I reread Mrs. Dalloway, conventionally Mrs Dalloway, without the full stop, on the front cover in England, but with on the title pages and thereafter. It is, I believe, the first book I read by Woolf. I’ve never forgotten the passage in which one first meets Miss Kilman, her colossal egotism and self righteousness, her monstrous libido sublimated into religious fanaticism. It is extraordinary writing and testament to Woolf’s capacity for capturing character with a few lines.
When I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time, I took copies of the book to press into the hands of a few friends. Only one of them had read it. One other was to become, just like me, an unconditional “Woolfian”. It was the Kilman passages that I marked and then read to them, savouring that moment when Miss Kilman and Clarissa ‘assess each other’s bodies in class terms’. Remarkable, yes, but also undeniably cruel as Woolf can be to her minor, symbolic characters.
Demeter rejoiced, for her daughter was by her side.
On a return flight from Glasgow today I read Elaine Showalter’s introduction to a new paperback edition of Mrs Dalloway. I mustn’t have read Woolf’s famous essay called Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, for I hadn’t come across the sentences of Woolf that she quotes.
Showalter writes, “Woolf warned, readers would have to get used to ‘a season of fragments or failures.’ They would have to be patient, to tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure.’ But their patience would be rewarded, for, she predicted, ‘we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature.'” It was surely true of Woolf’s writing, but turned out to be a spasm not an age. Soon enough we would return, not that we truly left, to the age of the nineteenth century novel, now mostly packaged in shorter and shorter bites for the consumption of weary workers seeking solace.
At home I came across another quote that made its mark. In the third of his journals, Mircea Eliade cites Paul Tillich as saying: “At whatever age one loses one’s mother, one remains an orphan forever. This is not the case with the death of the father.” I know from Tillich’s biography that he repressed his mother’s death and did not speak of her to anyone. My father refused to talk of my mother after her death, and I was, I think, ten or eleven years of age before a kindly aunt first raised the subject. Tillich biographers, Wilhelm and Marion Pauck wrote, “He sought her forever after in every Demeter or Persephone he pursued.”
Pessoa (possibly) and Crowley
A few weeks ago my daughter and I were in Portugal, primarily to learn more about Maria Gabriela Llansol’s writing and life. We visited Lisbon, Sintra and Cascais. I was amused to learn that Aleister Crowley was there too in 1930. He had been invited by the eccentric poet, Fernando Pessoa, whose work I once liked very much. Crowley, mystic, Satanist, fascinated me for a brief period when I was a teenager when, via Jung, I was drawn to the occult.
We saw in Cascais a chasm below a high, overhanging cliff, known locally as Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell), a favourite place for suicides. It was here, appropriately, that Crowley staged a suicide, leaving a note, weighted down by a cigarette case, recorded in his diary as: ‘I cannot live without you. The other Boca do Inferno will get me—it won’t be as hot as yours.’ In reality he had left Portugal and rejoined his lover, Hanna Jaeger, in Berlin. Pessoa played along, writing about Crowley’s ‘mysterious disappearance’ for local newspapers, even claiming to have seen Crowley’s ghost a day or two later.
Yesterday, a superb day, though already unpleasantly warm. For the second time I go to the Bonnard exhibition. This morning I found my notebook entry from 14 February 1998 about the last Bonnard exposition in London. I was more easily satisfied then. I find pleasure in the high-key broken colour palette, but unlike twenty years ago, it is now the gracefully decomposing still-lives I find most mesmerising.
Looking through my photographs of Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Lisbon library I spotted Stefan Zweig’s Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky book. I’ve read little of Zweig, deterred mostly by the scale of his oeuvre. Being a completist I have an irrational nervousness about being drawn to writers with monstrous bodies of work, also an idea that if he wrote so much, a lot of it must be mediocre. Surely? I read enough of the Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky book online to be compelled to reread Le Père Goriot (Dr. Krailsheimer’s ‘generally accurate’ translation) until 4:00 A.M. Devoted to Balzac in my twenties, and on my fourth or fifth reading of Goriot, it fascinates me how my reading of Balzac has changed since my youth; how much more real his creations seem now I’ve met such ambitious, venal people outside of literature.
In the Isabella Plantation, I read Mircea Eliade’s Journal I, 1945 – 1955 (translated by Mac Linscott Ricketts). Sitting on the bench in the sunshine, in this quiet woodland garden, surrounded by the first flowering of the Japanese azaleas, sensing for the first time the imminence of another summer. Where is it that Dostoevsky writes of the possibility of our realising a form of existence which one could consider “heaven” on earth? Later I looked it up, but at the time I was pleased not to have brought my mobile, and given in to the urge to follow my train of thought online. I stayed in the moment and was able to spot a Kirin, the pale, pink flower within a flower.
Mircea Eliade’s Journal is mainly a series of everyday reflections on books, artists, memories of Romania and observations on life in Paris during the post war days. They are intelligent and precise, and I’d like to read all four volumes, and perhaps his autobiography, being interested to know more about his time in Asia. If you know Eliade’s work, perhaps you could suggest what of his work is worth reading. I realise that I’ve lost interest in stories, preferring fragmented narratives, journals, works of philosophy and poetry.
What is it of Mathias Énard’s prose that is so beguiling? The latest to be translated into English by Charlotte Mandell, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, is made up of straightforward declarative sentences, smoothly plotted and without the tortured density of novels like Zone or Compass.
I’d been reluctant to read this latest, despite being bewitched by each of the three previous novels published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, disliking historical fiction by instinct with its strained effort to recreate period. Énard’s story is more of a mood piece, avoiding the tedium of historical documentation. There is a quiet immensity to his story; though crammed with impressions, Énard imposes a form on his material that heavily filters his research through a mediating intelligence.
What I am left with is a dark vitality, a sequence of quiet passages that celebrate the reticent beauty of Istanbul (Constantinople), and an artist’s endeavours. Énard makes the period and city palpable because, as in the other novels, he writes so effectively about distance—those distances between lovers and would-be lovers, achievement and ambition, and that between pride and humility.
Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887).
There are times when my reading goes into a self-cancelling tail-spin, most often when a book sends me off tracking allusions and word origins. A single word can lead me to multiple volumes in the grip of excited etymologising.
Many curious words turn out be rather dull etymologically, but occasionally there are the thrills of the exotic. Fernando Pessoa writes, “After I’ve slept many dreams, I go out to the street with eyes wide open but still with the aura and assurance of my dreams.”
Although the etymology of aura is quite diverse, it commonly refers to the perceived halo surrounding an object or figure. Russian occultist, Madame Blavatsky, whose disciples included William Yeats, defined aura as a “subtle invisible essence or fluid that emanates from human and animal bodies and even things,” or, “a psychic effluvium.” Walter Benjamin used the word differently in his essays on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, writing of its protagonist, Prince Mishkin, “he is surrounded in a quite unobtrusive way by an aura of complete isolation.”
Surprisingly its origin is not from the Latin auris, from which we get aural, even though a less common use of aura is to describe the premonitory sensations that come before an epileptic fit, with occasional auditory hallucinations such as hearing music of words. Dostoevsky wrote of “ecstatic aurae” preceding his first epileptic seizure and recurring verbal and nonverbal auditory hallucinations, including the sound of someone snoring. (Freud controversially argued that Dostoevsky suffered not from epilepsy, but neurosis.) My OED asserts that aura is from Greek and Latin for breath and breeze. We could be said to breathe aura, to absorb it into our body, which is how Pessoa appears to embark on his walk, sustained by his dream aura.