Time, Gin, Denton and Dorothy Sayers

Given the multitude of people on social media confused by the instigation of this year’s British Summer time, we ought be thankful that William Willett’s original proposal to move the clocks forward by 80 minutes, in 20-minute weekly steps on Sundays in April and by the reverse procedure in September, was altered to the deceptively simple alternative of an hour forward in March, then reversed in October.

Mark, a reader of Time’s Flow Stemmed, kindly reminded me that Maurice Denton Welch was born on 29 March 2015. To mark Denton’s centenary I drank two gin and limes, a drink, with gin and French, that he frequently mentions in his Journals.

Like Max Sebald, Denton’s written texts comprise a seamless body of work in which he repeatedly returns to the same themes, experimenting with different forms. The Journals are a delight, patchy as any journals, but with moments of such radiance. Mark suggests that Denton’s short stories bridge the apparent leap in expressive quality between his first two novels and A Voice Through a Cloud. 

While I await delivery of a couple of collections of Denton Welch’s short stories, I’ll read an unusual book I came across in a second-hand bookshop in Cecil Court. The Passionate Intellect by Barbara Reynolds is a full-length study of novelist Dorothy L. Sayers’s fourteen year obsession with reading and translating Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve never Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, but share her fascination with Divine Comedy. 

Reynolds bases much of the book on the remarkable correspondence that Sayers exchanged with Charles Williams, at the time a much esteemed poet, essayist and critic. Sayers became absorbed with Divine Comedy after reading Williams’s The Figure of Beatrice, which I ought also to read sometime soon. Dorothy Sayers starting reading Divine Comedy in August 1944, a period Denton Welch writes of brilliantly in his Journals, when almost ten thousand buzz bombs or V-1s were fired at south-east England. Sayers writes of the hold that Divine Comedy took on her imagination:

The plain fact is that I bolted my meals, neglected my sleep, work and correspondence, drove my friends crazy, and paid only a distracted attention to the doodle-bugs, which happened to be investing the neighbourhood at the time, until I had panted my way through the Three Realms of the dead from top to bottom and from bottom to top.

I’ve never read any of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels. Should I? How about Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of the series: ghastly or noteworthy?

An Eternal Moment

I thought again of our snug place in the leaves under the fallen tree, looking out on to the rising hill with the smoky curtain of rain falling into the stiff still green bracken, and the curiously high squeaking of some solitary wood pigeons and then their gurgling coo. An eternal moment always dissolving which will yet re-occur a thousand, thousand times to a thousand, thousand other people when we are dead, who will look out in the same way through the windows in their heads and see the falling rain, the bracken, the pattern of the oak bark, and wonder, and go on wondering for years.

Denton Welch, The Journals of Denton Welch, Allison and Busby (1984)

A Balloon of Emptiness

It seems astonishing to me the leap that Denton Welch makes in A Voice Through a Cloud. His two earlier novels show a way of observing the world that often provokes and startles.

The leap Welch makes in A Voice Through a Cloud is in the clarity of access it offers, or simulates, into the mental world of his narrator. It is impossible not to be drawn deeper and deeper into the place where Denton’s perceptivity meets the characters and objects that surround his narrator. This sense of deep intersubjectivity recalls Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

I’ve just reread Welch’s rendering of the scene in which his invalid narrator meets a couple of other invalids from another care home in a blowy, seaside town. It is exquisitely described, the loneliness and isolation of long-term illness that draws these strangers together for the briefest of moments.

They both said ‘Hullo’; I was made to shake hands; there was a little sad heartiness, then nothing. We stood in a circle round a balloon of emptiness which was swelling all the time, forcing us farther and farther apart.

A page or two further, Welch’s narrator is awake in the night and hears a barking dog.

I would imagine his cry coming across the fields, the brimming icy ditches and the bare hedges glittering with black drops of water. Perhaps it came from some lonely farm where he was chained up in a cobbled yard. The chain would grate and clink like a ghost’s as he ran from side to side, barking and waiting for the answer which never came. At last his tail would curve down through his legs and he would huddle back into the dank straw in his barrel.

That balloon of emptiness and that dog’s bark waiting for the answer that never came have sufficient texture to last me for days.

Denton Welch’s Daydreams

The earlier novels are charming, filled with longing and remarkable imagery, but it is in Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud that his style and way of viewing the world come together to extraordinary effect.

His narrator, highly autobiographical, is in hospital after a horrendous road accident, and prone to daydreams that extract him from the grimness of his surroundings and the tremendous pain he experiences. Here’s a passage I have read so very many times:

In one part of the garden, behind powdery orange walls, a dirty old gardener in leather clothes worked, turning up the damp earth in soft chocolate chunks, or picking dew-sprinkled cabbage leaves, which glinted and changed from purple to grey-green as if made of shot silk. 

