Silas Marner Day 25: literature makes history disappear

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Inlua flourishing in the Old English Garden at Calderstones, 7 July

This morning, after my days with mind-bending Traherne, I’m returning to the solidity of Silas Marner. I’ve been reading Silas very slowly here (search ‘Silas Marner) intermittently for a few months, and have this is my twenty-fifth session on it.  Writing ‘Silas Marner Day 25’ in the title of this post made me think about the reality of such a reading in a group: on a weekly basis, that’s half a year!  But a Shared Reading session would cover more ground than I do here, wouldn’t it?  Yes, probably.  But not necessarily. Slowing down is key part of Shared Reading and why would you want to rush this?

But there’s a hard balance between  deep thinking, or what might be called personal reflection, and the story. ‘Get on with story!’ said Terry, a young man living in a hostel, in one of my early groups. We were reading Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce and had stopped to talk about life after death. Terry was so frustrated  by the diversion of our  talk that he picked the book up and started trying to read the next chapter. Terry couldn’t read. But his desperation for ‘what happens next’ provoked him into a serious attempt.

Everyone feels that need for continuing the narrative and it is easy to agree to the forward pull.  I don’t myself plan in advance what I am going to stop and talk about  in a Shared Reading session, I just read and see what happens, see how the mood and the meaning take me. But I stop a lot. I would hardly make any progress with the story. So many sentences offer the opportunity of  meaningful thought, and that’s what I want to bring about in my groups.

So here we are at the opening of chapter fourteen. Molly has brought her child to Raveloe, Godfrey Cass has denied (to himself)  his  paternity, the child has ended up with Silas, and Silas wants to keep it.

There was a pauper’s burial that week in Raveloe, and up Kench Yard at Batherley it was known that the dark-haired woman with the fair child, who had lately come to lodge there, was gone away again. That was all the express note taken that Molly had disappeared from the eyes of men. But the unwept death which, to the general lot, seemed as trivial as the summer-shed leaf, was charged with the force of destiny to certain human lives that we know of, shaping their joys and sorrows even to the end.

Would you stop here, so close to the beginning of the chapter, with everyone only just settling to their tea and biscuits? I would. I want to think about  people who might disappear from view and no one notice. I want to think about the ‘unwept death’.  And I want to think are we really as different from the Victorians as we think we are? That couldn’t happen now, could it – that a woman and child would have no social connectors? That a woman could appear as a lodger or a tenant for a short while and then disappear? that no note would be taken when two humans disappear ‘from the eyes of men’? Worse than that, it could not still be the case that such a death might seem  ‘as trivial as the summer-shed leaf’, could it?

For me, in leading a Shared Reading group who are reading this book, a key aim would be to make links with the human experience, so that we wouldn’t think of the characters, the author, as somehow different to ourselves. I want to make making links between ‘now’ and ‘then’. A key aim in my leadership of the group is to make Raveloe, and the entire world of Silas Marner deeply recognisable, here and now. I perform or call for translations into our  own language. Do we still have pauper’s burials now we have the welfare state? We do, and they are called public health funerals.

A question I might want to ask to slow things down is:What is moving in those opening lines, which bit is most like poetry?  I hop someone will find the word ‘unwept’, and we will have the chance to talk about the prefix ‘un’ – it gives us the verb, ‘wept’, but it takes it away. It makes us feel the loss of no one to cry for her.

Now I read on:

Silas Marner’s determination to keep the “tramp’s child” was matter of hardly less surprise and iterated talk in the village than the robbery of his money. That softening of feeling towards him which dated from his misfortune, that merging of suspicion and dislike in a rather contemptuous pity for him as lone and crazy, was now accompanied with a more active sympathy, especially amongst the women. Notable mothers, who knew what it was to keep children “whole and sweet”; lazy mothers, who knew what it was to be interrupted in folding their arms and scratching their elbows by the mischievous propensities of children just firm on their legs, were equally interested in conjecturing how a lone man would manage with a two-year-old child on his hands, and were equally ready with their suggestions: the notable chiefly telling him what he had better do, and the lazy ones being emphatic in telling him what he would never be able to do.

Lots of stuff here!  Oh dear, how ever will we finish this book, with me wanting to stop every ten lines. But really – worth noticing two human psychology things here, way before the discipline, through the  practice and writing of William James, was born. George Eliot is brilliant at noticing and recording how humans work.

In this paragraph, first how groups change their behaviour, second how individuals take a positive or negative stance. Taking the first of these first. Silas was an outcast; people began to ‘soften’ towards him when he was robbed. the village had got to the point where it had merged ‘suspicion and dislike in a rather contemptuous pity for him as lone and crazy’.

