Detail from Patrick William Adam’s portrait of John Miller Gray
‘Tis to rebuke a vicious taste which has crept into thousands besides herself,—of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them.—The mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions as it goes along; the habitude of which made Pliny the younger affirm, “That he never read a book so bad but he drew some profit from it.” . . . It is a terrible misfortune for this same book of mine, but more so to the Republick of Letters;—so that my own is quite swallowed up in the consideration of it,–that this self-same vile pruriency for fresh adventures in all things, has got so strongly into our habit and humours,—and so wholly intent are we upon satisfying the impatience of our concupiscence in this way,—that nothing but the gross and more carnal parts of a composition will go down:—The subtle hints and sly communications of science will fly off, like spirits, upwards;—the heavy moral escapes downwards; and both the one and the other are as much lost to the world, as it they were still left in the bottom of the ink-horn.
—Laurence Sterne, (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, p.49)
I am already imagining trees coming into leaf as I read Rowan Williams’ poem:
Under the soil, humming,
lips closed till the frequencies break cover,
Yet I don’t wish this blessedly cold winter to end, to yield to what Williams elsewhere has called the false hope of spring. But that image: the frequencies break cover is so moving.
These poems have within them a kernel of light. Although it is the first book of Williams’s poems I own, I am inordinately fond of his work through PN Review. His poems speak of his own religious experience, of his reading of poetry, of beautiful frescoes and landscapes. Each poem offers a word-clothed vision of Williams’s imaginative power.
FEOFAN GREK: THE NOVGOROD FRESCOES
Did Yeats mean this? because when sages
stand in the fire, this happens Skin
umbers and cracks and shines. And then
on hands, shoulders and skirts, the splash
and dribble; you should think the bells
have melted from their perch,
so that the roaring hollows fall, lazy as snow,
bright liquid pebbles. And then, long
after the eyes have gone, the cheekbones
gleam, razored with little scars in parallel,
the surgery of initiation, letting through
furnaces under the dun hard skin.
We slow down more and more as the heat rises; surfaces
dry up, something inside swells painfully.
The razor makes its first cut. From the oven walls,
out of the searing dusk, they smile
(not at us) blindly.
‘Who are the good people of the book?’ asks Nabokov in his dissection of Madame Bovary, a question you may well ask of Anita Brookner’s Altered States. Alan’s mother, perhaps, and more convincingly his business partner’s wife, Felicity. Brookner’s polished sentences soften the force of vengeance she brings to bear on her carefully hewn characters. After the autopsy comes the mourning that is this book’s subject.
I am pleased to read that Hermione Lee is currently working on a biography of Anita Brookner.
I now feel that this interval, which I describe to others as a holiday, is peculiarly suited to one of my temperament, which is stolid, and my history, which is not. I accept the solitude, the routines, as old people do, and although not old—fifty-five is not old these days—I being to anticipate a time when small landmarks, such as my mid-morning coffee at the Grand Café de la Place, and my walk to the station to pick up the English papers, will be appreciated, My old age will come as no surprise to me, and something tells me that I might spend it here, in this little town of Vif—a misnomer, for no place could be more somnolent—on the Franco-Swiss border.