Van Gogh and Britain @ Tate Britain

Before I went I’d read some disparaging reviews of this exhibition – but I found it really interesting, thought-provoking, full of wonderful paintings and prints and drawings, and making all kinds of unexpected connections. And big, much bigger than I expected.

The premise is simple: Vincent van Gogh came to live in England at the age of 20 in 1873, He lived in London for nearly three years, developing an intimate knowledge of the city and a great taste for English literature and painting. The exhibition:

  1. explores all aspects of van Gogh’s stay in London, with ample quotes from his letters to brother Theo raving about numerous aspects of English life and London – and several rooms full of the paintings and prints of contemporary urban life which he adored
  2. then it explores the development of van Gogh’s mature style and the many specific references he made back to themes and settings and motifs he had first seen in London, in London’s streets and galleries
  3. finally, the exhibition considers the impact van Gogh had on British artists
    • as a result of the inclusion of his pictures in the famous 1910 exhibition Post-Impressionist Painting
    • between the wars when van Gogh’s letters were published and fostered the legend of the tormented genius, the man who was too beautiful and sensitive for this world
    • and then how van Gogh’s reputation was further interpreted after the debacle of the Second World War

Gustave Doré

The first three rooms deal with the London that van Gogh arrived in in 1873. Among the highlights was a set of seventeen prints from Gustave Doré’s fabulous book London, a pilgrimage, which had been published only the year before, 1872. All of these are marvellous and the first wall, the wall facing you as you enter the exhibition, is covered with an enormous blow-up of Doré’s illustration of the early Underground.

The Workmen’s Train by Gustave Doré (1872)

Frankly, I could have stopped right here and admired Doré’s fabulous draughtsmanship and social history, as I could at the wall covered with seventeen of the prints from the book which we know van Gogh owned and revered. It’s the basis of the first of many links and threads which run through the show because, many years later, when van Gogh had developed his mature style but had also developed the mental illness that was to plague him, during his confinement in a mental hospital, he was to do a faithful copy of Doré’s depiction of inmates in Newgate prison to express his own feelings.

The prison courtyard by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Social realism

Van Gogh had come to London because he had got a job at the art dealer Goupil, which was part of the fast-growing market for prints and art reproductions which were informally referred to as ‘black and whites’. Van Gogh ended up with a collection of over 2,000 of these English prints, and admired them for their realistic depictions of contemporary urban scenes, especially among the poor. I was fascinated to learn that there was a set of socially-committed artists who all drew for The Graphic magazine, including Luke Fildes, Edward Dalziel, Frank Holl, and Edwin Buckman. The exhibition includes quite a few black and white social realist prints by artists from this circle and, as with the Doré, I could have studied this stuff all day long.

A London Dustyard by Edwin Buckman, from the Illustrated London News, 1873

The curators related these blunt depictions of London life back to the novels of Charles Dickens, who we know van Gogh revered (in this instance the rubbish dump motif linking to the dust yard kept by the Boffin family, the central symbol of his last, finished novel, Our Mutual Friend). As Vincent was to write during his first year as a struggling artist:

My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw.

But these illustrations by numerous London artists are also here because Vincent copied them. Next to the Buckman image of a dustyard is a graphite sketch of dustmen by Vincent. Next to a Luke Filde image of the homeless and poor, is a van Gogh drawing of a public soup kitchen.

A Public Soup Kitchen by Vincent Van Gogh (1883) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Other images include one of surly roughs waiting for the pub to open and a hooligan being arrested. Next to them all are van Gogh’s own earliest sketches and drawing, including a series he did of a homeless single mother begging on the streets, Sien Hoornik, who he took in and fed and had model for him (fully clothed) in a variety of postures of hopelessness and forlornness. And variations on the theme of tired, poor old men.

This is the Vincent who set his heart on becoming a vicar and did actually preach sermons at London churches, as well as crafting skilled sketches of churches in the letters he sent to brother Theo, and which are displayed here.

The example of old masters

But it wasn’t just magazine and topical illustration which fired Vincent’s imagination. The curators have also included a number of big classic Victorian paintings – by John Constable and John Millais among others – to give a sense of what ‘modern’ art looked like to the young van Gogh.

He was not yet a painter, in fact he didn’t know what he wanted to be. But the curators have hung the sequence, and accompanied them by quotes from letters, to show that, even in his early 20s, he was an acute observer of other people’s art, not only Victorian but other, older, pictures he would have seen at the National Gallery.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) © The National Gallery, London

Several of these classic paintings depict an open road between a line of trees and, as the room progresses, the curators have hung next to them van Gogh’s later depictions of the same motif, showing early versions of the motif done in a fairly rudimentary approach, the oil laid on thick and heavy and dark…

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn by Vincent van Gogh (1884) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

And then next to these, suddenly, we have the first works of his mature style in which his art and mind have undergone a dazzling liberation.

Path in the Garden of the Asylum by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The triumph of distortion

One of the things you can see evolving is his depiction of faces. Early on, he’s not very good. There’s a set of faces of what look like jurymen, as well as individual portraits of working men and women, and often they are either expressionless blocks, or a bit cack-handed, a bit lop-sided. Even the numerous sketches of Sien Hoornik are better at conveying expression through the bent posture of her body, than through facial expressions which are often blurred or ignored.

Similarly, you can’t help noticing that the early landscapes like the avenue of poplars, above, very much lack the suave painterly finish and style of his models (Constable, Millais).

But what happens as you transition into room four – which covers his move to Paris to be near his brother in 1885 – is a tremendous artistic and visual liberation, so that the very wonkiness and imperfections in his draughtmanship which were flaws in the earlier works, are somehow, magically, triumphantly, turned into strengths. The blockiness, the weakness of perspective, the lack of interest in strict visual accuracy, have suddenly been converted into a completely new way of seeing and of building up the image, which feels deeply, wonderfully emotionally expressive.

Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Room four makes fleeting reference to the community of like-minded artists he found working around Paris, and in particular to Pissarro, exponent of what was being called neo-Impressionism.

It seems quite obvious that van Gogh was very influenced by the Frenchman’s experiments with chunks and blocks, and spots and dabs and lines of pure colour. The painting above combines the strong formal outlines redolent of the black and white Victorian prints he revered so highly, with a new approach to filling in the outlines – not with a consistent smooth finish à la Millais – but a completely new idea of filling the space with disconnected lines of paint, the artist quite happy to leave blanks between them, quite happy to let us see them as isolated lines all indicating colour and texture.

The curators link this technique back to the cross-hatching used to create volume and shape by the Victorian print-makers and illustrators. So one way of thinking about what happened is that Vincent transferred a technique designed for print making to oil painting. What happens if you don’t create a smooth, finished all-over wash of colour, but deliberately use isolated lines and strokes, playing with the affect that basic, almost elemental short brushstrokes of mostly primal colours, create when placed next to each other.

It has a jazzy effect, creates a tremendous visual vibration and dynamism. the image looks like it is quivering or buzzing.

The Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition

To be honest, by this stage my head was buzzing with the fabulous images of Doré and Fildes and the other British illustrators, and van Gogh’s similarly social realist depictions of the poor, the old, prostitutes and so on and the way the early social realist paintings had morphed into a series of paintings of outdoor landscapes. I felt full to overflowing with information and beauty. But there was a lot more to come.

Suddenly it is 1910 and room five is devoted to the epoch-making exhibition held in London and titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists by the curator Roger Fry. As with Doré’s underground image at the start, the curators have blown up a page from a popular satirical magazine of the time, depicting the dazed response of sensible Britishers to the outlandish and demented art of these foreign Johnnies and their crazed, deformed, ridiculously over-coloured paintings. A number of Vincent’s paintings were included in the show and came in for special scorn from the philistine Brits.

This amusing room signals the start of part two of the show which looks at van Gogh’s posthumous influence on a whole range of native British artists.

This second half is, I think more mixed and of more questionable value than the first half. We know which British artists and illustrators van Gogh liked and admired and collected, because he gave their names and his responses in some detail in his letters.

As to the influence he had after his death, this is perforce far more scattered and questionable. Thus room six introduces us to paintings by Walter Sickert, leader of the Camden Town school (whose work I have always cordially hated for its dingily depressing dark brown murk), to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (bright Bloomsburyites), and to Matthew Smith, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman.

The Vineyard by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

It’s impossible to place any of these artists on the same level as Vincent. Amid the sea of so-so also-rans, the scattered examples of works by van Gogh ring out, shout from the walls, proclaim the immensity of his genius, the vibrancy of design, colour and execution. Like an adult among children.

That said, there’s quite a lot of pleasure to be had from savouring these less-well-known British artists for their own sakes. I was particularly drawn to the works of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore. Here is Gore’s painting of Gilman’s house. It doesn’t have a lot to do with van Gogh, does it, stylistically? Apart from being very brightly coloured.

Harold Gilman’s House at Letchworth, Hertfordshire by Spencer Gore. Courtesy of New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Similarly, I really liked Gilman’s picture of the inside of a London caff, focusing on the decorative wallpaper and bright red newel posts, and a sensitive portrait titled Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. The curators relate this latter painting back to Vincent’s vivid, warts-and-all portraits, which also contain highly decorative elements and stylised wallpaper, a garish brightness which scandalised critics of the 1910 show.

Maybe. It’s a good painting, he conveys the old woman’s character in a sober, unvarnished way and the use of decorative elements is interesting. But only a few yards away is hanging one of five or six drop-dead van Gogh masterpieces of the show, the Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889), and there is absolutely no competition.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Hammer Museum collection

Good God, hardly anything you’ve ever seen before explodes with such power and vibrancy as this painting. The brown earth, the green grass, the writhing trees and the very air seem to have burst into flames, to be erupting and leaping with energy, fire, ecstasy, fear, manic force.

Although there are a number of other, milder, more discreet landscapes by Vincent, when he is in this manic mood he wipes everybody else off the table, he dominates the dancefloor, he takes over the room, while the others are playing nice tunes on their recorders, he is like a Beethoven symphony of colour and expression, full of tumult and vision.

The impact of sunflowers

Emotionally and intellectually exhausted? I was. But there’s more. A whole room devoted to sunflowers. Pride of place goes to one of his most famous paintings, the sunflowers of 1888, and I was fascinated to learn from the wall label that van Gogh’s still lifes contributed to a major revival of the art of painting flowers. There are ten or a dozen other paintings of sunflowers around this room, by a whole range of other artists (of whom I remember Winifred and William Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Frank Brangwyn and Jacob Epstein). One of the Brits is quoted as saying that the painting of flowers had been more or less dismissed by the moderns, as having come to a dead end in Victorian tweeness and sentimentality. Until Vincent’s flower paintings were exhibited in the 1920s.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) © The National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s flower works showed that flowers could be painted in an entirely new way, blazing with colour and passion, wildly undermining traditional canons of beauty, revealing the passionate secrets implicit in the shapes and patterns of nature.

In a work like this you see a pure example of his exploration of colour for its own sake, a post-Impressionists’ post-Impressionist, the sunflowers not only being a blistering depiction of the flower motif, but a highly sophisticated and daring experiment with all the different tones of yellow available to the artist in 1888. So much to do, so much to paint, so much experience implicit in every fragment of God’s beautiful world!

Van Gogh’s reputation between the wars

By the 1920s van Gogh’s works were being exhibited regularly in Britain and snapped up by private collectors. He became famous. The process was helped hugely by the publication in English translation of his vivid, passionate and tormented letters. The life and the works became inextricably intertwined in the myth of the tortured genius. The curators quote various writers and experts between the wars referring to Vincent’s ‘brilliant and unhappy genius’.

However, this room of his last works makes a simple point. For a long time it was thought that the painting he was working on when he shot himself on 27 July 1890 was ‘Wheatfield With Crows‘. Forests have been destroyed to provide the paper for oceans of black ink to be spilt publishing countless interpretations which read into this fierce and restless image the troubled thoughts which must have been going through the tormented genius’s mind on his last days.

Except that the display in this room says that the most recent research by Vincent scholars have conclusively proven that it was not his last painting. the painting he was working on when he shot himself was a relatively bland and peaceful landscape painting of some old farm buildings.

Farms near Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) © Tate

The point is – there’s nothing remotely tormented about this image. The aim is – to debunk the myth of the ‘tortured’ artist and replace it with the sane and clear-eyed artist who was, however, plagued by mental illness.

Phantom of the road

This point is pushed home in the final room which examines van Gogh’s reputation in Britain after the Second World War. All his works, along with all other valuable art had been hidden during the war. Now it re-emerged into public display, including a big show at Tate in 1947.

In the post-war climate, in light of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, the legend of the tormented genius took on a new, darker intensity. The curators choose to exemplify this with a raft of blotchy, intense self-portraits by the likes of David Bomberg which, they argue, reference van Gogh’s own striking self portraits.

But this final room is dominated by a series of paintings made by the young Francis Bacon in which he deliberately copies the central motif of a self-portrait Vincent had made of himself, holding his paints and easel and walking down a road in Provence.

Bacon chose to re-interpret this image in a series of enormous and, to my mind, strikingly ugly paintings, three of which dominate one wall of this final room.

Study for portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon (1957) Tate © The Estate of Francis Bacon

They are, in fact, interesting exercises in scale and colour, and also interesting for showing how Bacon hadn’t yet found his voice or brand. And interesting, along with the Bomberg et al in showing how the legend of tormented genius was interpreted in the grim grey era of Austerity Britain.

And they show what a very long journey we have come on – from the young man’s early enthusiasm for Charles Dickens and Gustave Doré right down to his reincarnation as a poster boy for the age of the H-bomb.

A bit shattered by the sheer range of historical connections and themes and ideas and visual languages on show, I strolled back through the exhibition towards its Victorian roots, stopping at interesting distractions on the way (some of Harold Gilman’s works, the big cartoon about the Post-Impressionist show, some Pissarros, the Millais and Constable at the beginning, the wall of Dorés), but in each room transfixed by the one or two blistering masterpieces by the great man.

