‘Now what was naughty was your stopping Jack buying that Pevensey painting of Lionel’s. Monty’s furious. It’s one of Lionel’s best. And you know how well he’s been painting lately. You must have read what Monty’s been saying.’
‘He’s praised Lionel’s work every week for so long as I can remember and it hasn’t got any better or any worse. He still paints without imagination let alone a spark of genius. And uses three shades of shit to do so.’
‘Oh colour! You live in such a schoolgirl’s dream of Bakst. Lionel’s a subtle and expressive painter. Expressive of plastic values, I mean, of course.’
‘Subtle! Really, Mary! Lionel’s one of the most pleasing friends we have.
He’s a real person, intelligent, civilized and absolutely without nonsense.
His paintings are exactly like him. But they aren’t any good. I mean any real good. And I won’t have them here with real paintings. That terrible Chanctonbury Ring with the Picassos and that bit of fake Cézanne of the Downs right beside Braque’s Homage to Bach. It’s too impossible.’
‘You speak as though you were the only person in England who did justice to Picasso or Braque. You know what Monty’s done to to make people realize that Paris exists, and against what opposition and from the start.’
‘Yes, and then praises Lionel because he makes Pevensey Marshes look like the Camargue and Firle Beacon like a sea-sick memory of Cézanne’s Provence.’
‘You’re talking about an old friend, Marcus.’
Angus Wilson, 1913-1991 No Laughing Matter,1967
Image: Eric Ravilious, Firle Beacon, 1927. watercolour
The novel is a satirical chronicle of an English middle-class family from 1912 to 1967. Marcus Matthews, and Mary Clough are discussing the paintings of Lionel who is representative of the watered down English illustrative version of French post-Impressionist painting, but lacking both ideas and energy. The artist might be suggested by the works of painters such as Eric Ravilious, Paul Nash, John Nash or Duncan Grant.
Mrs. Maurier vanquished him anew. “Mister Gordon!” she sailed into the room, bearing her expression of happy astonishment like a round platter stood on edge. “How do you do? Can you ever ever forgive us for intruding like this?” She went on in her gushing italics. “We just met Mr. Talliaferro on the street with your milk, and we decided to brave the lion in his den. How do you do?” She forced her effusive hand upon him, staring about in happy curiosity. “So this is where genius labors. How charming: so—so original. And that—“ she indicated a corner screened off by a draggled length of green rep “—is your bedroom, isn’t it? How delightful! Ah, Mr. Gordon, how I envy you this freedom. And a view—you have a view also, haven’t you?” She held his hand and stared entranced at a high useless window framing two tired looking stars of the fourth magnitude.
“I would have if I were eight feet tall,” he corrected. She looked at him quickly, happily. Mr. Talliaferro laughed nervously.
“That would be delightful,” she agreed readily. “I was so anxious to have my neice see a real studio, Mr. Gordon, where a real artist works. Darling—“ she glanced over her shoulder fatly, still holding his hand ”—darling, let me present you to a real sculptor, one from whom we expect great things . . . Darling,“ she repeated in a louder tone.
The niece, untroubled by the stairs, had drifted in after them and she now stood before the single marble. “Come and speak to Mr. Gordon, darling.” Beneath her Aunt’s saccharine modulation was a faint trace of something not so sweet after all. The niece turned her head and nodded slightly without looking at him. Gordon released his hand.
“Mr. Talliaferro tells me you have a commission.” Mrs. Maurier’s voice was again a happy astonished honey. “May we see it? I know artists don’t like to exhibit an incomplete work, but just among friends, you see. . . . You both know how sensitive to beauty I am, though I have been denied the creative impulse myself.”
“Yes,” agreed Gordon, watching the niece.
“I have long intended visiting your studio, as I promised, you remember. So I shall take this opportunity of looking about—Do you mind?”
“Help yourself. Talliaferro can show you things. Pardon me.” He lurched characteristically between them and Mrs. Maurier chanted:
”Yes, indeed. Mr. Talliaferro, like myself, is sensitive to the beautiful in Art. Ah, Mr. Talliaferro, why were you and I given a love for the beautiful, yet denied the ability to create it from stone and wood and clay. . . .”
Her body in its brief simple dress was motionless when he came over to her. After a time he said:
Her jaw in profile was heavy: there was something masculine about it. But in full face it was not heavy, only quiet. Her mouth was full and colorless, unpainted, and her eyes were opaque as smoke. She met his gaze, remarking the icy blueness of his eyes (like a surgeon’s she thought) and looked at the marble again.
“I don’t know,” she answered slowly. Then: “It’s like me.”
“How like you?” he asked gravely.