No one would call that sympathy, yet George Eliot nearly does. She refers back to this state when she says it was  ‘now accompanied with a more active sympathy’. Does ‘more active’ imply that the previous state of feeling  towards him was an inactive sympathy? Can contemptuous pity change into  more active sympathy? If so, hurray! We need to understand how and why.  What is pity? What is sympathy? ( I look them up in the  online etymological dictionary – they are deeply connected at root) How do we distinguish those things, and how – why – do they merge into each other?

These are useful  social questions for a group of humans to ask, in a world where ‘diseases of despair’ , as The Times calls them this morning are rising at such an alarming rate.

The next  point is about a distinction between ‘notable’ or ‘lazy’ mothers – a distinction bound to get some people’s backs up.  I’m sure I am a lazy one and have nothing to  protect on that score. But leave motherhood aside for a moment – because it’s painful to be critcised there, for many.  Aren’t lots of humans, let us say at work, ‘notable’ or ‘lazy’? Isn’t that a  natural bell curve distribution in any field?

What’s interesting is how George Eliot jumps to the nub of things in a way that contemporary psychology would  recognise. The ‘notable’ believe things can be done. Those who are ‘lazy’ believe things can’t be done.  What I love is how both groups are united in the slightly malicious pleasure they take in imagining a man dealing with a two-year old child. That conversation is taking place right now as a  real  twenty-first century woman plans a weekend away with her girlfriends. ‘Let’s see how he gets on.’ Well, we will. Silas is becoming a single parent dad, which not what we think of when we think of a Victorian stereotype.

 

Just finished: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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I’d heard  good things about this novel from various sources but it was  seeing Barack Obama’s recommendation that tipped me into buying it – on  my  Kindle on the way to the  airport. But I wished I had a paper book version, as I wanted to move back and forth in the novel, reread, go back over sections… that’s not so easy  in a kindle reading.

All the same, a  terrific read,  full of anguish, horror – how could it not be, most of the story  coming from the southern slave states…but also great humanity, bravery: Cora, the  slave who escapes and runs and runs, epitomises the powerful  will to survive and find freedom. The book takes the metaphor of the underground railroad – a network of people  willing to help escaping slaves make their way to the north –  and turns it into a reality, a real railroad, really underground, by which Cora is able to cross what I think was both time and space – and take the reader  through many experiences of  many black people. So you read many horrors and much inhumanity and sheer lazy stupidity  but also moments of great strength, love and beauty. I was particularly moved by the account of communal life on the Valentine farm:

Work needn’t be suffering, it could unite folks. A bright child like Chester might thrive and prosper, as Molly and her friends did. A mother raise her daughter with love and kindness. A beautiful soul like Caesar could be anything he wanted here, all of them could be: own a spread, be a schoolteacher, fight for coloured rights. In her Georgia misery, she had pictured freedom and it had not looked like this. Freedom was a community labouring for something lovely and rare.

Here Cora finds a library  and  reads the lives of all black people:

Cora read the accounts of slaves who had been born in chains and learned their letters. Of Africans who had been stolen, torn from their homes and families, and described the miseries of their bondage and then their hair-raising escapes. She recognised their stories as her own. They were the stories of all the coloured people she had ever known, the stories of black people yet to be born, the foundations of their triumphs.

People had put all that down on paper in tiny rooms.

I thanked Colson  Whitehead for putting all that down on paper.

I’ll be buying a paper book version as soon as I get home and reading it again.

http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2016winner_f_whitehead-underground-railroad.html#.WWsSQojys2w

Silas Marner Day 14: False hope, real shock

 

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Albertine Rose Buds and the Sky at 6.00am, 4 June

I had a marvellous day of reading yesterday at  the Ashoka Headquarters on Old Ford Road,  Bethnall Green, London. twelve of us spent the day reading parts of Jeanette Winterson’s powerful memoir and meditation on inner life, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, and some poems by a favourite poet of hers, and mine, George Herbert.  It was  really pleasing at the end of the day to hear several group members talking about going off right now to find a bookshop where they could buy Winterson’s book. I think everyone enjoyed an intense reading experience and the personal reflection and reality thrown up by the Herbert poems and Jeanette’s memoir. I really began to think: we need a weekend of this, not just a day.

Thanks to all participants – I really enjoyed reading in your company! Thanks also to Ashoka, for hosting and to Camilla for staying with us and participating in such a lively and engaged way. Thanks to colleagues at The Reader who made it happen.

I’ll be doing a version of the day (same reading materials, though something different will happen because there will be different people present) here in Liverpool on 15th June.

