I’ve been meaning to write about Sylvia Townsend Warner here for literally years now, but to really do her any justice I need to go back and re-read many things of hers I read fairly recently. Which is hard to make myself do when I’ve got such a large pile of other, new-to-me things I’d like to get to first. (Same problem with various films, which I’d never write about after having seen only once). I will indeed do it anyhow at some point because I think it’s important, but in the meantime I see no reason not to send you off about your business without a few enticing little scraps of Sylvia to tuck in your pocket.
This first one in the series is from the short story “Furnivall’s Hoopoe,” which appears in the collection The Music at Long Verney. If you’re a New Yorker subscriber you can read it in their archives here, as it was published in their Jan. 3, 1970 issue. They published a great many Sylvia Townsend Warner stories over the years — she became very good friends with her editor there, William Maxwell, and you can and should read some of their correspondence in The Element of Lavishness — and in my opinion being able to plunder their archives at one’s leisure for her alone is well worth the cost of a subscription.
the Jan. 3, 1970 cover
There are plenty of other passages I might have opted to start off with, and loads of them where she’s doing something more dazzling in a writerly way, but this one captures some very true things about love and that’s been on my mind lately. Particularly the other day, when I found myself thinking about The Great Gatsby in connection with a food blog post (spoiler alert: it’s somehow just as depressing miniaturized and briefly outlined with clams as it is as a novel), and again just a couple of hours after I’d written it, when I found myself having a long talk with an unhappy friend about her married girlfriend. Maxwell wrote the foreword to The Music at Long Verney well after Townsend-Warner’s death in 1978 and briefly but rather heart-breakingly describes her own love troubles with her very long-term girlfriend Valentine Ackland:
Sylvia was not distressed by Valentine’s casual infidelities, but when she fell in love with a spoiled American woman who thought she might (and then again thought she might not) want to live permanently with Valentine, Sylvia suffered deeply and even made herself homeless until the crisis had passed. As she wrote a friend, ‘I was gray as a badger and never at any time a beauty but I was better at loving and being loved.”
Having read much of her work, I find her believable on this point. Fortunately the crisis did pass and they went on living together until Ackland’s death from breast cancer in 1969. Ackland opened an antiques shop in their home in 1952, which is an interesting background tidbit about The Music at Long Verney; five of its stories are set in the same (fictional) antiques shop. According to Wendy Mulford’s This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland Life, Letters and Politics, 1930-1951, Valentine and Sylvia had a routine worked out for dealing with annoying customers whereby Valentine would ring a little bell to summon Sylvia, who would then call her away for some important reason or other. Anyhow, on to the little scrap of Sylvia, which fortunately is far more economical and humorous than my introduction to it. I regret having to give it to you in two pieces but those are the breaks.
I’ve been dipping into William Hazlitt lately, The Fight and Other Writings, and liking the little I’ve read so far.
William Hazlitt self-portrait, 1802.
Here he is re: The Definition of Wit:
It is the polypus power of the mind, by which a distinct life and meaning is imparted to the different parts of a sentence or object after they are severed from each other; or it is the prism dividing the simplicity and candour of our ideas into a parcel of motley and variegated hues; or it is the mirror broken into pieces, each fragment of which reflects a new light from surrounding objects; or it is the untwisting of the chain of our ideas, whereby each link is made to hook more readily to others than when they were all bound up together by habit, and with a view to a set purpose. Ideas exist as a sort of fixtures in the understanding; they are like moveables (that will also unscrew and take to pieces) in the wit or fancy.
The world is stupider and more boring without Christopher Hitchens in it.
Here he is with his good friend Martin Amis in 1975, via the Guardian, via his memoir Hitch 22. Surely those bottles were left behind by a previous tenant.
I was appalled and infuriated by his support for war in Iraq but everything else about him was admirable and / or charming enough that I can, hmm, not overlook it, but . . . not dwell on it.
Which obit to point you to, in the unlikely event you haven’t read any yet? The one in the NYT is good. The Guardian’s struck me as more elegant and humane and I’m going to re-read it now in an effort to sort out why I thought that. They also have a nice assortment of his “most memorable bon mots” here.