Even if you didn’t read any of the wall labels or make the effort to understand all the connections, links and influences which the curators argue for, it is still worth paying to see the handful of staggering masterpieces which provide the spine for this wonderful, dazzling, life-enhancing exhibition.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1888) Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grtand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

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Something of Myself by Rudyard Kipling (1937)

At any rate it went into the Weekly, together with soldier tales, Indian tales, and tales of the opposite sex. There was one of this last which, because of a doubt, I handed up to the Mother, who abolished it and wrote me; Never you do that again. But I did and managed to pull off, not unhandily, a tale called ‘A Wayside Comedy,’ where I worked hard for a certain ‘economy of implication,’ and in one phrase of less than a dozen words believed I had succeeded.

I made my own experiments in the weights, colours, perfumes, and attributes of words in relation to other words, either as read aloud so that they may hold the ear, or, scattered over the page, draw the eye. There is no line of my verse or prose which has not been mouthed till the tongue has made all smooth, and memory, after many recitals, has mechanically skipped the grosser superfluities.

Introduction

Kipling began work on this short autobiography in August 1935 as he approached his seventieth birthday. Although he didn’t know it, he had barely six months left to live. In her diary his wife, Caroline (‘Carrie’), wrote that the aim was to ‘review his life from the point of view of his work’. Kipling died in January 1936 but his widow thought the text complete enough to be made public and, after an unknown amount of editing by herself and one of Kipling’s oldest friends, it was published in February 1937.

The Kipling Society have made available online an introductory essay to the book by Thomas Pinney which is very balanced and informative. One of its main points is the way the autobiography completely omits huge areas of his life – not drawing a veil over his early love affairs (as you might expect) but mention of such important events as his young daughter’s tragic death in 1899 (from pneumonia aged just 6) and his 18-year-old son’s death in the Great War.

Pinney points out that Something of Myself contains a number of factual errors, as well as several striking places Kipling gives way to anger and bitterness about corruption, for example (unjustly, apparently) accusing his newspaper proprietors of taking bribes. He also highlights the several places where Kipling really lambasts American culture and society.

Something of Myself is, Pinney concludes, the work of ‘a man writing at the end of a life that had been devoted to so many causes by then defeated or discredited’.

Yes. But there are also many, many revealing passages which shed invaluable light on Kipling’s life, on his formative boyhood experiences and on his own practice as a writer. Foremost among these is the horrifying account of the brutality he was subjected to when his parents left him in England, aged just 6, at the house of a couple who had a track record of looking after Indian ex-pats’ children while they went to English prep school, but who turned out to be sadistic bullies. This was probably the defining experience of Kipling’s life and it is told in grisly enough detail.

For me the two lasting impressions of the book are

a) Wonder – Kipling’s own childish wonder at so many beautiful and fascinating aspects of the world  he moved through, and my wonder at the carefree confidence with which he travelled all round the world, living in India, America, South Africa, seeing sights and sounds and smells, building cabins and observing local animals and people – what a life he had!
b) Compressed On the down side, it has, like so many of his later stories, been worked over and over, sub-edited, pared away and compressed so that quite often it is a little difficult to grasp what he’s talking about: in some places, even after careful rereading, it’s in fact impossible to understand what he’s saying. In works of fiction this has a mysterious, deepening affect; but in a work of fact it repels and distances the reader. You long for the clarity of Charles Carrington’s wonderfully lucid and informative biography.

Something of Myself is divided into eight chapters:

  1. A Very Young Person 1865 – 1878 (toddler years in Bombay and then the horror of being abandoned in England to the ‘care’ of a sadistic landlady)
  2. The School Before Its Time 1878 – 1882 (bumptious account of life at the United Services College, a boarding school for sons of Indian Army officers, and the basis of Kipling’s schoolboy stories about Stalky and Co)
  3. Seven Years’ Hard (return to India where, at age 17, he began gruelling work on a small local newspaper, The Civil & Military Gazette, exposed to the harsh world of British soldiers and the professionals who kept the Empire working)
  4. The Interregnum (arrival back in London in 1889, after his seven years apprenticeship, with a portfolio of stories and poems about India which instantly make his name, the London music halls inspiring the Barrack-Room Ballads)
  5. The Committee of Ways and Means (1892 marriage to Caroline ‘Carrie’ Balestier and move to Vermont in America, where he wrote The Jungle BooksCaptains Courageous and much patriotic poetry)
  6. South Africa (Kipling was very involved in The Boer War 1899-1902, moving to South Africa to work on a newspaper for the troops, distributing goods and treats to soldiers, seeing action, hobnobbing with leading British Imperialist, including Cecil Rhodes)
  7. The Very–Own House (the final move to ‘Bateman’s in Sussex, family home for the rest of his life, with loving details of the local scenery and population)
  8. Working–Tools (a fascinating insight into his methods and techniques of composition)

Themes

As with so many of his later short stories, the telling is so compressed and allusive that you read and reread certain passages but still have the sense that you’ve missed something. So much is implied, and so little explicitly stated. Many of the most repeatable stories are familiar from other books, most notably Charles Carrington’s definitive biography, or have been recycled in introductions or footnotes to various editions. Many themes emerge:

Muslims Being raised in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan, Kipling is much more familiar with Muslims than Hindus. Throughout his work are many Muslim characters who are examples of rectitude and duty. Of all the gods, Allah is mentioned a surprising number of times through the book; the second sentence reads:

‘Therefore, ascribing all good fortune to Allah the Dispenser of Events, I begin’.

And then:

It pleased Allah to afflict H—- in after years…

Our native Foreman, on the News side, Mian Rukn Din, a Muhammedan gentleman of kind heart and infinite patience, whom I never saw unequal to a situation, was my loyal friend throughout.

There were ghostly dinners too with Subalterns in charge of the Infantry Detachment at Fort Lahore, where, all among marble-inlaid, empty apartments of dead Queens, or under the domes of old tombs, meals began with the regulation thirty grains of quinine in the sherry, and ended – as Allah pleased!

There is, or was, a tablet in my old Lahore office asserting that here I ‘worked.’ And Allah knows that is true also!

Those were great and spacious and friendly days in Washington which — politics apart — Allah had not altogether deprived of a sense of humour.

The word ‘Allah’ is clearly used not as by a devout Muslim, but as an indication of ‘God’, of the power that rules the cosmos, in a way which (typically of Kipling) can be ironic, playful, deprecating, but hints at a fundamental seriousness. In fact, throughout the book Kipling takes a fatalistic though optimistic view of his own life, emphasising that many things happened through Fate, with little or no input from himself. He talks again and again about Fate dealing him certain cards, the cards being presented to him, so as to make various decisions (of subject matter and books and ideas) obvious and unavoidable.