Out of doors my nostrils were always filled with the smell of humid earth and dank grass, and my heart with the pleasure-fear of seeing ghosts and apparitions. I would be led to explore other disused wings of the house, where dry-rot was turning the wainscot to dust, and where bird- and mouse-droppings broke the smoothness of the floor, making miniature mountains on a vast plain. In the corners of the rooms velvet bats hung upside-down, and whispering little gusts of wind, which were really evil powers and emanations, swept through the openings where doors had been brutally torn from their hinges. Spikes of wood still clung to the mangled brass. Smashed panels grinned hideously.

With Long Rests

 Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) by Ellen Riley and Cédric Charleuf (2014)

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) by Ellen Riley and Cédric Charleuf (2014)

That portrait of Gerard Hopkins in the Lit. Sup., so quiet, so thoughtful, so almost prettily devout. Strange to think that many, many years ago he actually sat in that position, with folded hands (although they are not there), with secret, slightly hooded eyes, with gentle, posed mouth and soft tongues of hair lying on his forehead, licking sleekly down beside his ear.
Then the verbose article that tells one nothing [plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose] – nothing of the secret from which his genius sprung. It is an insult to hide his secret – to pretend that he was “normal”, in other words ordinary.

The Journals of Denton Welch. Edited by Michael De-la-Noy. Allison and Busby, 1984 (1952)

Remember that its [my poetry’s] performance is not reading aloud with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical (not rhetorical) recitation, with long rests, long dwells on the rhyme and other marked syllables, and so on.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Felix Randal

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage

I resolved to read Denton Welch this year, enthused by Des’s advocacy, though the timing was determined by catching sight of a rather distinctive edition of Maiden Voyage, his first novel, in one of the Cecil Court bookshops: an American first with dust wrappers and end papers drawn by Welch.

With measured and precise description, Welch applies a loupe to people and objects. Although my copy is an American edition, I wonder whether an American reader would get the same pleasure from Welch’s empathetic observation of the nuances of that colossal curse of the English, its class system. Welch’s way of noticing the small things of life ends up creating a fictional (lightly autobiographical) world of epic proportion, one that is singularly alluring.

An extraordinary tension is set up in Maiden Voyage. As Michael Schmidt writes in his study, The Novel: “Welch’s prose is full of paradoxes, his stories of themes that are more telling for being undeclared.” The novel’s narrator often appears reserved, almost priggish, though there is a homoeroticism that almost but never quite breaks surface. It is similar to the sexual tension that suffuses Patricia Highsmith’s writing.

Maiden Voyage tells the story of a boy brought up in east Asia, after his mother’s death he is sent off to an absurd English public school, which he loathes, and from which he briefly absconds. As this storyline so exactly matches my own, I’m the ideal reader for Welch’s story. But beyond that, I am utterly compelled by his attention for small things. Elemental truths lie behind the sights, smells and sounds of apparently banal objects. Writers like Woolf, Proust and Welch sharpen our sights for things that would otherwise remain invisible to us.

The Ideology of the Trivial

Another writer, quintessentially English I believe, on my reading radar is Barbara Pym. Any Pym enthusiasts care to stoke my curiosity?

This passage from Judy Little’s The Experimental Self: Dialogic Subjectivity in Woolf, Pym, and Brooke-Rose interested me, both by its references to Denton Welch whose work I’m currently exploring and Virginia Woolf, and also because I strongly support its argument in favour of (apparently) trivial details in narrative of all kinds. I wrote yesterday of my enjoyment of an ingenious sentence using the brand colour of a (once) well-known laundry whitener, Reckitt’s Blue, to pin down in text the precise colour of the Virgin Mary’s robe.

Several times in her journals and letters, Pym records her fascination with the trivial, with the details of everyday, noncrisis activities. Referring to Denton Welch’s request for more details (about food, homes) from writers, Pym suggests that a reader is most interested in these things not because they provide sociological information but “because they are pleasing in themselves.” The everyday experience is not only interesting but valuable. Her romance writer, Catherine Olliphant, says as much in Less Than Angels:
“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things, she decided, wondering how many writers and philosophers had said this before her, the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seem and overheard”. As she suspects, other writers have indeed affirmed her pleasure in the small or trivial, it may be that Catherine is recalling Virginia Woolf. In the novels and journals, Pym several times quotes or responds to Woolf who advised in “Modern Fiction”: “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.”