Squat squat squat from Harry Mathews’s My Life in CIA. How to dance instructions from my computer. The origin of the “Watergate Squat” dance is that the protagonist must prove himself to be a poet by making up a rhyming poem on the spot, a poem which must include words selected by the host and other guests of the party: swastika, haddock, jonquil, plectrum, gardenia and farthing. He chooses to perform a squatting dance at the same time because he wants to impress a woman at the party. I am telling you this because a rainy weekend is a good time to devise new party tricks.
This and that No. 1 is here.
It’s been ages since I’ve done one of these posts. This is only the second in the series; the first is here. Today we’re going to have a look at Ballade of Boys Bathing by Frederick Rolfe, who I love. This is not a favorite poem for me and I think Rolfe’s novels are far, far more interesting than his verse, but it is interesting in a curio sense — Rolfe’s painting of the scene he describes in the poem is the same painting he puts in a place of honor on George Arthur Rose’s mantle in Hadrian the Seventh — and it fits with the briny theme this blog has lately.
As far as I can tell it does not appear anywhere else on the internet. The poem as seen below comes from my 1974 copy of Rolfe’s Collected Poems. I suspected it would also appear in my copy of Sexual Heretics: Male Homosexuality in English Literature from 1850 to 1900 and sure enough, there it is on p. 226, right after Mark André Raffalovich’s “Put on that Languor.” There is a 1972 four-page edition of the poem privately printed by “an admirer” but it looks difficult to come by.
Click on any of the pages to see them larger on Flickr.
Eh, hmm. I suppose the painting is as fit as any for a future Pope to keep on his mantle. The boys are wearing swimsuits after all so it is very chaste.
Did you know that Stephen Fry used to belong to a “a most extraordinary circle of intellectuals who met regularly in the bar of a small hotel and discussed avidly the works of Frederick Rolfe, the infamous Baron Corvo”? Apparently he did, here, have a look at this Bookride post about it. (I am linking to the cached page because I sometimes have trouble reading that blog in the more usual manner). The circle produced a zine called The Failiure Press, to which young Fry contributed crosswood puzzles. Where are all the new Corvo zines, am I writing one? Who is responsible for the crossword section and why have they been so secretive about it?
An unrelated bonus for anyone who gets nervous about very gay poetry about bare boys, here is an old photo of the Penn State homophile club having a pro-homo parade, for you to tuck away in a special place. Photo via Vintage Lesbian.
The idea is that this will be the first in an ongoing, semi-regular series of posts, and that they’ll be substantive but less formal than book reviews. I’m more interested in writing about what it’s like to read a particular book than I am in arriving at a conclusion about its quality in relation to other books. Competitions are difficult for me to get my head around, even more difficult to maintain an interest in, and who am I to decide such things anyhow?
My latest favorite is Fr. Rolfe’s Hadrian the Seventh. A novel about a Pope by an author quite obsessed with religion — “Fr.” is short for “Frederick,” who longed for priesthood and didn’t want everyone to know he’d been tossed out of the seminary — might seem like a strange choice for a life-long atheist, but very shortly after I began reading it I developed a deep, abiding affection for both the book and the titular character.
How strange they both are! Strange in the best possible way, vigorously individualistic, mind-clearingly so. Before I get to that, permit me to back up for a moment and say that although I’ve never been Catholic my family more or less is (long story), and I’ve always had an appreciation of some sort for the relics, rituals, incense, candles, etc. As a little girl I would sneak into the church at the top of my grandmother’s street to peek at the Jesus statue nearest the side door. It was the type with fairly graphic crucifixion wounds, and it was in an alcove that always felt refrigerator-cold no matter the temperature outside. The only source of light in this part of the church was votive candles in dark, blood-red glass holders, and I would go in and stand there until I was good and terrified/thrilled. Then I would dash out into the sunlight and enjoy how different the familiar surroundings looked for the first few minutes afterward, slightly dangerous in a way they never seemed to be if I was just riding my bike in figure-eights in the church parking lot. On one occasion, sometime around 2nd grade, this little routine led me to have a terrifying dream in which Jesus was driving me through a desert in an excessively air-conditioned black car with blood-red velour seats.
Ecclesiastical fashion show from Fellini’s Roma (1972), music by Nino Rota.
All of which sets an appropriately outré stage and high religious mood for the entrance of George Arthur Rose, protagonist of Hadrian the Seventh, a failed candidate for priesthood bitterly toiling away in obscurity as a hack writer, troubled by debts and disdainful of just about everyone apart from his beloved cat Flavio.
more after the jump: