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The Past by Tessa Hadley (Vintage)

The Past by Tessa Hadley (Vintage)

One of the things that raises Tessa Hadley’s work so far above its quiet and accurately observed domestic dwelling is the author’s profound understanding of the nature of loss.
The opening paragraph of David Lowenthal’s book about yesterday, The Past is a Foreign Country, is uncompromising in its assertion:

“The miracle of life is cruelly circumscribed by birth and death; of the immensity of time before and after our own lives we experience nothing. Past and future are alike inaccessible. But, though beyond physical reach, they are integral to our imaginations. Reminiscence and expectation suffuse every present moment.”

The direct dramatic opening of Hadley’s novel, The Past, defines a sense of place as well as time and the opening word nudges us to recall a girl from 1865 whom Lewis Carroll described as peering through a door into another world:

“Alice was the first to arrive, but she discovered as she stood at the front door that she had forgotten her key. The noise of their taxi receding, like an insect burrowing between the hills, was the only sound at first in the still afternoon, until their ears got used to other sounds: the jostling of water in the stream that ran at the bottom of the garden, a trickle of tiny movements in the hedgerows and grasses.”

Tessa Hadley is an intelligent reader of literature and there is an appropriate sense of ease with which she weaves Browning’s 1855 poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ into her narrative about a journey into the past:

“For mark! no sooner was I fairly found
Pledged to the plain, after a pace or two,
Than, pausing to throw backward a last view
O’er the safe road, ’t was gone; grey plain all round:
Nothing but plain to the horizon’s bound.
I might go on; nought else remained to do.”

Three sisters and a brother, aptly named Roland, have arrived at a childhood family home for a few weeks of immersion in a long-gone past and as we soon discover “They were in the country, in the middle of nowhere, with no way back…”. As Alice, having forgotten her key, stands gazing through the French windows “the interior seemed to be a vision of another world, its stillness pregnant with meaning, like a room seen in a mirror”. Later in the novel she talks to her brother about this moment of standing outside and explains that “Now I keep feeling as if I passed through the mirror and I’m living in there, on the other side”. The abandoned house to which the grandchildren return has a stillness which echoes that of the house in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse but “sunk further back into the earth” and “perched high above the steep end of a valley” is another cottage which has more association with Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows, Gibson’s ‘Flannan Isle’, Graham Swift’s Waterland or the witches house in the Grimm tale of lost children, Hansel and Gretel. Whereas the grandparents’ home is still inhabited by archives, family letters and books, the cottage smelled awful, “not innocently of leaf-rot and minerals like outside, but of something held furtively close, ripening in secret”.
Just as ‘the child is father to the man’ so the past re-emerges into the present and we tread upon the bones of the dead. This is of course not always recognised by children themselves and the nine-year old Ivy finds it impossible to believe “that she ended at the limits of her skin and couldn’t surpass it”. The past has a language which speaks like a shark’s fin cutting through water and one of the lessons learned throughout this powerful novel is that we do not simply stop at that enveloping bag of skin which holds us in. In a similar fashion the archivist is always searching through the old letters of the past in order to come to an increased awareness of the present and it is no mere accident that Tessa Hadley is both an ardent reader of Henry James and a writer of articles and a book about the great novelist. In a short piece about The Aspern Papers (‘The Cambridge Quarterly’, 1997) she refers to the “ignominies of literary discipledom” as the narrator is caught as “in the flare of a gaslight” opening a desk “in search of those wretched letters”. Hadley’s article concludes with an insight which, now twenty years on, has a prophetic ring to it:

“It might be possible to argue that a certain quality of shifting discomfort which characterises the narrative of The Aspern Papers represents an important development in James’s oeuvre: that in it he begins to interrogate with a new scrupulousness his own authority as ‘writer’, even perhaps the sources in his own ‘editorial heart’ (the phrase recalls those notebooks stuffed with lists of names, anecdotes, fragments of lives) of the need to write. And his including within his narrative what almost amounts to a perpetual critique of the very fictionalising process and its appropriations of ‘real life’ is highly suggestive for any analysis of his late style.”

Tessa Hadley will be talking about the dark art of fiction-writing at London Review of Books this Friday, 29th September, at 7.00 p.m.

Ian Brinton, 27th September 2017.