Sensual descriptions Not something you associate with Kipling, but richly wrought descriptions are to be found throughout his work, especially in the frame sections of the stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, and there are sweet touches of it here;

I have always felt the menacing darkness of tropical eventides, as I have loved the voices of night-winds through palm or banana leaves, and the song of the tree-frogs…

There were far-going Arab dhows on the pearly waters, and gaily dressed Parsees wading out to worship the sunset…

Servants Rich Europeans had armies of servants at this time; even a not-very-successful writer like Henry James appears to have had a butler, a housekeeper and a cook. But in the Empire white men were waited on hand and foot in a way which Europeans found astonishing, and which is inconceivable to us today. As a toddler Kipling had an ayah and a bearer, and was raised in an atmosphere where his clothes were held out for him to get into, his baths were run for him, and even doors were opened in front of him and closed behind him by permanently present servants. Kipling was brought up with servants to do everything. As he wrote of his life in India:

Till I was in my twenty-fourth year, I no more dreamed of dressing myself than I did of shutting an inner door or – I was going to say turning a key in a lock. But we had no locks. I gave myself indeed the trouble of stepping into the garments that were held out to me after my bath, and out of them as I was assisted to do. And – luxury of which I dream still – I was shaved before I was awake!

World of wonder Difficult to convey if you haven’t read it, but his autobiography, like his work, gives a fantastic, exciting, boyish sense of the size and scale and wonder of the world. There’s the sights and sounds and smells of India itself; then of the P&O liner back to England; a train journey across the Egyptian desert. Even in grim Portsmouth, the old sea captain in whose care the 6-year-old Kipling was placed, had fought at the naval battle of Navarino (1827) and been disabled by becoming tangled in a harpoon line while whale fishing. He takes the boy to see amazingly romantic old wooden sailing ships at Portsmouth Hard, including one which had sailed up into the Arctic Circle!

Later, in the 1890s, after an apparent nervous breakdown in London, Kipling goes to recuperate on an extraordinary Cook’s tour across the world, sailing in a steamer to Madeira, on to South Africa, then across the Indian Ocean to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, back to southern India and by train up to Lahore to see his parents and childhood home one last time, before returning to London.

Here he marries Carrie Balestier (1892) and then – embarks on another awesome honeymoon voyage, sailing west to America, taking trains across Canada to Vancouver, then right across the Pacific to Japan. Wow. And then back to the States and right across the continent to New England where the young couple settle into a primitive one-story cottage, equipped only with an elementary stove and one hot pipe, living in what today would be incredibly primitive surroundings (and in fact sounding strikingly like Robert Louis Stevenson and his bride’s honeymoon in North California, as described in The Silverado Squatters.)

Brilliant details Kipling makes the world seem exciting and strange and full of vivid, standout details. Somehow, not being imprisoned by the clutter of gadgets which hem in our modern lives, Kipling’s boyish imagination seems to have been freer to observe and wonder. Take his description of what he saw as a child roaming the Victoria and Albert Museum with his sister:

We roved at will, and divided the treasures child-fashion. There were instruments of music inlaid with lapis, beryl and ivories; glorious gold-fretted spinets and clavichords; the bowels of the great Glastonbury clock; mechanical models steel – and silver-butted pistols, daggers and arquebusses – the labels alone were an education; a collection of precious stones and rings – we quarrelled over those – and a big bluish book which was the manuscript of one of Dickens’ novels. That man seemed to me to have written very carelessly; leaving out lots which he had to squeeze in between the lines afterwards. These experiences were a soaking in colour and design with, above all, the proper Museum smell; and it stayed with me.

And even the most humdrum accounts are enlivened by the bright detail or the telling phrase.

We parted, my Captain and I, after a farewell picnic, among white, blowing sand where natives were blasting and where, of a sudden, a wrathful baboon came down the rock-face and halted waistdeep in a bed of arum-lilies.

On one trip our steamer came almost atop of a whale, who submerged just in time to clear us, and looked up into my face with an unforgettable little eye the size of a bullock’s.

By pure luck, I had sight of the first sickening uprush and vomit of iridescent coal-dusted water into the hold of a ship, a crippled iron hulk, sinking at her moorings.

Tourists may carry away impressions, but it is the seasonal detail of small things and doings (such as putting up fly-screens and stove-pipes, buying yeast-cakes and being lectured by your neighbours) that bite in the lines of mental pictures.

My verses (The Absent-minded Beggar) had some elements of direct appeal but, as was pointed out, lacked ‘poetry.’ Sir Arthur Sullivan wedded the words to a tune guaranteed to pull teeth out of barrel-organs.

Anti-American All over the world he rambled and admired, except for America. The fifth chapter is striking for its sustained attack on the vulgarity, hypocrisy, violence, bad manners and criminality of American society.

I never got over the wonder of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their continent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed that they were a godly little New England community, setting examples to brutal mankind.

And always the marvel – to which the Canadians seemed insensible – was that on one side of an imaginary line should be Safety, Law, Honour, and Obedience, and on the other frank, brutal decivilisation; and that, despite this, Canada should be impressed by any aspect whatever of the United States.

His time in Vermont ended badly, harassed by the growing resentment of the locals who just didn’t like a Limey making money and living among them, with anti-British feeling prompted by a political crisis between the two countries over a border dispute in far away Belize (!), and was exacerbated when Carrie and Kipling fell out badly with her alcoholic sponging brother, who lived nearby. The family argument came to a head when the drunk brother threatened to kill Kipling, who unwisely took him to court – an American court. Kipling’s testimony, name and reputation were dragged through the mud by the American gutter press. It was at this point the Kiplings realised they had to leave, and retreated to Britain. But Kipling obviously never forgave America for hounding him out of the house he had helped to build and where he spent the happiest and formative years of his marriage, and where he reached new heights of creativity with the Jungle Books.

The Burne-Jones household It was of vital importance to him as a boy that he was able, once a year at Christmas, to escape from the house of torment and bullying in Portsmouth to the household of his mother’s sister, Georgiana in Fulham. Georgiana was married to the pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones, and ran a wonderfully bohemian household where the leading artists and writers of the day – Tennyson, Browning, William Morris – would call round and have dinner – where writing and art and story-telling were all encouraged and understood. The Burne-Jones connection provided a psychological and imaginative lifeline to the beaten and abused little boy and he continued his adoration of his uncle and aunt, moving to be near them when they moved to Sussex, until their deaths.

It is a vital component of Kipling’s make-up: on the one hand the violence of the Portsmouth household, and then of a fierce boarding school, and then the harsh realities of work in India – on the other, the very loving, supportive and creative environment of his artist father, and the astonishingly arty Burne-Joneses.

Violence It is hard to comprehend the Dickensian level of violence Kipling was subjected to as a boy. He and his sister were sent to England to board with a Mrs Holloway and her sea captain husband in Portsmouth. From here he was tutored by a series of governesses and then sent to prep school. Mrs H turned out to be a tyrant and beat and thrashed the young Kipling repeatedly for every sin and slightest misdemeanour, a woman of narrow Evangelical beliefs who called on God and the Bible as she whipped the little boy. Then in the evenings, their 12 or 13-year-old son, with whom Kipling shared a room, would also beat the daylights out of him.

I have known a certain amount of bullying, but this was calculated torture – religious as well as scientific.