She didn’t answer. Then she said: “Can I touch it?”
“If you like,” he replied, examining the line of her jaw, her firm brief nose. She made no move and added: “Aren’t you going to touch it?”
“I’ve changed my mind,” she told him calmly. Gordon glanced over his shoulder to where Mrs. Maurier pored volubly over something. Mr. Talliaferro yea’d her with restrained passion.
“Why is it like you?” he repeated.
She said irrelevantly: “Why hasn’t she anything here?” Her brown hand flashed slimly across the high unemphasis of the marble’s breast, and withdrew.
“You havn’t much there yourself.” She met his steady gaze steadily. “Why should it have anything there?” he asked.
“You’re right,” she agreed with the judicial complaisance of an equal. “I see now. Of course she shouldn’t. I didn’t quite—quite get it for a moment.”
Gordon examined with growing interest her flat breast and belly, her boy’s body which the poise of it and the thinness of her arms belied. Sexless, yet somehow vaguely troubling. Perhaps just young, like a calf or colt. “How old are you?” he asked abruptly.
“Eighteen, if it’s any of your business,” she replied without rancor, staring at the marble. Suddenly she looked up at him again. “I wish I could have it,” she said with a sudden sincerity and longing, quite like a four-year old.
“Thanks,” he said. “That was quite sincere, too, wasn’t it?” Of course you can’t have it, though. You see that, don’t you?”
She was silent. He knew she could see no reason why she shouldn’t have it.
“I guess so,” she agreed at last. “I just thought I’d see, though.”
“Not to overlook any bets?”
“Oh, well, by to-morrow I probably won’t want it, anyway. . . . And if I still do, I can get something just as good.”
“You mean,” he amended, “that if you still want it to-morrow you can get it. Don’t you?”
Her hand, as if it was a separate organism, reached out slowly, stroking the marble. “Why are you so black?” she asked.
“Not your hair and beard. I like your red hair and beard. But you. You are black. I mean . . .” her voice fell and he suggested Soul? “I don’t know what that is,” she stated quietly.
“Neither do I. You might ask your Aunt, though. She seems familiar with souls.”
She glanced over her shoulder, showing her scented upholstered bulk between them. “Wonderful, wonderful,” she was exclaiming in sincere astonishment. “And this . . .” her voice died away and she gazed at the marble, dazed. Mr. Talliaferro echoed her immaculately, taking to himself the showman’s credit.
“Do you see what he has caught?” he bugled melodiously. “Do you see? The spirit of youth, of something fine and hard and clean in the world; something we all desire until our mouths are stopped with dust.” Desire with Mr. Talliaferro had long since become an unfulfilled habit requiring no longer any particular object at all.
“Yes,” agreed Mrs. Maurier. “How beautiful. What—what does it signify, Mr. Gordon?”
“Nothing, Aunt Pat,” the niece snapped. “It doesn’t have to.”
“What do you want it to signify? Suppose it signified a–a dog or an ice cream soda, what difference would it make? Isn’t it all right like it is?”
“Yes, indeed, Mrs. Maurier,” Mr. Talliaferro agreed with soothing haste, “It is not necessary that it have objective significance. We must accept it for what it is: pure form untrammeled by any relation to a familiar or utilitarian object.
“Oh, yes: untrammeled.” Here was a word Mrs. Maurier knew. “The untrammeled spirit, freedom like the eagle’s.”
“Shut up, Aunty,” the niece told her. “Don’t be a fool.”
“But it has what Talliaferro calls objective significance,” Gordon interrupted brutally. “This is my feminine ideal: a virgin with no legs to leave me, no arms to hold me, no head to talk to me.”
“Mister Gordon!” Mrs. Maurier stared at him over her compressed breast. Then she thought of something that did possess objective significance.
Fairchild went directly to the marble and stood before it, clasping his hands at his burly back. The Semitic man sat immediately on entering the room. Preëmpting the single chair. The host was busy beyond the rep curtain which consitituted his bedroom, from where he presently reappeared with a bottle of whiskey. He had removed both shirt and undershirt now, and beneath a faint reddish fuzz his chest gleamed with heat, like an oiled gladiator’s.
“I see,” Fairchild remarked as the host entered, “that you too have been caught by this modern day fetich of virginity. But you have this advantage over us: yours will remain inviolate without having to shut your eyes to its goings-on. You don’t have to make any effort to keep yours from being otherwise. Very satisfactory. And very unusual. The greatest part of man’s immolation of virginity is, I think, composed of an alarm and a suspicion that some one else may be, as the term is, getting it.”
“Perhaps Gordon’s alarm regarding his own particular illusion of it is, that some one else may not get it,” the Semetic man suggested.