Reading some Silas Marner today. Use the search box to find the back issues which lead us to this point. We’re in chapter three and learning about Godfrey Cass, who at twenty-six and with a bad life mistake controlling his future, is growing bitter.

The yoke a man creates for himself by wrong-doing will breed hate in the kindliest nature; and the good-humoured, affectionate-hearted Godfrey Cass was fast becoming a bitter man, visited by cruel wishes, that seemed to enter, and depart, and enter again, like demons who had found in him a ready-garnished home.

What’s the story? He got involved with woman who is an addict, and ‘a movement  of compunction’ prompted him to marry her (we presume she has had a child). Now he can’t marry the only person who could him  become a better man (Nancy Lammeter).  The mix of kindness, good humour, affectionate-heartedness and the thing that is not mentioned here – is  weakness or stupidity or bad luck? –  has created the second half of the sentence – bitter, cruel and demons.  this is a man who can’t now stand face to face with himself, so must be distracted and amused:

What was he to do this evening to pass the time? He might as well go to the Rainbow, and hear the talk about the cock-fighting: everybody was there, and what else was there to be done? Though, for his own part, he did not care a button for cock-fighting.

Chapter four opens with a  bit of horse dealing, and goes on to the death of Wildfire. I’m reading on, getting through the story, aiming for whatever the ‘what matters’ is, wherever it is looming up. Here’s Dunstan having sold, then lost the horse, walking home, a little inebriated by his flask of brandy, finding himself out side Silas Marner’s cottage, knowing the rumours of money in there. In he goes, no Silas… and Dunstan  takes the two bags of gold. I’m reading fast, reading through plot. It’s the story, and I’m following it but it is not asking me to think – it’s just pulling me along.

If we were reading aloud in a group now, I’d be going as fast as possible, checking everyone was with me but just  getting  on with  it. No need to stop and talk. I’m at the end of the chapter, and turn the page into the next. But now we are in stop, talk  and think territory right away. why has Silas felt o.k. about leaving his cottage unlocked while he was out on an errand?:

The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent. A man will tell you that he has worked in a mine for forty years unhurt by an accident as a reason why he should apprehend no danger, though the roof is beginning to sink; and it is often observable, that the older a man gets, the more difficult it is to him to retain a believing conception of his own death. This influence of habit was necessarily strong in a man whose life was so monotonous as Marner’s– who saw no new people and heard of no new events to keep alive in him the idea of the unexpected and the changeful; and it explains simply enough, why his mind could be at ease, though he had left his house and his treasure more defenceless than usual.

I would ask people to think about habits, what happens when nothing happens, why we think the expanse of time where  nothing has happened  affects our thinking about whether something will. But I would be here for hours, I want to get on and reach the conclusion of this movement. And here it comes:

He rose and placed his candle unsuspectingly on the floor near his loom, swept away the sand without noticing any change, and removed the bricks. The sight of the empty hole made his heart leap violently, but the belief that his gold was gone could not come at once–only terror, and the eager effort to put an end to the terror. He passed his trembling hand all about the hole, trying to think it possible that his eyes had deceived him; then he held the candle in the hole and examined it curiously, trembling more and more. At last he shook so violently that he let fall the candle, and lifted his hands to his head, trying to steady himself, that he might think. Had he put his gold somewhere else, by a sudden resolution last night, and then forgotten it? A man falling into dark waters seeks a momentary footing even on sliding stones; and Silas, by acting as if he believed in false hopes, warded off the moment of despair. He searched in every corner, he turned his bed over, and shook it, and kneaded it; he looked in his brick oven where he laid his sticks. When there was no other place to be searched, he kneeled down again and felt once more all round the hole. There was no untried refuge left for a moment’s shelter from the terrible truth.

I’m interested in this sentence, ‘A man falling into dark waters seeks a momentary footing even on sliding stones; and Silas, by acting as if he believed in false hopes, warded off the moment of despair.’ The metaphor is such a terrible one – the man is about to drown – the sliding moving river-bed stones are no comfort at all, and I can imagine my feet on them, trying to find a footing, hoping, hoping. But in Silas’ case it is more than hoping , it is ‘by acting as if he believed in false hopes’. There’s a huge self-protecting trick playing out – he knows the hopes are false, but he’ll act as if he doesn’t, in order to gain some time before that shock has to hit him and collapse his world.  That’s a self-protective human reaction to terrible shock. I fear for him as he braves it.

More of chapter five tomorrow.

 

Silas Marner Day 13: an intense stream of complex information

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Delightful dark red Geranium in the old bath 29 May

Continuing my slow reading of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. You’ll find a whole e-text here and previous posts can be found by typing ‘Silas Marner’ into the search box. We’re in chapter three, and I’m picking up where I left off yesterday, in a paragraph beginning ‘With that, Dunstan slammed the door behind him.’