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September in the Rain by Peter Robinson (Holland House Books)

September in the Rain by Peter Robinson (Holland House Books)

Haunting the accelerating pace of the years throughout the last century the words of L.P. Hartley’s narrator echo a deepening sense of loss: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. Of course they always did but the speed of change seems to have made that world of Edwardian England another country entirely.
Looking back at an early holiday in North Tyne during the middle of that twentieth century Peter Robinson remembers ‘fishing lines / tautening under a vanished horizon’ and recognises that ‘Nothing recompenses for the love withdrawn – ’. It is almost as if in this early poem, ‘Under their feet’, one can hear Arnold’s measure as he listens to the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of a sea which retreats ‘to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world’. We walk with the past below our feet and discover monuments piercing the soil telling us how, in Charles Olson’s words, the ‘dead prey upon us’. The American poet cries out his urge to ‘disentangle the nets of being!’ and another early Robinson poem, ‘A short history’, introduces us to those trammels of the past as with a painterly eye we are presented with ‘first light / through gripping ivy’, ‘leaf shadow, / telephone wires on the ceiling’, ‘meshed stained-glass’ and ‘woven emblems’. Now in this powerful novel of reconstruction as dawn lightens on the road, where the two protagonists of September in the Rain have arrived in Como after getting a lift from an Agip petrol station bar, ‘Distances stood out pellucid and near’: the past nightmare is returning into clear focus with the ‘barred and meshed windows’ of a ‘dusty-grey frontage’ which houses la Questura, the police-station.

In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act (1981) Frederic Jameson suggested that story-telling is the quintessential form in which reality presents itself to the human mind. Four years later Oliver Sacks wrote about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and asserted that

‘We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a ‘narrative’, and that this narrative is us, our identities…for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative.’

And so, some forty-one years after a traumatic experience of sexual violation in a car during a wet night in Northern Italy, a violation committed by a man armed with a pistol, Peter Robinson’s inner narrative surfaces in this stunningly moving novel, September in the Rain. The long-reaching effects of the incident ensured that the narrator’s ‘one summer of half-innocent youthful confidence had gone for ever’ and as he confesses to us ‘There are things you can’t come back from, however much you may wish you could, or even pretend you have’.

The novel opens with a dramatic and highly visual effect which brings to mind the opening paragraph of that Black Mountaineer Michael Rumaker’s Exit 3:

‘The yellow breakdown truck pulls off and halts outside an Agip petrol station bar. Pushing the stiffly sprung door, the driver throws back his blue anorak hood and shakes off the worst of the rain. Behind him come the two of us, bedraggled from the storm, wet through, with limp hair and blank faces, eyes blinking in the neon as if startled out of a troubled night’s sleep.’

There is an immediacy, a palpability, to this first paragraph; it is as if one of the shades from Dante’s Inferno is piercing their changeless existence to loom out at us ‘as if we’re already dead, come back to haunt the scenes of our last moments like a pair of unappeasable revenants’. That echo of Dante’s infernal world continues later in the novel when the narrator talks to his sister:

‘Our talking over everything and everyone began to go round and round in circles, and our conspiracy of two turned in upon itself.’

Dante is by no means the only literary figure woven into the fabric of this artful tale and the narrator can reveal a distance between himself and the outrage committed so long ago by recognising the power of his own reading and thinking. The scene of rape in the car is contextualised by a reference to Ovid and the witness to the crime sees that ‘you would not die, not for now anyway, nor, for that matter, be changed into a nightingale’. The entangling self-knowledge which is one of the major themes of this disturbing narrative leads the narrator to recognise his own attempts at artistic and cultural distance. As his girlfriend shuts her eyes on the train-ride which will be taking them back to some kind of normality he is attempting to read Florentine Painters of the Renaissance

‘…my eyes enlarged behind the thick lenses, reading page after page, retaining nothing at all, yet seeming entirely lost to you in art’.