“No, I guess not,” Fairchild said, “He don’t expect to sell this to anybody, you know. Who would pay out good money for a virginity he couldn’t later violate, if only to assure himself it was the genuine thing?”
“Leda clasping her duck between her thighs could yet be carved out of it, however,” the other pointed out; “it is large enough for that. Or—“
“Swan,” corrected Fairchild.
“No. Duck,” the Semitic man insisted.” Americans would prefer a duck. Or udders and a fig leaf might be added to the thing as it stands. Isn’t that possible, Gordon?”
“Yes. It might be restored,” Gordon admited drily. He disappeared again beyond the curtain and returned with two heavy tumblers and a shaving mug bearing a name in gothic lettering of faded gilt. He drew up the bench on which his enamel water pitcher rested, and Fairchild came and sat upon it. Gordon took the shaving mug and went to lean his tall body against the wall. His intolerant hawk’s face was like bronze in the unshaded glare of the light. The Semitic man puffed at his cigar. Fairchild raised his glass, squinting through it.
“Udders, and a fig leaf,” he repeated. He drank, and set his tumbler down to light a cigarette. “After all, that is the end of art. I mean—“
“We do get something out of art,” the Semitic man agreed. “We all admit that.”
“Yes,” said Fairchild. “Art reminds us of our youth, of that age when life don’t need to have her face lifted every so often for you to consider her beautiful. That’s about all the virtue there is in art: it’s a kind of Battle Creek, Michigan, for the spirit. And when it reminds us of youth, we remember grief and forget time. That’s something.”
“Something, if all a man has to do is forget time,” The Semitic man rejoined. “But one who spends his days trying to forget time is like one who spends his time forgetting death or digestion. That’s another instance of your unshakeable faith in words. It’s like morphine, language is. A fearful habit to form: you become a bore to all who would otherwise cherish you. Of course, there is the chance that you may be hailed as a genius after you are dead long years, but what is that to you? There will still be high endeavour that ends, as always, with kissing in the dark, but where are you? Time? Time? Why worry about something that takes care of itself so well? You were born with the habit of consuming time. Be satisfied with that. Tom-o’-Bedlam had the only genius for consuming time: that is, to be utterly unaware of it.”
“But you speak for the artists. I am thinking of the majority of us who are not artists and who need protection from artists, whose time the artists insist on passing for us. We get along quite well with our sleeping and eating and procreating, if you artists only let us alone. But you accursed who are not satisfied with the world as it is and so must try to rebuild the very floor you are standing on, you keep us all fidgety and alarmed. So I believe that if art served any purpose at all, it would at least keep the artists themselves occupied.”
Fairchild raised his glass again. “It’s more than that. It’s getting into life, getting into it and wrapping it around you, becoming a part of it. Women can do without art—old biology takes care care of that. But men, men . . . A woman conceives: does she care afterward whose seed it was? Not she. And bears, and all the rest of her life—her young troubling years, that is—is filled. Of course the father can look at it occasionally. But in art, a man can create without any assistance at all: what he does is his. A perversion, I grant you, but a perversion that builds Chartres and invents Lear is a pretty good thing.” He drank, and set his tumbler down.
“Creation, reproduction from within. . . . Is the dominating impulse in the world feminine, after all, as aboriginal peoples believe? . . . There is a kind of spider or something. The female is the larger, and when the male goes to her he goes to his death: she devours him during the act of conception. And that’s man: a kind of voraciousness that makes an artist stand beside himself with a notebook in his hand always, putting down all the charming things that ever happen to him, killing them for the sake of their problematic something he might or he might not ever use. Listen,” he said, “love, youth, sorrow and hope and despair—they were nothing at all to me until I found later some need of a particular reaction to put in the mouth of some character of whom I wasn’t at that time certain, and that I don’t yet consider very admirable. But maybe it was because I had to work all the time to make a living, when I was a young man.”
“Perhaps so,” the Semitic man agreed. “People still believe they have to work to live.”
“Sure you have to work to live,” Fairchild said quickly.
“You’d naturally say that. If a man has had to deny himself any pleasures during his pleasuring years, he always likes to believe it was necessary. That’s where you get Puritans from. We don’t like to see any one violate laws we observed, and get away it. God knows, heaven is a dry reward for abnegation.
Fairchild rose and went to stand again before the fluid, passionate fixity of the marble. “The end of art,” he repeated. “I mean, to the consumer, not to us: we have to do it, they don’t. They can take it or leave it. Probably Gordon feels the same way about stories that I do about sculpture, but for me . . . “ He mused upon the marble for a time. “When the statue is completely nude, it has only a coldly formal significance, you know. But when some foreign matter like a leaf or a fold of drapery (kept there in defiance of gravity by God only knows what) draws the imagination to where the organs of reproduction are concealed, it lends the statue a warmer, a—a—more—“
”Speculative significance,” supplied the Semitic man.