We’d been talking about the interesting matter of different types of human difficulty: is a wealthy, educated person better off than a poor uneducated person when tragedy of pain strikes? And I suppose behind that, there are other questions: What is human culture for? What really would make us ‘better off’? Why learn to read?

After I had finished daily practice yesterday I looked up a post I wrote a  month or so ago about meeting with Paul Sinton-Hewitt, founder of Parkrun. I googled running and reading and found my post  listed below one featuring actor Will Smith speaking on that same subject. What’s reading for, according to Smith? Solving your problems he tells the kids. I completely agree!

Reading does lots of things but its key function – from Will and my points of view – is the transmission of  complex information. If you are interested in this idea read Joseph Gold’s book, The Story Species.  One day when I have more  time for writing than just this daily practice hour, I will write about this great book here. (Have I already done so? I find a few references to the book but no extended writing…)

One of the reasons that reading George Eliot is like a  marathon, difficult but great to do, is that she is par excellence the novelist transmitting the most intense stream of complex information.

This is not ‘entertainment’, not ‘escapism’. It’s not fun and it’s hard to even use the word ‘pleasure’. But it is – for me – enthralling, absorbing, rewarding.

This is ideas, it is thinking, based on observation of real life. If it came in a different format it would be called ‘science’. But it comes in ‘story’ format, which is not routinely understood to be a way of transmitting complex information.

Literature is really a tool for making more of  life, and that ‘more’ is to do with extending consciousness.  Watch her do it here. She’s talking about  well-to-do men, like Squire Cass and his  sons, men for whom you might not easily immediately feel pity.  Translate to modern day ? These guys live in a  big house somewhere in Hampshire or outside Clitheroe and may have made their money in the money industries. Perhaps have a small yacht somewhere on the south coast, maybe a cottage at Dartmouth or in Norfolk. They were dark pink trousers and  striped shirts and straw hats in summer, attend Chelsea Flower Show and go to Glyndebourne.  You (by which I mean I) don’t find it easy to imagine their sorrows.

Read aloud, slowly, maybe one clause at a time:

The lives of those rural forefathers, whom we are apt to think very prosaic figures–men whose only work was to ride round their land, getting heavier and heavier in their saddles, and who passed the rest of their days in the half-listless gratification of senses dulled by monotony–had a certain pathos in them nevertheless. Calamities came to them too, and their early errors carried hard consequences: perhaps the love of some sweet maiden, the image of purity, order, and calm, had opened their eyes to the vision of a life in which the days would not seem too long, even without rioting; but the maiden was lost, and the vision passed away, and then what was left to them, especially when they had become too heavy for the hunt, or for carrying a gun over the furrows, but to drink and get merry, or to drink and get angry, so that they might be independent of variety, and say over again with eager emphasis the things they had said already any time that twelvemonth? Assuredly, among these flushed and dull-eyed men there were some whom–thanks to their native human-kindness–even riot could never drive into brutality; men who, when their cheeks were fresh, had felt the keen point of sorrow or remorse, had been pierced by the reeds they leaned on, or had lightly put their limbs in fetters from which no struggle could loose them; and under these sad circumstances, common to us all, their thoughts could find no resting-place outside the ever-trodden round of their own petty history.

I start paying full attention at ‘calamities came to them too, and their early errors carried hard consequences’.  It is too easy to see the red trousers and the striped shirt and not see the human inside them. For everyone ‘early errors’ carry ‘hard consequences’ I don’t tend to remember that when looking st someone who seems successful in worldly terms and has a bit of a braying voice. It’s interesting too to see the ‘calamities’ might be very ordinary – missed the right girl.

perhaps the love of some sweet maiden, the image of purity, order, and calm, had opened their eyes to the vision of a life in which the days would not seem too long, even without rioting; but the maiden was lost, and the vision passed away

I’m remembering that this happened to Silas, and that it was painful when I experienced it as part of his story: why should it be any less so here? What is lost is not just the maiden, but the kind of life she might have helped the man achieve. and without such a life, somehow made good by love, and woman, by domesticity… what life for a single man with money in his pocket?

and then what was left to them, especially when they had become too heavy for the hunt, or for carrying a gun over the furrows, but to drink and get merry, or to drink and get angry, so that they might be independent of variety, and say over again with eager emphasis the things they had said already any time that twelvemonth?