He refers to her as ‘The Woman’ and the place as ‘The House of Desolation’ and gives examples not only of the countless beatings, but the deliberate humiliations. One day, being caught out concealing a bad school report, he was made to wear a big placard on his back spelling ‘LIAR’ and walk through the streets of Portsmouth. When ‘The Son’ is big enough to get a job, Kipling learns to listen intently to the sounds of his footsteps re-entering the House of Desolation at the end of the day, being able to deduce just from the sound of the tread, whether The Son had had ‘a bad day’ and was therefore liable to beat Kipling. It was systematic child abuse on an awesome scale.

Then there was the boarding school he was sent to at age 13, the United Services College.

My first year and a half was not pleasant. The most persistent bullying comes less from the bigger boys, who merely kick and pass on, than from young devils of fourteen acting in concert against one butt.

Not only was there lots of bullying, and fighting even among friends, but also systematic corporal punishment which readers nowadays find hard to imagine.

The penalty for wilful shirking [of sports] was three cuts with a ground-ash from the Prefect of Games. One of the most difficult things to explain to some people is that a boy of seventeen or eighteen can thus beat a boy barely a year his junior, and on the heels of the punishment go for a walk with him; neither party bearing malice or pride.

But it made him what he was.

Nor was my life an unsuitable preparation for my future, in that it demanded constant wariness, the habit of observation, and attendance on moods and tempers; the noting of discrepancies between speech and action; a certain reserve of demeanour; and automatic suspicion of sudden favours.

It also, according to his critics (especially the mid-century sage Edmund Wilson in his psycho-analytical essay about Kipling) left an enduring stain across Kipling’s work, in a compulsive need to have his characters behave just that bit too violently, too aggressively, too sadistically, too vengefully, even in his ‘comedies’, which often leave an unpleasantly bitter taste of revenge and humiliation.

Craft and art In his last years at school he was grateful to the head for giving him free run of the library and taking him on for extra lessons, especially in précis, the quick summarising of other people’s texts: this was to be invaluable when he returned to journalism aged only 17, and the chapter describing his seven years’ hard labour on the Punjab newspaper emphasises the incredible hard work and long hours and dedication required. Here he gained his lifelong commitment to work, to honest labour, seen as the defining moral virtue. He was, from an early age, attracted by words and rhythms and patterns and sounds… but combined this with a tremendous ability to hold a subject or idea in his head and work it over for days or weeks on end, in his head and on paper.

Most men properly broke to a trade pick up some sort of workshop facility which gives them an advantage over their untrained fellows. My office-work had taught me to think out a notion in detail, pack it away in my head, and work on it by snatches in any surroundings.

There are extended passages about the importance of weighing and judging and deploying words.

My young head was in a ferment of new things seen and realised at every turn and – that I might in any way keep abreast of the flood – it was necessary that every word should tell, carry, weigh, taste and, if need were, smell.

Professionals Chapter three describes the long hours, day after day, working as one of the only two staff on the Civil and Military Gazette, the daily newspaper of the Punjab. The only place of entertainment was the Punjab Club and it was here that the young journalist found himself precociously thrown into the company of professional men, acquiring an admiration for men who do things which never left him.

In that Club and elsewhere I met none except picked men at their definite work — Civilians, Army, Education, Canals, Forestry, Engineering, Irrigation, Railways, Doctors, and Lawyers — samples of each branch and each talking his own shop. It follows then that that ‘show of technical knowledge’ for which I was blamed later came to me from the horse’s mouth, even to boredom.

It is here that Kipling acquired the journalist’s enthusiasm for facts facts facts, for a full grasps of the technical and geographical and administrative background for his stories, which never left him and which critics have been harsh on.

I was almost nightly responsible for my output to visible and often brutally voluble critics at the Club. They were not concerned with my dreams. They wanted accuracy and interest, but first of all accuracy.

The range of experiences he was exposed to was extraordinary and colourful.

Later I described openings of big bridges and such-like, which meant a night or two with the engineers; floods on railways – more nights in the wet with wretched heads of repair gangs; village festivals and consequent outbreaks of cholera or small-pox; communal riots under the shadow of the Mosque of Wazir Khan, where the patient waiting troops lay in timber-yards or side-alleys till the order came to go in and hit the crowds on the feet with the gun-butt (killing in Civil Administration was then reckoned confession of failure), and the growling, flaring, creed-drunk city would be brought to hand without effusion of blood, or the appearance of any agitated Viceroy; visits of Viceroys to neighbouring Princes on the edge of the great Indian Desert, where a man might have to wash his raw hands and face in soda-water; reviews of Armies expecting to move against Russia next week; receptions of an Afghan Potentate, with whom the Indian Government wished to stand well (this included a walk into the Khyber, where I was shot at, but without malice, by a rapparee who disapproved of his ruler’s foreign policy); murder and divorce trials, and (a really filthy job) an inquiry into the percentage of lepers among the butchers who supplied beef and mutton to the European community of Lahore.

Goals and ambitions There is a fascinating account of how his thinking developed in his first year of spectacular success in London. At first it was sufficient for the young man to make a big stir and, in the words of a music hall acquaintance, ‘knock ’em over’. But quite quickly he realised this wasn’t enough and, slowly, it dawned on him that he had a sort of duty to show the ignorant hypocritical English something of the world beyond their shores and something of the men and women to all corners of the earth who laboured long and hard to preserve Little Englanders in their peace and wealth – all those hard-working dedicated professionals back in India.

Their [his parents’] arrival simplified things, and ‘set’ in my head a notion that had been rising at the back of it. It seemed easy enough to ‘knock ’em’— but to what end beyond the heat of the exercise?… In the talks that followed, I exposed my notion of trying to tell to the English something of the world outside England – not directly but by implication… Bit by bit, my original notion grew into a vast, vague conspectus – Army and Navy Stores List if you like – of the whole sweep and meaning of things and effort and origins throughout the Empire.

It is fascinating to learn that the idea of justifying the British Empire, systematically, was an actual conscious thought-out strategy. What an ambition!

The strain of India And yet, among all his other contradictions, there is the constant awareness of the psychological cost of serving abroad. It wasn’t all servants and stiff upper lips. Men went mad from the heat and strain, and there is throughout Kipling’s fiction a sense of men right on the edge of complete nervous collapse.

One must set these things against the taste of fever in one’s mouth, and the buzz of quinine in one’s ears; the temper frayed by heat to breakingpoint but for sanity’s sake held back from the break; the descending darkness of intolerable dusks; and the less supportable dawns of fierce, stale heat through half of the year… Though I was spared the worst horrors, thanks to the pressure of work, a capacity for being able to read, and the pleasure of writing what my head was filled with, I felt each succeeding hot weather more and more, and cowered in my soul as it returned.

It happened one hotweather evening, in ‘86 or thereabouts, when I felt that I had come to the edge of all endurance. As I entered my empty house in the dusk there was no more in me except the horror of a great darkness, that I must have been fighting for some days. I came through that darkness alive, but how I do not know.

In the joyous reign of Kay Robinson, my second Chief, our paper changed its shape and type. This took up for a week or so all hours of the twenty-four and cost me a break-down due to lack of sleep.

The tendency to nervous prostration followed him to England and dogged the rest of his life.