“—speculative significance which I must admit I require in my sculpture.”
“Certainly the moralists agree with you.”
William Faulkner, 1897-1962. Mosquitos,1927
Images: William Faulkner. Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 1925. Photograph by W.C. Odiorne
William Faulkner. Letter from Paris with self portrait, 1925
When we got inside the gallery, the first thing we saw was Sona Rasmussen. Miss Rasmussen was half-Japanese, half-Norwegian; she came from Honolulu. She was a fat, tiny, shiny woman: with a different paint job, and feelers she would have looked exactly like a potato-bug—I used to think of her as part of a children’s story in which there were Reginald Chipmunk, and Dorothy Thrush, and Sona Potato-Bug, and many other innocent, foolish, and agreeable creatures.
Miss Rasmussen made welded sculpture. Her statues were—as she would say, smiling—untouched by human hands; and they looked it. You could tell one from another, if you wanted to, but it was hard to want to. You felt, yawning: It’s ugly, but is it Art?
Miss Rasmussen also designed furniture, but people persisted in sitting down in her sculpture, and in asking “What is that named?” of her chairs. This showed how advanced her work was, and pleased her; yet when she laughed to show her pleasure, her laugh sounded thin and strained. Gertrude said about her work, “She was a shipyard welder during the war, and the sculptures just naturally followed”. When this was repeated to Miss Rasmussen she said hotly, “Oh that again! It was an aircraft factory—and besides, I’d thought of it long ago.”
She liked Benton, and Benton liked her; but had difficulties during her first term. President Robbins said to her, after two of her freshmen had burned themselves severely: “A welder’s torch is not a thing with which just any freshman can be entrusted, Miss Rasmussen.” Miss Rasmussen said that you couldn’t shelter students for ever, but after that she had her freshmen stick to wood, mobiles, and Cold Iron. Her advanced students were a different affair: she and they, in their goggles and masks, looked wonderful, like racetrack-drivers about to give a Nō play.
Gottfried and Gertrude and I arrived, first, at the wooden half of the sculpture. All the statues, to show that they were statues, were mounted on little black pedestals. Off to the side there was one statueless pedestal; Gertrude looked at it a long time, in silent admiration; I had to persuade her to leave it.
Some of the statues looked like improbably polished objets trouvés, others looked as if the class had divided a piece of furniture among themselves, lovingly finished the fragments, and mounted the result as a term’s work. The passing sculptors—and Miss Rasmussen, who did not pass, but stood there like a sentry—found Gertrude’s voluble admiration for their works offensive; she exclaimed about the one she liked best, “Why, you can see yourself it! What would I give for that in birds-eye maple!” She went on to say to Miss Rasmussen: “How do you and your pupils get this wonderful finish?” Miss Rasmussen did not reply: she looked as if she were half Japanese and half Ethopian. Gertrude continued artlessly, “I always use linseed oil and rottenstone, myself; but to tell the truth, Miss Rasmussen, a little old-fashioned elbow grease is what it really takes.“ She said this with a cheery laugh; she was enjoying herself, and if people didn’t know enough to get out of the way, they would have to suffer for their ignorance.
After looking at ten or twenty of these statues you muttered to yourself, “I wish wood didn’t have any grain”; a few more and you were sorry that there is such a thing as wood–were sorry, that is, until you came to the Ores and Metals section of the sculpture. First came the mobiles—and they were mobile: if you breathed hard it looked like dawn in a cuckoo-clock factory. Then came the welded statues: they were made apparently, of iron twine, with queer undigested knots or lumps or nodules every few inches, so that they all looked like representations of part of the root-system of an alfalfa plant, or that of almost any legume. Sometimes a statue had four legs and was an animal; sometimes it had two legs and two arms, and was a man. But sometimes it had neither arms nor legs, and was an abstraction.
Gertrude said softly, though not so softly as I could have wished: “Why don’t riveters do sculpture, too?” But when she applied the word fragile to a statue with less than its share of lumps, Miss Rasmussen broke in stormily: “Fragile! You couldn’t break that with a hammer! Let me tell you, every joint in that is welded.”