The writer’s awareness of the gap between emotional commitment to an individual and the larger world of cultural heritage which stretches back for thousands of years is caught for the reader in the paradox of the two choices at the New Wing at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases. The left doorway announces HEALING above the door whilst the right has RESEARCH: ‘I find myself wondering how I might even try and attempt the impossible—and go in through both doors at once’. September in the Rain is moving evidence of that attempt.
And as I Return to Charles Olson’s ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’ the poet recognises that ‘Purity // is only an instant of being, the trammels // recur’ and the reference in Robinson’s novel to ‘reddish smears from the wet clay earth’ (sharp perception of those moments of early horror) are hauntingly glimpsed towards the end of the novel as the narrator’s ‘envious eyes’ were ‘deflected to the red clay tiling of the kitchen floor, where tiny flecks of onionskin lay preserved in its more remote corners’.

Ian Brinton, 29th August 2016

Richard Makin’s Mourning (Equus Press, 2015)

Richard Makin’s Mourning (Equus Press, 2015)

This third part of a trilogy, including Work (Great Works, 2009) and Dwelling (Reality Street, 2011), is formally more approachable than its immediate predecessor yet still commanding a rich tapestry of language use and imaginative construction. It is no coincidence that Equus Press have reissued Philippe Soller’s H (1973, 2001) at the same time. Makin’s trilogy has some lineage with the Nouveau Roman, offering a similar antidote to the constraints and requirements of the bourgeois novel, as well as early Modernist poetry and fiction in terms of its use of fragmentary material.

Mourning, and the trilogy as a whole, is an extraordinary and distinct achievement. It is a demanding and enriching read characterized by highly wrought sentences, which cover a range of discourses and fictional events. It is not a conventional novel. There is minimal characterisation with no discernible plot other than recurring thematic issue. There is instead a succession of linked or partially connected beginnings, which echo and take the reader on endless journeys. ‘Noun a neuron. No index of terminations at the gallows gate.’ The writing is, to use Ken Edwards’s words on the back cover, a ‘non-narrative, never-ending coherence.’ It is also deeply poetic and might well be linked to such Late Modernist poets, such as J.H. Prynne and Iain Sinclair in the way that it will severely pursues a theme for a few lines and then veers off into another discourse. The pleasure of the text is that the reader is confronted with several possible reading strategies. It is a joy to dip in and out of the novel as well as to read it in order. Mourning is perhaps less fragmentary than Dwelling and has more voices off. There is also more comedy. Those readers perhaps daunted by the thought of reading a non-narrative novel can perhaps view the work more like an epic Poundian poem with some added diversions, verve and comedy.

A reading (sitting or séance). An abandoned operating theatre, saint hospital. His party has eluded capture; those who survive will be reimbursed.
Also dream: crime, accused of – wrenching up the bolts, the tubers, the mandrake by its ear. Green shoots burst through the concrete, the shattered asphalt. I don’t know how I wrote that when I was asleep: not affliction, affection, in the archaic sense of disposition, i.e. to be drawn from something, from the thin air. A white feather quivers, balanced on her breath.

There is a video of Makin reading from this chapter at the 2014 Tears in the Fence Festival on the magazine’s website: https://tearsinthefence.com/festival

A number of chapters are devoted to comments of and around definitions. There is a probing and recording of a narrative self in endless movement and commentary at work.

Locomotor ataxia
Upper mandible of earth, shell lying below, palate soft, yielding to persistent stress.
‘Let’s turn around: on your knees.’
There were pressure ulcers, degeneration of the nerve fibres – stun-grenades, phosgene bombs.
Third: the demoralized, the ragged, those without names and unwilling to work or partake of compulsory leisure (the loudest scream, that’s all I can remember). Most often, the procedure is one of blundering mediations. And that, in short, is how the epoch names what we are.

There is an echo of William Burroughs’ Dr. Benway in lines such as, ‘The patient was hung up by the jaw and left alone for several minutes’ and those dark figures with their use of drug control, biological experimentation, and so on. This sinister narrative background is played out within a kind of subverted science fiction. It is easy to miss the tongue in cheek lines in Mourning as Makin doesn’t over signal his intentions, and is quickly onto some new line or direction. The sheer narrative force and distinct use of the English language connects him in this regard to Prynne, Sinclair and a few others. Makin is the real thing. There were many notable and cracking readings at last year’s Tears in the Fence Festival, Makin’s reading generated the most extensive discussions.

Mourning is available from Equus Press, Birkbeck College (William Rowe) 43 Gordon Square, London WC1 HOPD and https://equuspress.wordpress.com/mourning/

David Caddy 24th June 2015

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