Drink. Routine, Habit. These men are in the same pattern as Silas – except he is not a drinker, and he is not rich – oh, but he is! He is a miser, he hoards his money and  enjoys nightly ‘revelry’ with it, in the same way  Squire Cass might enjoy nights in the pub, plenty of wine. Like Silas, such beings are trapped in a mechanical life, where they ‘say over again with eager emphasis the things they had said already any time that twelvemonth’.

Assuredly, among these flushed and dull-eyed men there were some whom–thanks to their native human-kindness–even riot could never drive into brutality; men who, when their cheeks were fresh, had felt the keen point of sorrow or remorse, had been pierced by the reeds they leaned on, or had lightly put their limbs in fetters from which no struggle could loose them; and under these sad circumstances, common to us all, their thoughts could find no resting-place outside the ever-trodden round of their own petty history.

Like Silas, some of these men could never be brutal, they have ‘native human-kindness’. These were men who when young

had felt the keen point of sorrow or remorse, had been pierced by the reeds they leaned on, or had lightly put their limbs in fetters from which no struggle could loose them;

Not sure what this means. Have to stop and read and reread. I understand that  such men might have ‘felt the keen point of sorrow or remorse’ but I am not certain as the the next two clauses: are they elaborations of that first clause or are they additional  examples of how a life is shaped? when I look at the clause, ‘had been pierced by the reeds they leaned on’, I think of Silas Marner in Lantern Yard. He had leaned on the church community , he had leaned on its elders and his friend and fiance: they all proved to be ‘reeds’ – that’s to say thin stalks incapable of providing support. The reeds broke and pierced him. People he had relied on and built his life around finally hurt and  perhaps mortally injured him.

But what about the next bit?

or had lightly put their limbs in fetters from which no struggle could loose them

I wonder if this is about things like addictions, bad marriages, debt? When we are young we undertake acts willingly which may become habits – ‘fetters from which no struggle could loose them.’

This is a great stopping place for a Shared Reading group, where we could all contribute some worked example from our life. George Eliot is strict in her analysis – these are common human problems. The very nature of them may  mean we don’t want to acknowledge them. But she insists ‘common to us all’.

under these sad circumstances, common to us all, their thoughts could find no resting-place outside the ever-trodden round of their own petty history.

I’m interested in the facts that like Silas, such people are trapped in a kind of loom – we enter it, it is around us, we work at it, weaving the cloth of  our life with these repetitive, mechanical thought habits: Never works out for me, he/she/it is no good, life’s unfair, people don’t like me, I always have bad luck, odds are stacked, I’m no good, they are out to stop me.

I think literature exists to help us get out of the self-created-machine-brain. As one of our group members said  long ago, ‘I read about others but I learn about myself.’

Way over time again, and too long. Lack of discipline. Will attempt to correct tomorrow. Poem tomorrow.

Silas Marner Day 10: Dog Days and Revelry

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Golden light reflected from a window onto the back garden wall

Continuing my slow reading of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. You’ll find a whole e-text here and previous posts can be found by typing ‘Silas Marner’ into the search box.

We are at the end of  chapter two, and reading a paragraph that begins,

This is the history of Silas Marner, until the fifteenth year after he came to Raveloe. The livelong day he sat in his loom, his ear filled with its monotony, his eyes bent close down on the slow growth of sameness in the brownish web, his muscles moving with such even repetition that their pause seemed almost as much a constraint as the holding of his breath. But at night came his revelry: at night he closed his shutters, and made fast his doors, and drew forth his gold.

By day, for fifteen years, Silas’ lives as a machine, ‘his muscles moving with such even repetition that their pause seemed almost as much a constraint as the holding of his breath’. By night, something else happens: he comes to life.

I stop to think about the passage of fifteen years. In a period of time like that a major portion of a human life passes. I taught English in Continuing Education at the university for fifteen years. It was long enough for my underlying rhythm-watcher to feel: this is it, my life. (I’m thinking of Derek Mahon’s poem ‘Dog Days’. (And yes, that is the whle poem. A great poem for a shared Reading group.) Of course I didn’t know it was a fifteen year period at the time, that only became apparent at the end, when things changed. During what will later turn out to be fifteen year period, it feels as if you are in the thick of ordinary and you don’t imagine anything will happen to disrupt the habit of life.

And all this time,  Silas’ life was two-sided, like a coin. By day, part-machine part-machine operator, by night, ‘revelry’!

What an amazing word to have chosen to describe the flip-side of his being. It is so human, so physical, companionable.  I look it up here. Yes, joy, merriment, lively pleasure, even rebellion. It is as if all Silas’ human being goes into the relationship with the coins. He loves them with every bit of his humanity, as if they were human:

He loved the guineas best, but he would not change the silver–the crowns and half-crowns that were his own earnings, begotten by his labour; he loved them all. He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children–thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.