Gertrude gave her a surgeon’s smile; you expected Gertrude to say, “More ether, nurse. This woman is conscious”. Then she remarked in a speculative voice, “Have you ever stopped to consider, Miss Rasmussen, just why your statues are so thin?” By now the patient, poor fat thing, was beginning to be sorry that she had come to; I said before Gertrude could go on: “I love your statues, Miss Rasmussen,” not even crossing my fingers as I said it; and Gottfried said that dey madt him feel goodt ven he lookedt at dem. Gertrude looked at me for a moment; then she looked at Gottfried for a moment; then she laughed. It was a placing laugh. When the ripples of this laugh had died, she quoted clearly: “Kind hearts are more than coronets, And simple faith than Norman blood.” Miss Rasmussen began to tell Gottfried and me about her statues. Some of what she said was technical, and you would have had to be a welder to appreciate it; and the rest was aesthetic or generally philosophic, and to appreciate it you would have had to be an imbecile.
Art Night. 3
We came to the painting next. There had been quite a good painter at Benton the year before, a mild, absent, indifferent young man, with hair like a string bag; when he resigned he said genially, “You don’t need me.” He had been replaced by a painter who painted animals in marshes—or jungles: all glowed. This man stood looking out over his herds, the ringstraked, speckled, and spotted; he wore a turtle-neck sweater and a black beard; and smiled a complacent smile, as if he had just said to you in an English novel, “I thought you’d like that.”
The paintings varied, though not much. The students loved their teacher, it was plain: there were a great many beasts of prey, in forests and marshes, all looking like feral Florence Nightingales. I said to Gertrude, finally: “Gertrude, for God’s sake stop saying Tiger, Tiger, burning bright!” Then I said to Gottfried, “Say something!” He said, “What can I say?”
The animals were recognizably animals, and that was about all you could say for them—but it was something you could not have said for any of the other paintings there. The students had learned all the new ways to paint something (an old way, to them, was a way not to paint something) but they had not had anything to paint. The paintings were paintings of nothing at all. It did not seem possible to you that so many things could have happened to a piece of canvas in vain. You looked at a painting and thought, “It’s an imitation Arshile Gorky; it’s casein and aluminium paint on canvasboard, has been scratched all over with a razor blade, and then was glazed—or scumbled, perhaps—with several transparent oil washes”. And when you had said this there was no more for you to say. If you had given a Benton student a pencil and a piece of paper, and asked her to draw something, she would have looked at you in helpless astonishment: it would have been plain to her that you knew nothing about art. By the time a Benton artist got through exploiting the possibilities of her medium, it was too dark to do anything else that day; and most of the students never learned that there was anything else to do.
Gertrude had begun an animated discussion with the painter; her first sentence was, “Tell me, have you ever thought of doing illustrations for The Jungle Book?” I thought it unfair of her to talk so much of the suppressed aggressions that manifested themselves in his work, since it was plain from his part of the conversation that he was not a man who suppressed aggressions. Against many conversationalists he would have had quite a good chance: he spoke not as the scribes but with authority, and was untroubled by any of the doubts that intelligence brings in its train. He looked truculent to begin with; within five sentences he was looking baffled and truculent. To Gertrude’s extended, unfavourable, but really quite brilliant comparison of his jungles with those of Max Ernst and the Douanier Rousseau, he retorted: “I’m not interested in other painters’ paintings.”
Gertrude looked at him with delight, and said: “You’re from the West Coast, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well aren’t you?”
“How did you know?”
Gertrude said modestly, “Oh, I just knew.” Then she said, “I’ll bet I can tell you who your favourite writer is, too.”
“Henry Miller.” The painter laughed triumphantly, and exclaimed:
“Wrong! D. H. Lawrence.”
Gertrude smiled and said to him, “You’re older than I thought,” and said to me, “Well it’s a moral victory, anyway,”
I said, “Gertrude, don’t you think we ought to be finding some seats for the performance?”
She answered, “Christ, you’re a—a sober-sided man. We can always sit in Dr. Rosenbaum’s lap.” Then she said to the painter, winningly: “You come too,” He said, “Well, I—“ But Gertrude, staring at him thoughtfully, murmured: “D. H. Lawrence!” Then she said to me, aside: “Still, I suppose he’s doing well to have a favourite writer. I think Cézanne was right about painters, don’t you?—le peintre est en general bête.”
They All Go. 5.
I sat down on the grass by the building in which the painters and sculptors lived and flourished: but there was nobody working away at a block of mahogany, nobody pouring paint on to canvasboard, nobody standing with her leg out in the air as though dislocated, her face fixed in the grimace of her trade. People eat and sleep and live all year, but they are educated only nine months of it.
Someone called to me from the second floor: it was Sona Rasmussen. Art Night had placed me, had placed Gottfried, among old admirers of her work. She was in coveralls – was goggleless, though – and her dark round face was shining with sweat. She said for me to come up, there was something she wanted to show me. As I went up the stairs I repeated to myself what she had said, trying to get into my voice the half-Japanese, half-Scandinavian sameness of internal organization that one heard in every sentence of hers.
