with Nelly, he had ‘the door between his dressing room and what had been the marital bedroom’ blocked, and we are offered this conclusion:
This is the action of a romantic, not a worldly man, who would see no harm in continuing to sleep alongside his wife, however many mistresses he might pursue or take. (p. 108)
And what of Nelly? She came into her own, briefly, in the years after Dickens’ death. Knocking 12 years off her age, she started a family and ran a school with George Robinson, a history student at Oxford ‘destined for the church’ (p. 205) until Nelly persuaded him otherwise. Here she was able to put her theatrical background to good use, for school plays and prizegivings, and for a few years she seemed to have found her niche at last. It is in the chapter ‘The Schoolmaster’s Wife and the Foreign Correspondent’ that she is happiest, and in which she comes across most vividly. For the rest of the time, there is not really enough of Nelly to justify a biography, and even here her story is bolstered by that of her sister Maria,
the merry and gentle sister, [who] emerges as the most unorthodox, both by leaving her husband and by becoming a successful career woman as a foreign correspondent. (p. 224)
The other Ternan sister, Fanny, married Anthony Trollope’s brother Tom (twenty-five years older than she was), and wrote novels. The book’s focus flits between the three of them, giving a family history more than an individual one. An earlier, pre-Dickens chapter gives the history of their theatrical careers, which never quite rose to the first rank (Nelly’s was nowhere near, but Fanny came close), and were consequently a struggle. So they didn’t object as much as they might have done to the benefactor who enabled them to become less dependent on, and eventually to leave the stage.

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