Like the broken water pot we saw in the previous paragraph, the coins have faces, and seem like persons. Coins he doesn’t yet own are like ‘unborn children’ to him. This is  an immense love. Strange that while George Eliot is  spinning a wonderful fairy tale (for that is what it feels like here, isn’t it?) she’s also telling us something profound about the human need to love and to have, to live, our humanity, even when it seems to have gone.

I am thinking about being in a Shared Reading group with a man in a hostel, a street man, a man who smelled and had matted hair. I cannot remember what we were reading, but the man spoke about losing his sense of himself at a very precise point: he knew when it happened: he or his life-force had made a decision. He said ‘I threw my passport and my ISA away and I thought; he’s gone now.’

I was forced by his moving speech to recognise that I had not thought of this man as the same as me, because of his smell and his matted hair. Did I need to be told this man once had a passport and a savings bond to realise he was as human, as living, as complex, as I was?  I am grateful to say that reading with this man compelled me to realise my fellowship (to use a George Eliot word) with him. As we read on together that day, I thought about how it would be to be him, not seen as human on the streets most of the day. Seen as dirty, seen as matted, seen as smelly, seen as bad teeth. But not seen, by most of us, a fellow-creature.  I imagined him with a beggars notice: Yes! I once had an ISA just like you!

Yesterday at five pm as I walked from the Cunard Building on Liverpool Waterfront to Lime Street Station, a mile perhaps through the city centre, I passed three such men, each living in his own doorway. One lay stretched out on a piece of cardboard deeply engrossed in a book. Another had taken off his shoes and was massaging his left foot, as anyone might. Further on, round the side of Marks and Spencer, three battered-looking women were sitting on the pavement in a patch of sunlight drinking from cans, two of them arguing. Each time, I had to think: these are people like me. And in the back of my mind: what are you going to do about this, Jane? I tell myself someone else is doing something, but that doesnt seem a good answer.

Though The Reader has for many years read in hostels and rehabs, and I think we have done some good work there, I can’t help feeling our efforts would be best directed at the children who are growing up into lives of trouble and difficulty.  The problems that get most people to the streets are psychological, spiritual, inner. If the gold had been tins of lager… if Silas had turned at night to whisky…

But I’ve drifted far  from the text – get me back to it!

No wonder his thoughts were still with his loom and his money when he made his journeys through the fields and the lanes to fetch and carry home his work, so that his steps never wandered to the hedge-banks and the lane-side in search of the once familiar herbs: these too belonged to the past, from which his life had shrunk away, like a rivulet that has sunk far down from the grassy fringe of its old breadth into a little shivering thread, that cuts a groove for itself in the barren sand.

So here’s a life that has shrunk from its ‘old breadth into a little shivering thread.’ There were once other activities, the herbs, the healing, but these are quite lost. Thing about a river though, is that it can shrink and come back to fullness. Funny to contrast that ‘little shivering thread’ of Silas’ current life with ‘revelry’ we’ve seen him enjoy with his coins ? Or is it? Is the night-time ‘revelry’ the flip-side of the  inhuman empty life of day? Are the two connected? If the coins were crack, he’d be thoroughly enjoying himself, reveling. But however much he reveled, his life would still be shrunken.

But to press on: a change is going to come for Silas:

But about the Christmas of that fifteenth year, a second great change came over Marner’s life, and his history became blent in a singular manner with the life of his neighbours.

More tomorrow.

What to read in a Shared Reading group: Eating fruit with Denise Levertov

garden at evening
Front garden, evening 23 May

Today I’m hoping to finish my reading of , O Taste and See’,  a short poem by Denise Levertov.  I say short – I’ve been here three days, so no promises – it takes what it takes. You’ll find the earlier posts on this poem by using the search box and typing ‘O Taste and See’. You’ll find the whole poem here.

Yesterday I’d got a point of thinking about the miracle of being a  living creature: our bodies taking in food and oxygen to fuel the processes of living: literally, transformation.  I’m going to pick up here:

transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

I wonder now  where I am in this poem – still exiting the subway?

Standing at a kerb-edge, waiting to cross, risking my life by crossing the street?

The food, the oxygen, becomes flesh, and flesh must die. Therefore as soon as she writes the word ‘flesh’,  without the grace of comma’s pause, Levertov must also write ‘our/deaths’. I say no comma, but I wonder here about the line ending – always a good thing to notice in modern poetry because it is one of the few structural devices the poet has  in their toolkit. See how she uses it! We see the thought, logical, compelling, emerge across the gap of the line ending. If we have flesh it therefore follows we have death.