But in all this jam of work done or devising, demands, distractions, excitements, and promiscuous confusions, my health cracked again. I had broken down twice in India from straight overwork, plus fever and dysentery, but this time the staleness and depression came after a bout of real influenza, when all my Indian microbes joined hands and sang for a month in the darkness of Villiers Street.

A lot that is clipped and understated and repressed and tight about Kipling must stem from this constant need to keep a harsh rein on the ever-present threat of hysteria and nervous collapse.

The uncanny Related to this note of psychological strain, is Kipling’s persistent eye for the weird and uncanny. He has an unnerving eye for the tellingly macabre detail.

Nor did I know that near our little house on the Bombay Esplanade were the Towers of Silence, where their Dead are exposed to the waiting vultures on the rim of the towers, who scuffle and spread wings when they see the bearers of the Dead below. I did not understand my Mother’s distress when she found ‘a child’s hand’ in our garden, and said I was not to ask questions about it. I wanted to see that child’s hand.

The dead of all times were about us — in the vast forgotten Muslim cemeteries round the Station, where one’s horse’s hoof of a morning might break through to the corpse below; skulls and bones tumbled out of our mud garden walls, and were turned up among the flowers by the Rains; and at every point were tombs of the dead. Our chief picnic rendezvous and some of our public offices had been memorials to desired dead women; and Fort Lahore, where Runjit Singh’s wives lay, was a mausoleum of ghosts.

[In London] Once I faced the reflection of my own face in the jet-black mirror of the window-panes for five days. When the fog thinned, I looked out and saw a man standing opposite the pub where the barmaid lived. Of a sudden his breast turned dull red like a robin’s, and he crumpled, having cut his throat. In a few minutes — seconds it seemed — a hand-ambulance arrived and took up the body. A pot-boy with a bucket of steaming water sluiced the blood off into the gutter, and what little crowd had collected went its way.

Night walking As a result of his childhood beatings in the House of Desolation in Portsmouth, Kipling thinks he must have had a nervous breakdown, and this turns out to be the first of many. When finally rescued from the House of Desolation and brought by his Mother to a boarding house in West London, he takes to what will become a lifelong habit of insomnia and wandering the streets wide awake through the night till dawn.

I did not know then that such nightwakings would be laid upon me through my life; or that my fortunate hour would be on the turn of sunrise, with a sou’-west breeze afoot.

Often the night got into my head as it had done in the boarding-house in the Brompton Road, and I would wander till dawn in all manner of odd places-liquor-shops, gambling-and opium-dens, which are not a bit mysterious, wayside entertainments such as puppet-shows, native dances; or in and about the narrow gullies under the Mosque of Wazir Khan for the sheer sake of looking. Sometimes, the Police would challenge, but I knew most of their officers, and many folk in some quarters knew me for the son of my Father, which in the East more than anywhere else is useful.

The writing

Style and phrases I dislike Kipling’s lifelong fondness for cod-Biblical or medieval expressions, or just old-fashioned phraseology – ‘whereupon’, ‘verily’, ‘ere’, ‘whereby’, ‘otherwhiles’, ‘forthwith’ – which I think mars lots of his prose:

We possessed a paradise which I verily believe saved me…

Often and often afterwards…

My eyes went wrong, and I could not well see to read. For which reason I read the more and in bad lights…

After my strength came suddenly to me about my fourteenth year, there was no more bullying; and either my natural sloth or past experience did not tempt me to bully in my turn. I had by then found me two friends…

My House-master was deeply conscientious and cumbered about with many cares for his charges. What he accomplished thereby I know not…

I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not…

Rider Haggard would visit us from time to time and give of his ample land-wisdom… When Rider Haggard heard these things, he rested not till he had made the Colonel’s acquaintance.

Which things are a portent.

Sparkling phrases On the other hand, cheek by jowl with the irritating archaisms, go sudden bursts of verbal life and insight.

… the Uncle got inside the rugs and gave us answers which thrilled us with delightful shivers, in a voice deeper than all the boots in the world….

Hence our speed to our own top-landing, where we could hang over the stairs and listen to the loveliest sound in the world — deep-voiced men laughing together over dinner.

The country was large-boned, mountainous, wooded, and divided into farms of from fifty to two hundred barren acres. Roads, sketched in dirt, connected white, clap-boarded farm-houses, where the older members of the families made shift to hold down the eating mortgages.

Clipped, crabbed and obscure The eighth and final chapter, devoted to the craft of writing, is vital. Lots is conveyed in this chapter, but particularly the power of leaving out. The presence of the omissions, the presence of the absences, is something he learned as early as the writing of the Plain Tales and which characterises all his work, including this very compressed autobiography.

A tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked. One does not know that the operation has been performed, but every one feels the effect.

He gives a section of clear explicit advice about how to winnow and prune and pare your drafts back to the bone, let them lie, and then do it again, paring away away a\way till you are left with the essentials.

Take of well-ground Indian Ink as much as suffices and a camel-hair brush proportionate to the inter-spaces of your lines. In an auspicious hour, read your final draft and consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening. Finally, read it aloud alone and at leisure. Maybe a shade more brushwork will then indicate or impose itself. If not, praise Allah and let it go, and ‘when thou hast done, repent not.’ The shorter the tale, the longer the brushwork and, normally, the shorter the lie-by, and vice versa. The longer the tale, the less brush but the longer lie-by. I have had tales by me for three or five years which shortened themselves almost yearly.

Which sounds wise and good in theory, but in practice it gives rise to things like the following anecdote.

Occasionally one could test a plagiarist. I had to invent a tree, with name to match, for a man who at that time was rather riding in my pocket. In about eighteen months – the time it takes for a ‘test’ diamond, thrown over the wires into a field of ‘blue’ rock, to turn up on the Kimberley sorting-tables – my tree appeared in his ‘nature-studies’ name as spelt by me and virtues attributed. Since in our trade we be all felons, more or less, I repented when I had caught him, but not too much.

How much of that did you understand? How much are you meant to understand? And any reader of Kipling’s, even devoted fans like Charles Carrington, freely admit that there are some stories which are clipped back so far as to be almost incomprehensible.

Conclusion

Underpinning so much of Kipling’s prose is an irrepressibly exuberant, boyish enthusiasm, even when he’s at his most crabbed and mannered in style, and unpleasant in attitude. It’s the strange combination of all these qualities, the good and the bad, which make the later stories, particularly the ones in Credits and Debits, so powerful and unsettling.

Elusive, crabby, deliberately neglecting huge subjects, dwelling on trivia, you can accuse Something of Myself of various sins – but it was his life and he had a perfect right to write about it as he pleased. And on the plus side, it is full of absolutely vital, irreplaceable biographical information – Charles Carrington confesses that his (definitive) biography would have been incomparably poorer without the hundred telling details which Something of Myself includes.

It’s a relatively short book and required reading for anyone who wants to understand or get a fuller flavour of this strange, unpleasant, jovial, weirdly imaginative and hugely important writer.


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Other Kipling reviews

The Aspern Papers by Henry James (1888)

I can arrive at the papers only by putting her off her guard, and I can put her off her guard only by ingratiating diplomatic practices. Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance.
(Chapter I)

The Aspern Papers was published in three parts in the March to May 1888 editions of The Atlantic Monthly, and published in book form in London and New York later in the same year. It is a novella in nine chapters.