When I got into the big studio it looked different: most of the statues were gone, the acetylene torches had been put away into a corner, and a great mound of clay stood naked against the wall, without even a cloth over it to keep it wet. At the other end there was a statue I had never seen before. “It’s my new one,” Miss Rasmussen said shyly. “It’s – it’s made from part of a railroad tie.” You could see that: the tie had been fixed so that it revolved, like a weather-vane, on the brass rod that supported it.
I looked at a long time. Finally I looked at Miss Rasmussen with troubled eyes; she asked uneasily, “Don’t you like it?”
“I like it very much, Miss Rasmussen,” I said. “It’s a wonderful one. It’s quite different from your others, isn’t it?”
It was more different from her others than you would have believed possible–how could I ever again be sure what you could believe possible? The railroad tie had become a man, a man who floated in the air as the foetus floats in the womb; his pressed-together arms and legs, his hunched-up shoulders, his nudging face were indicated in broad burnt lines or depressions, so that you could hardly tell whether the had been drawn or modeled; he was there. He fitted into the rectangle of the railroad tie as a cat, fast asleep, fits into the circle of itself. Whether or not he slept you could not tell. He was part of the element he inhabited, and it and he moved on together silently; his limbs, blunted by their speed, were still. Even his nuzzling mouth and pressed-flat nose were still, so that I remembered The arrow in its flight is motionless; and remembered, as I looked into his flattened face, the proto-Mongolians of a German historian’s grotesque theory, Ur-men who, many thousands of years ago, were parasites of the wild horses of Asia, clinging to their sides and nursing like foals, or opening a vein and drinking from it and closing it – and all the time the horses ran on, never stopping.
“He’s the East Wind,” Miss Rasmussen said. She was right; he was the East Wind. There was about him a sinister and conclusive peace: one sank into him, as one looked at him, as one sinks into sleep. I told Miss Rasmussen over and over again what a wonderful statue it was; my shame at having misjudged her so – for to me she not only had looked like, but also had been, a potato-bug, and I had been polite to her exactly as one puts the little thing on a leaf and tells it to fly away home – made me more voluble than I should otherwise have been. She was pleased and grateful, though she was still too dazed with her statue to find my words anything more than the echo of her own veins. She talked to me about the statue for a while, and I saw, not in dismay but in awe, that to appreciate what she said you still would have had to be an imbecile: she said about the East Wind exactly what she had always said about those welded root-systems of alfalfa plants that the storeroom of the studio was full of. She was a potato-bug who had been visited by an angel, and I decided – decided unwillingly – for the rest of my life to suffer potato-bugs gladly, since the angels are not able to make the distinctions that we ourselves make between potato-bugs and ourselves.
She had had no lunch, and we went and ate it together. To me she wasn’t Miss Rasmussen any more, but the maker of the East Wind, and I handed her a paper napkin as I would have dropped it from a window into air. As long as her work had been bad she had been a visible fool, and now that her work was good she had disappeared into it. This was an unjust fate; and yet she wouldn’t have thought it unjust, I didn’t think it unjust – I would have vanished willingly into the words of the East Wind.
Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965 Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy, 1954
Image: Paul Evans, 1931-1987. Welded and wrought steel fountain sculpture with abstract floral and geometric elements c.1956-57.
In many ways London is defined by its literary heritage. The bookish tourist can follow literary footsteps from Chaucer’s Southwark, Dickens’ East End stews, the Fitzrovia of the Bloomsbury Set, to Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, the Metroland of Julian Barnes and the the pubs that Dylan Thomas frequented.
While writers Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway, 1925) Iris Murdoch (Henry and Cato, 1977) and our own Marius Brill (Making Love: A Conspiracy Of The Heart, 2003) have explored the shabby, run-down side of Notting Hill and Shepherd’s Bush, it’s not so easy to find literary folklore of Kensington and Chelsea that might attract coach parties eager to share the Martin Amis ‘landscape’ experience.
The pleasure of recognition in reading novels is that they can give unexpected insight, capture a moment in the landscape of the local neighbourhood and understand some of the various, occasionally dubious, social mores and past lives of the area.
Notting Hill developed a strong literary genre as a dilapidated, tenanted district, but has a more contemporary incarnation as a modish media village in Rachel Johnson’s Notting Hell (2006).