And does our death happen in the midst of life as we are crossing the street? is that why she writes it like that?

Now suddenly the poem jumps from thinking about death to plums, to quince. I look back at the other piece of fruit, the tangerine. Now I feel I am standing outside a subway exit in New York near a street fruit stall. All this is happening in my head.

I wonder if the plums are a quick glance at William Carlos Williams’ poem, This Is Just To Say. I think Levertov knew him ( I don’t look that up because I am trying to stay concentrated on the poem). But those delicious plums are in my mind now! (‘so sweet and so cold!’). That Williams poem is about unashamedly enjoying the eating of fruit. Which…

…and now I’m thinking of the ‘orchard’ and the story of Eden, of  Milton’s Paradise Lost, enters my mind. The lines I remember of the moment of the fall – Book 9 – when Eve takes the fruit:

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour 
Forth reaching to the Fruit, she pluck’d, she ate:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

I look back to Levertov:

plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

I don’t think it is an  accident that Levertov uses the same verb as Milton. As with the Wordsworth at the beginning, I believe these fragments of  other poets’ language are in Levertov’s head and imagination, in her store cupboard of  lines. They bang around in there and become our own: we use them. I use them in my real life, I quote them to myself. If you are a poet you use them in your poetry. But I’ll come back to this in a moment. Let me just finish reading.

Connecting hunger to ‘being’  Levertov  seems to believe that we were built to pluck that fruit, we were made with bodies that get hungry, and must eat to survive.  And, like Williams, not just to eat but also to enjoy.  This is an argument with or a response to Milton.

I notice that ‘being’ gets a line-ending. That’s a kind of pause, a kind of emphasis. Read it out, get the rhythm of it.

You have the pause at the line end,  then you get ‘hungry’. This is a new thought, not part of Milton’s  mindset at all. It’s as if, as with the Wordsworth thought (‘the world is too much with us’), she is in conversation with those thoughts/poems. She feels able to speak up, respond, say something. It isn’t rashness, says Levertov to Milton, as if they were both here in the present tense, it is hunger.  All the same, that final verb, ‘plucking’, is loaded with meanings, with echoes. Yet Levertov asserts, eat the goddam plums! Be in the world, be here, be physical, be a body, be a transformation, be alive.

 

I want to go back now to the problem of the fact that Denise Levertov is a highly educated poet, working in a tradition which she knows well – Wordsworth, Genesis, Milton, the Psalms, William Carlos Williams.  She knows all that well enough to have the language of those poems in her head as if they were natural to her. Indeed they have become natural to her – just as a simple chord progression CFG is natural to any  guitarist, just as an English  gardener would look for something to underplant roses, just as a cook might naturally think of  cooking chicken with rosemary and lemon and pine-nuts.

You don’t have to know  music theory, the history of English gardens or the molecular science of taste to appreciate lovely planting, musical flow or good chicken. For someone who has never experienced the chords C F and G the thing would be to have the experience, not to have the knowledge that those are the names of those chords. So that is why The Reader’s basic pedagogy is about shared experience: we share our reading, we experience it together. If you have facts, put them to one side, they get in the way of the poetic, the literary experience. (See my post against footnotes here.)

But part of the problem here, for a Shared Reading group leader is that some of the fibres of this particular poem are made from the other poems. those aren’t just ‘allusions’, they aren’t just footnotes. Part of the experience of the poem is the echo of Wordsworth, of William Carlos Williams, of Milton.

If you didn’t hear those echoes at all, you’d still have an experience of the poem, but some of the poem would be missing. It would be as if , for some reason, your ears just couldn’t hear the F chord, or your taste buds couldn’t pick up the rosemary.  It’s not a killer, but a workaround would be good.

For me,  if I  was taking this poem to a group (and I hope one day I will) the workaround would be to bring the Wordsworth sonnet, and the Williams, and a fragment of the Milton. I wouldn’t stay on them long, but they’d be there to take away, or maybe the group would want to read one or more of them another time. For today, we’d just have them there and look at them in passing. They are there to be a sort of additional flavour in the Levertov dish.

For reading this short poem I’d need a whole session – at least an hour maybe an hour and half, maybe two hours (I love a two-hour session, which always seems to me the time needed to really complete some small piece of reading).

So I’d perhaps have this as a poem-only session in the week after the completion of a novel or long story. That way  this poem could pick up some of the ideas in the novel – thinking of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, which could be great with this.  But there would be many others. So many stories have come out of  the garden, the fruit, the fall, the need to be in the world, of it and not of it at once.