What I know about James

Surprisingly, shamefully, for an English graduate, I’d never read any Henry James before. Tried on various occasions but never managed to make any headway. Obviously I know about his position as, in many people’s opinion, the novelist, the peak and acme of the evolution of the novel as an art form.

One reason for this is that James really thought through the problem of point-of-view in the novel; he reacted against the casually, comically all-seeing authorial voice of the mid-Victorian novelists like Dickens and Thackeray or Wilkie Collins, and experimented in different works with what happens when the narrator’s point of view of the events described in the text is restricted and limited – as, of course, it is in ‘real life’.

Alongside his experiments with the handling of subject matter, I also know James is famous – or notorious – for his convoluted prose style: that it evolved from the already nuanced and crafted style of the 1880s towards its apotheosis of length and complexity in his trilogy of great works – The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), where a single sentence can sometimes last over a page.

This is the ‘late style’ that many readers find literally incomprehensible. In David Lodge’s two historical novels – Author, Author and A Man of Parts, both of which feature Henry James – even loyal James fans freely admit that they never managed to finish any of his Big Three novels. So I am not alone in finding reading his books a challenging experience.

The Aspern Papers belongs to James’s ‘middle period’, roughly 1885 to 1900, and so significantly before the challenging Late Style had arrived.

Thus my fore-knowledge and what anybody, frankly, could pick up by reading any article about James online.

The plot

The plot, like many of James’s plots, was elaborated from an anecdote he was told at one of the many social occasions he attended (as a confirmed bachelor with a wide circle of friends) and it does have a slightly fleshed-out feel.

An unnamed American narrator is a passionate devotee of a (fictitious) American poet, Jeffrey Aspern who flourished and died in the early part of the 19th century. He and an English colleague, Cumnor, are ‘bringing Aspern’s work to light’ which I took to mean publicising, maybe even editing, his works for a newly interested reading public.

They have learned that a lady to whom Aspern devoted numerous poems is still living, 60 years later, living in a run-down house in Venice, going under the name of Miss Bordereau, with a young lady companion.

Cumnor writes to ask if Miss Bordereau has any memorabilia of the great man and she fobs him off. Whereupon the unnamed narrator picks up the story and describes his campaign to rent rooms in the ladies’ big Venice town house, inveigle his way into their affections, and get his hands, by hook or by crook, on the letters and memorabilia of the Great Poet which he is convinced – without real definite evidence – that she must possess.

He travels to Venice where he takes a middle-aged American lady friend, Mrs Prest, into his confidence about his campaign. Then he takes a gondola to their address, knocks and presents himself. He meets the young miss and the old lady and spins them a line about how he’s fallen in love with the lovely garden attached to the house and it’s just the place for him to spend the summer on his vague and undefined ‘literary projects’. So he persuades them to let him some rooms on the upper floor at an exorbitant rate, gets his people to move in furniture, pays a gardener to overhaul the house’s garden, plant flowers, set up an arbour where he can sit planning his next move.

Their paths rarely cross for weeks, but on several key occasions the narrator encounters young Miss Tita in the newly renovated garden and they have tremulous, vague and sometimes difficult to understand conversations, but which lead the narrator eventually to be invited into the ladies’ rooms where he scans the furniture for hiding places for the much-longed-for Aspern papers.

On a successive occasion he goes down to their rooms expecting to meet with Miss Tita again and, finding their door on the latch, goes into their living rooms unaccompanied and is poised to open wardrobe which is the likeliest hiding place of the papers, when he hears a gasp and turns to see the wizened, witch-like Miss Bordereau standing in her doorway with an accusing stare.

I never shall forget her strange little bent white tottering figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, her expression; neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned, looking at her, she hissed out passionately, furiously:
‘Ah, you publishing scoundrel!’ (chapter VIII)

She collapses backwards into the arms of Miss Tita. the narrator flees the scene, packs his bags, and spends weeks travelling in a blur of confusion around Italy, viewing grubby pictures in smoky churches and staying in cheap hotels, his mind in a ferment.

Eventually he returns to Venice and revisits the house, only to find that Miss Bordereau has passed away, probably from the shock of his intrusion, and has been buried. Miss Tita greets him and there is a long conversation in which it seems to emerge a) that there definitely are papers, lots of papers, from Miss B’s long-ago relationship with Aspern b) that Miss B asked Miss Tita to burn them but she hasn’t. And then it sort of emerges, from Miss Tita’s stammering, hesitant broken sentences, that she promised Miss B not to give away the papers but that if, somehow, the narrator and she were one, were united, legally, then what was hers would automatically become his and – … and with horror, the narrator realises that Miss Tita is saying she will hand over the papers if he will marry her.

‘I have found nothing of the sort — she destroyed it. She was very fond of me,’ Miss Tita added incongruously. ‘She wanted me to be happy. And if any person should be kind to me — she wanted to speak of that.’
I was almost awestricken at the astuteness with which the good lady found herself inspired, transparent astuteness as it was and sewn, as the phrase is, with white thread. ‘Depend upon it she didn’t want to make any provision that would be agreeable to me.’
‘No, not to you but to me. She knew I should like it if you could carry out your idea. Not because she cared for you but because she did think of me,’ Miss Tita went on with her unexpected, persuasive volubility. ‘You could see them — you could use them.’
She stopped, seeing that I perceived the sense of that conditional — stopped long enough for me to give some sign which I did not give. She must have been conscious, however, that though my face showed the greatest embarrassment that was ever painted on a human countenance it was not set as a stone, it was also full of compassion. It was a comfort to me a long time afterward to consider that she could not have seen in me the smallest symptom of disrespect.
‘I don’t know what to do; I’m too tormented, I’m too ashamed!’ she continued with vehemence. Then turning away from me and burying her face in her hands she burst into a flood of tears. If she did not know what to do it may be imagined whether I did any better. I stood there dumb, watching her while her sobs resounded in the great empty hall. In a moment she was facing me again, with her streaming eyes. ‘I would give you everything — and she would understand, where she is — she would forgive me!’ (Chapter IX)

The narrator is overcome with confusion and rushes out the door, down into his gondola and tells his gondolier to go anywhere, everywhere, to go far away, and he is spirited all over Venice, his mind in a turmoil.

We are right at the end of the story now, for the next day the narrator returns to find Miss Tita oddly transformed and transfigured by his rejection. But they have barely begun speaking before she reveals that, in light of his rejection of her, she has been up all night burning the papers and now every single one has been destroyed!

Impressions

1. Upper class These are very upper-class personages and so their entire upbringing and worldview is very limited and very polite. Having never done manual work or carried out any practical, day to day tasks – they have servants to do all that – the focus of their narrow lives has been on registering minute flickers of meaning in carefully nuanced conversations. And so the text focuses on subtle dialogue, the characters’ interpretations of the dialogue, the characters’ interpretations of each other’s interpretations of the dialogue, and so on.