Wyndham Lewis’ Rotting Hill (1948) describes the unloved aspect of the Hill following the Second World War, when ‘hundreds of streets in London were uninhabited … the houses shuttered and fireless. In the damp winters the fungoid condition, the dry rot, developed in the beams, joists, architraves, jambs, window-frames, floorboards of these unlived-in places.’
G. K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) is set in 1984 and concerns a feudal-style system applied to our glorious suburbs. ‘Clapham with a city guard. Wimbledon with a city wall. Surbiton tolling a bell to raise its citizens. West Hampstead going into battle with its own banner.’ The novel features the prominent landmark of the Campden Hill Water Works, built in 1857 and demolished in 1970.
Colin MacInnes’ London Trilogy, City of Spades (1957), Absolute Beginners, (1959) and Mr. Love and Justice (1960) depicts the tensions between the existing population and the emergent black immigrant culture of the 1950s who ‘organised their own underground of life and of such joy as may be snatched from an unwelcoming mother country’.
Anthony Powell’s 12 novel collection, Dance to the Music of Time, describes the brilliant but conceited novelist manqué X Trapnel in Books Do Furnish a Room (1971), who finds temporary refuge from creditors in the Ufford hotel; ‘a wartime accommodation of a semi-secret branch of the Polish army in exile, come down in the world like many such Bayswater or Notting Hill establishments … laundry impounded from time to time, until satisfactory settlement of the weekly account.’
Martin Amis, a long term resident of Notting Hill, uses it as a backdrop for The Rachel Papers (1973), portraying a druggie student ambiance of ‘coffee bars, pinball arcades and party-hunts, of looking for girls and wet daydreams’. In London Fields (1989), set entirely in Notting Hill, petty hooligan Keith Talent lives on the 11th floor of Windsor House, better known as Trellick Tower. His home-from-home is the seedy Black Cross pub on the corner of Portobello Road; which in reality is the perfectly respectable Shannon’s Market Bar, previously named The Golden Cross.
Chelsea features in many novels as a Bohemian quarter of artists’ studios. In Radclyffe Hall’s The Forge (1924), a well-to-do painter arrives in the traditional artist’s mode of transport, a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. One of her accommodation requirements is a bathroom with a decent porcelain bath and a parquet floor.
Wyndham Lewis’ Apes of God (1930) satirizes an artist’s colony. ‘Dan went along a tunnel that was an arched way beneath flats. And in the twilight he came to an empty terrace, upon one side of which was a row of liver-umber brick, geraniumed cottages. Confronting them was a high and gloomy wall, it filled the terrace with premature darkness. Above it Dan could see the tops of the windows of formidable studios. These were the gardens he was to visit. A great nest of women Apes! The studios were secluded.’
Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, The Wrong Box (1889) describes a dingy artist’s studio in Norfolk Street, known jocularly by characters as ‘Norfolk Island’: ‘neither a long, a handsome, nor a pleasing thoroughfare. Dirty, undersized maids-of-all-work issue from it in pursuit of beer, or linger on its sidewalk listening to the voice of love. The cat’s-meat man passes twice a day. An occasional organ-grinder wanders in and wanders out again, disgusted. In holiday-time, the street is the arena of the young bloods of the neighbourhood, and the householders have an opportunity of studying the manly art of self-defence. And yet Norfolk Street has one claim to be respectable, for it contains not a single shop – unless you count the public-house at the corner, which is really in the King’s Road.’
The most picturesque description of a bohemian artist is found in Theodore Watts-Dunton’s Aylwin (1898), which describes the painter Mr. D’Arcy, documenting D G Rossetti’s house and studio in Cheyne Walk. The garden contained a menagerie with an Indian bull and ‘populated with several kinds of animals such as are never seen except in menageries or in the Zoological Gardens. Wombats, kangaroos, and the like, formed a kind of happy family.’
In Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, (1944), the artist Gulley Jimson comes out of prison and finds a houseboat to live on in the fictional area of Greenbank, a cross between Old Chelsea and Chiswick Reach. Down river from Oxford, he sees the waters bring as a more intellectual atmosphere. ‘Greenbank, which belongs more to the upper river cultural sphere. In Greenbank they drink in Plato and Ruskin with the Oxford bath water.’ Later he describes some boats near his own, ‘We’d got to the railing next to the motor factory and Barberry Creek. It was half-tide, and there were three barges cockeye on the serge-blue mud. So they tilted on the ramp. Like stranded whales with their waists in the water. And a brazier full of orange hot coke making a hay-green high light on their snouts.’ And not so different to Cheyne Walk today.
West London and the Borough has been home to, and a hunting ground for, writers through the ages and, with its ever shifting diverse character, will no doubt keep inspiring literary gems. So be careful who you’re chatting next to in Starbucks, they might just be taking it all down.