Tomorrow,   we’re turning back to Silas Marner

 

If You Want Escapism, Look Away Now

garden 5 may
Spring in the Front Garden, 5 May

Yesterday I mentioned Marilynne Robinson’s  Home and Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed as examples of novels which are the  kind of book I want to read. Not entertainment, and definitely not escapism. In fact, these two are the opposite, coming as close to life as it gets. Are they great books? I’m very alive while reading them, and that feels great! If the hairs stand up on the back your neck, said Les Murray, that’s poetry. That’s a sort of definition.

People often ask me about what we mean by ‘great books’ at The Reader. ‘Great’ is a relative and malleable word. Great as they may be, no books can easily be pressed on people who don’t want to read them (hence the sad state of our  national literary education). So is it a canon? If so, it’s a  very elastic one, decided week by week by whoever has the leadership of each group.

Our work is about passing on our love of literature, and trying to demonstrate that pwerful literature about real life  is compelling  and opens new areas of  self (and good fun, too, a lot of the time – there’s plenty of laughing in Shared Reading). It’s not so easy to create such meaning with books that are mainly there for entertainment or escapism – no offence to them, but most murders, romances, spies, thrillers, shopping or porn stories have a different purpose. They might be ‘well written’ but it is not about ‘well written’ in the end. It’s not about technique, or ‘achingly beautiful prose’ (a phrase which makes me put down a book immediately),  it’s about opening up the actual experience of human beings. If that’s happening, it might be a good book for a Shared Reading group.

We use the word ‘great’ to raise a flag for trying hard stuff.  A walk in the local park is good,  and beyond that, hillwalking is terrific but a trip to Everest is a completely different thing. Yet a walk in the park will be a hard task for someone who hasn’t been out in years. And walking in the Dales might be a doddle to someone who does it every weekend. Is Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 a great book?  Is War and Peace ? Is E.H. Young’s Miss Mole? What about Hamlet? Are they the same kind of ‘great’ ? No! They are all good in different ways.

I grew up with adults who were  looking away. Alcohol put up reality crash barriers and felt good. Pub not sorrow. Pub a laugh! Pub not bills, not money worries. Pub borrow a few bob! Pub not dull by yourselfness. Pub jokes and laughing. Sing songs! Pub paarrty ! Or drink at home!  Off licence, miniature whisky if broke. Cans of lager. Smoke dope, smoke, smoke, smoke.

This led to death, as all life does, but what I saw was that pub joy ran out while life itself ran on to the bitter end. I wanted to learn how to live differently. So the underlying flavour of my reading got serious. I’ve written about my book-turning-point, Doris Lessing’s Shikasta, elsewhere. After that came the novels of George Eliot, through my third-year university reading with Brian Nellist.

Daniel Deronda clarified things for me. I was in my mid-twenties and at a stage where decisions about the kind of person I wanted to be, the kind of  life I wanted to live were more or less consciously pressing on me.  I saw my self and my own existential problems in Gwendolen Harleth and in Daniel  Deronda. They are very different people, but there I was in both of them…it’s a book about choices and purpose in life.

When I first read the book my mother was in her late forties and it was clear her life was coming to an end. It was a long frightening time, that approach to death. Daniel Deronda shone light on lots of things I hadn’t known how to look at, think about. The predicament of Gwendolen Harleth, forced to learn by the uncontrollable consequences of  her own behaviour, terrified me into thinking seriously about the way in which I made choices.

I grew to love George Eliot and read everything she’d written, including, while I was writing my Ph.D. the nine volumes of her Complete Letters. This was (and still is)  like having a parent who teaches you stuff. George Eliot helped me  to grow up.

She can be hard to read – she has a rhythm that is long-sentenced and she uses complex syntax to work out complex things about human experience. Some people find the tone ponderous. I don’t. For me it is like spending time with a very clever person who knows a lot more than me. I have to keep saying, ‘Say that again!’ and I don’t understand it all, but I love being with her because I learn things.

Here’s Gwendolen (still a very young woman) at the end of the book, realising the man she loves has a bigger purpose in life than looking after her. You can’t read this stuff fast. Read it like a poem, slow and aloud.

That was the sort of crisis which was at this moment beginning in Gwendolen’s small life: she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving. All the troubles of her wifehood and widowhood had still left her with the implicit impression which had accompanied her from childhood, that whatever surrounded her was somehow specially for her, and it was because of this that no personal jealousy had been roused in her relation to Deronda: she could not spontaneously think of him as rightfully belonging to others more than to her. But here had come a shock which went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all her anger into self-humiliation.

I wouldnt start (as I did) in the deep end with Daniel Deronda. I’d start with Silas Marner. If you read it at school and hated it (so many people did!) please give it another go. Perhaps I’ll have a look at it tomorrow.