In our day the internet, twitter and email have accelerated the whole 20th century’s tendency to make communication quicker, more focused, punchier. To give James a chance you have to make a mental effort to cast yourself back to a long lost time of aristocratic leisureliness and the culture of an upper-middle-class which was brought up to be – or at least give the impression of being – untroubled by material concerns.

2. The characters are Americans in Europe and so running through the text is a surprisingly crass keenness to show off their local knowledge and familiarity. The very setting – Venice – makes a statement about the cultural and social expectations of all parties i.e. living at the highest pitch of European culture and civilisation. James is keen to show off his familiarity with the lingo and so almost every page contains Italian vocabulary (carefully noted and translated in the Penguin edition):

  • piano nobile – first floor
  • felze – cabin at the back of a gondola
  • padrona di casa – landlady
  • scagliola – little chips
  • forestieri – foreigners
  • serva – maid
  • contadina – peasant woman
  • pifferaro – piper
  • passeggio – stroll, promenade
  • capo d’anno – New Year’s Day
  • giro – stroll

This keenness to show off reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s enthusiasm to drop into French or Italian or Spanish forty years later. The American author’s need not to be mistaken for one of those ghastly American tourists, to show that he is infinitely above crude sight-seeing, that he is one of those who knows Italy (Paris, Spain etc) remains consistent over time.

3. Seeing the sights An aspect of tourist anxiety is James’s keenness to show off his knowledge about the sights. ‘I know all about Venice,’ the text says. ‘Darling, I virtually invented Venice.’

I forget what I did, where I went after leaving the Lido and at what hour or with what recovery of composure I made my way back to my boat. I only know that in the afternoon, when the air was aglow with the sunset, I was standing before the church of Saints John and Paul and looking up at the small square-jawed face of Bartolommeo Colleoni, the terrible condottiere who sits so sturdily astride of his huge bronze horse, on the high pedestal on which Venetian gratitude maintains him. The statue is incomparable, the finest of all mounted figures, unless that of Marcus Aurelius, who rides benignant before the Roman Capitol, be finer: but I was not thinking of that; I only found myself staring at the triumphant captain as if he had an oracle on his lips. The western light shines into all his grimness at that hour and makes it wonderfully personal. But he continued to look far over my head, at the red immersion of another day—he had seen so many go down into the lagoon through the centuries—and if he were thinking of battles and stratagems they were of a different quality from any I had to tell him of. (Chapter IX)

The narrator of course drops into Florio’s, the famous café, on St Marks Square. He of course knows what is the best drink to partake of at that time of day. He is, naturally, a connoisseur.

4. Imprecision Although James namedrops the tourist highlights of Venice and the Lido, and knows the Italian word for various things, he is surprisingly unprecise about things. I was very struck by the vagueness of his description of the old palace where the two ladies live, struck at his lack of interest in architectural details. Later the narrator looks out over the rooftops of Venice and gives a general impression of the view. I began to realise that the text focuses on the feelings and impressions of the participants and glosses or floats over the actual details of the external world, the kinds of precise details of build, design, feature and functionality that I enjoy in prose.

5. Lack of ideas I was surprised and then, on reflection, not  so surprised, to come across no ideas at all in the story. This lack of ideas is epitomised in what is presumably an ironic moment in the story where the narrator and the aged Miss Bordereau come face to face for the first time. The naive and simple Miss Tita has settled down to watch an exchange between Giants of Intellect, a distillation of the essences of these two extraordinary souls, a dialogue of superior beings.

Miss Tita sat down beside her aunt, looking as if she had reason to believe some very remarkable conversation would come off between us.
‘It’s about the beautiful flowers,’ said the old lady; ‘you sent us so many—I ought to have thanked you for them before. But I don’t write letters and I receive only at long intervals.’
She had not thanked me while the flowers continued to come, but she departed from her custom so far as to send for me as soon as she began to fear that they would not come any more. I noted this; I remembered what an acquisitive propensity she had shown when it was a question of extracting gold from me, and I privately rejoiced at the happy thought I had had in suspending my tribute. She had missed it and she was willing to make a concession to bring it back. At the first sign of this concession I could only go to meet her. ‘I am afraid you have not had many, of late, but they shall begin again immediately—tomorrow, tonight.’
‘Oh, do send us some tonight!’ Miss Tita cried, as if it were an immense circumstance.
‘What else should you do with them? It isn’t a manly taste to make a bower of your room,’ the old woman remarked. (Chapter VI)

So. The ‘remarkable conversation’ turns out to be bickering about the flowers which the narrator for a while sent the ladies and then got bored and stopped. Not exactly Plato and Socrates.

6. Crudities I was also surprised, in a text which seemed to go to such pains to emphasise its good breeding and aloofness, by other instances of crudity and bathos. The entire story is itself rather crude – young man on the make uses his wiles to cheat and deceive an avaricious old lady and her simple-minded companion. Not a nice story.

There’s an odd rhythmic pattern which I noticed happening several times, whereby pages and pages of static and clotted dialogue or of the narrator’s long-winded ratiocinations, would suddenly be interrupted by an abrupt and surprisingly melodramatic moment. The sudden appearance of the old lady like a ghost in her doorway, startling the intruding narrator – quoted above – is a good example of the text suddenly switching from being a long, rather dreamlike stream-of-consciousness flowing to – bang! – a sudden Edgar Allen Poe-like eruption of apparently corny histrionics.

On a micro level the same is true. From everything I’d read I expected James’s style to have a consistent smoothness of long-drawn-out rumination and ponderousness. So I was surprised that, quite regularly, the prose dropped into rather obvious proverb or cliché. Here the narrator has returned after his week or so away from Venice, is revisiting Miss Tita and has just learned that Miss Bordereau is dead.

It came over me for the moment that I ought to propose some tour, say I would take her anywhere she liked; and I remarked at any rate that some excursion—to give her a change—might be managed: we would think of it, talk it over. I said never a word to her about the Aspern documents; asked no questions as to what she had ascertained or what had otherwise happened with regard to them before Miss Bordereau’s death. It was not that I was not on pins and needles to know, but that I thought it more decent not to betray my anxiety so soon after the catastrophe. (Chapter IX)

‘Pins and needles’? I have no objection to this and the other demotic phrases scattered around the text, just that I was surprised to come across them and discover that it is not at all written on an airlessly high aesthetic note.

If it was all perceived and written in the same slow, long-winded dreamlike style it would be easy to relax into the meandering narrative and drift along with it. But there are these regular moments of suddenness which bring you up short: another example would be when, after pages and pages of the narrator speculating how he will manage his conversation with the old lady at their first meeting, she surprises him by raising the issue of money and quite bluntly asking for a large sum of money in rent. Oh.

So the effect isn’t of a sustained high style – something like Walter Pater’s aesthetic style or Oscar Wilde’s shiny surfaces. It is of a text which moves between a number of registers, sometimes with surprising abruptness, of long dialogues you have to read twice to properly understand them, leading up to someone saying:

‘Did you mean francs or dollars?’ (Chapter III)

It was not the much-vaunted loftiness of his style but the strange mongrel mix of tones and registers which I found most striking and memorable about this story.


Credit

I read it The Aspern Papers in the 1984 Penguin paperback edition but it is freely available online.

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