One day, taking advantage of having been kept from school by a slight cold, I got out some volumes of art reproductions, which my father had bought back as a souvenir of his foreign travels, and took them to my room, where I looked through them attentively. I was particularly enchanted by the photogravures of Grecian sculptures in the guidebooks to various Italian museums. When it came to depictions of the nude, among the many reproductions of masterpieces, it was these plates, in black and white, that best suited my fancy. This was probably due to the simple fact that, even in reproductions, the sculpture seemed the more lifelike.
This was the first time I had seen these books. My miserly father, hating to have the pictures touched and stained by children’s hands, and also fearing – how mistakenly! – that I might be attracted by the nude women of the masterpieces, had kept the books hidden away deep in the recesses of a cupboard. And for my part, until that day I had never dreamed they could be more interesting than the pictures in adventure story magazines.
I began turning a page toward the end of a volume. Suddenly there came into view from one corner of the next page a picture that I had to believe had been lying in wait there for me, for my sake.
It was a reproduction of Guido Reni’s ‘St Sebastian’, which hangs in the collection of the Palazzo Rosso at Genoa.
The black and slightly oblique trunk of the tree of execution was seen against a Titian-like background of gloomy forest and evening sky, sombre and distant. A remarkably handsome youth was bound naked to the trunk of the tree. His crossed hands were raised high, and the thongs binding his wrists were tied to the tree. No other bonds were visible, and the only covering for the youth’s nakedness was a coarse white cloth knotted loosely about his loins.
I guessed it must be a depiction of a Christian martydom. But, as it was painted by an aesthetic painter of the eclectic school that derived from the Renaissance, even this painting of the death of a Christian saint has about it a strong flavour of paganism. The youth’s body – it might even be likened to that of Antoninus, beloved of Hadrian, whose beauty has been so often immortalized in sculpture – shows none of the traces of missionary hardship or decrepitude that are to be found in depictions of other saints; instead, there is only the springtime of youth, only light and beauty and pleasure.
His white and matchless nudity gleams against a background of dusk. His muscular arms, the arms of a praetorian guard accustomed to bending of bow and wielding of sword, are raised at a graceful angle, and his bound wrists are crossed directly over his head. His face is turned slightly upward and his eyes are open wide, gazing with profound tranquility upon the glory of heaven. It is not pain that hovers about his straining chest, his tense abdomen, his slightly contorted hips, but some flicker of melancholy pleasure like music. Were it not for the arrows with their shafts deeply sunk into his left armpit and right side, he would seem more a Roman athlete resting from fatigue, leaning against a dusky tree in a garden.
The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy. But there is no flowing blood, nor yet the host of arrows seen in other pictures of Sebastian’s martyrdom. Instead, two lone arrows cast their tranquil and graceful shadows upon the smoothness of his skin, like the shadows of a bough falling upon a marble stairway.
But all these interpretations and observations came later.
That day, the instant I looked upon the picture, my entire being trembled with some pagan joy. My blood soared up; my loins swelled as though in wrath. The monstrous part of me that was on the point of bursting awaited my use of it with unprecedented ardour, upbraiding me for my ignorance, panting indignantly. My hands, completely unconsciously, began a motion they had never been taught. I felt a secret, radiant something rise swift-footed to the attack from inside me. Suddenly it burst forth, bringing with it a blinding intoxication . . .
Some time passed, and then, with miserable feelings, I looked around the desk I was facing. A maple tree at the window was casting a bright reflection over everything – over the ink bottle, my schoolbooks and notes, the dictionary, the picture of St Sebastian. There were cloudy-white splashes about – on the gold-imprinted title of a textbook, on a shoulder of the ink bottle, on one corner of the dictionary. Some objects were dripping lazily, leadenly, and others gleamed dully, like the eyes of a dead fish. Fortunately, a reflex motion of my hand to protect the picture had saved the book from being soiled.
This was my first ejaculation. It was also the beginning, clumsy and completely unpremeditated, of my ‘bad habit’.
(It is an interesting coincidence that Hirschfield should place ‘pictures of St Sebastian’ in the first rank of those kinds of art works in which the invert takes special delight. This observation of Hirschfield’s leads easily to the conjecture that in the overwhelming majority of cases of inversion, especially of congenital inversion, the inverted and the sadistic impulses are inextricably linked with each other.)
Yukio Mishima, 1925-1970 Confessions of a Mask,1949 (仮面の告白 Kamen no Kokuhaku)
Translated by Meredith Weatherby, first published in English, 1958
Image: Guido Reni, 1575-1642. St Sebastian, c.1615-16, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa. Oil on canvas, 146 x 113 cm