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This blog makes liberal use of AB's journals, letters, travel notes, and other sources.

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Monday, 21 March 2016

Reefs of memory

Image result for oates shadow manA couple of weeks ago I read a review of Joyce Carol Oates' novel "The Man Without a Shadow" and determined to read it when the opportunity arose. How pleased I was then to find a copy on the shelf at my local library, and yesterday I finished the book, exhilarated and exhausted. It felt as if I had been out swimming in the sea, just off shore, and had been caught up by an unexpectedly strong wave, tossing me about and threatening to drown me, and then cast onto the beach to lie almost extinguished on the sand. My heart was beating more rapidly than usual, I was flushed and slightly breathless. I had to go out for a walk in the night air to calm down. This is a timely reminder of why fiction is so much more 'real', and better, than real life.

The novel tells of the relationship, over a period of thirty years, between two people, Margot Sharpe and Elihu Hoopes. Eli has suffered an extreme infection which has damaged his brain resulting in an inability to remember anything new for more than seventy seconds. He is an intelligent man of middle years and from a privileged background at the start of the novel, with a good memory pre-trauma. Margot is a psychology student in her early twenties who makes Eli her life's work, pursuing a successful career in neuro-psychology and becoming increasingly involved emotionally with her amnesiac subject. There is a sub-plot involving an apparent mystery from Eli's boyhood which leavens the mixture.

Eli is a man almost permanently in a state of panic, because he has no idea where he is or why he is there. He struggles, mostly successfully, to hide his anxiety behind a genial, old-fashioned facade. As a boy it turns out that he was bullied and humiliated, but became successful by dint of his intelligence and determination, though remaining a rather fragile personality. We learn little of Margot's background except that she was glad to escape from it. She is an odd mixture of strong will and determination professionally overlying emotional insecurity and vulnerability.

There is an episodic structure to the novel, usually in the third person but sometimes seeming to be a first person stream of thought from either Eli or Margot. It is not clear who the narrator is. There are several references to Margot intending to write/having written a book called "The Biology of Memory" giving a personal account of her relationship with Eli to set alongside the scientific papers she has published. Are we in fact reading from that book? If so, how reliable a narrator is Margot? For example we are told that a sexual relationship develops between Margot and Eli, but is this credible or a figment of Margot's wishful thinking? The way the book is structured, to my mind, helpfully conveys something of the confusion felt by the amnesiac.

Do I feel I know more about memory as a result of reading this book? No. But it has caused me to reflect on the nature not just of memory itself but its role in present experience. Many issues are raised by Oates: the nature of consent, confidentiality, the morality of experimentation, professional standards and the exploitation of the weak by those who have power. Margot herself is exploited professionally, emotionally and sexually by her mentor, and she in turn exploits Eli, though less cynically.

This is an unconventional book, not a thriller but for me as gripping as a thriller, not a romance or a drama. I think it unique.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Ides of March

4 Rue de Calais, Paris
March 15th., 1905

If my calculations are correct it is one thousand, nine hundred and forty nine years ago today that Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Roman Senate. Would the world have been a different place now had the assassination failed? Surely the answer must be "Yes". How different cannot be known, but different certainly. Which shows that the history of mankind turns unpredictably on the outcome of events. But is it just grand events like the death of Caesar? At first glance we might think so, but who is to say that what appear to be quite small events in the lives of people not in the public eye might have great consequences? Take the case of Caesar. He was captured by pirates on his way to Rhodes in 75 BC, when still relatively unknown. Suppose they had killed him? I wonder if I could summon up the imagination to write a sort of alternative history - probably not; it is a task better suited to the pen of my friend H G Wells. I may suggest it to him.

Today I finished the second part of "Sacred and profane Love". The book so far is over 6,000 words longer than I had anticipated, and I think the second part is rather better on the whole than I expected it would be when I started it.

I have read Oscar Wilde's "Intentions", and found it really very good. better than "De Profundis". I read also in "The Importance of Being Ernest", and found that admirably witty.

The French are a 'stuffy' nation; but they do hang their bedding out of the windows in the morning to air. This is more than can be said of the English. Though it does occur to me that if the matrons of the Five Towns hung their bedding out to air it would become so begrimed as to be impossible to restore to the beds.

Monday, 14 March 2016

The old days

March 14th., 1929
75 Cadogan Square, London

A woman, an experienced and abandoned reader, lamented to me the other day that the domestic novel was disappearing. I could not agree and told her so. At any rate I, who do indeed glance at novels now and then in my spare time, have observed no sign of it. The great majority of novels have been and will be essentially domestic in matter. Even Tolstoy in "War and Peace" had to come down to the bedrock of domesticity in the end. To my mind the last 100 pages of that perhaps supreme work, dealing in the main with very narrow domesticity, are the most poignant in it - and the most effective. It is certainly not essential for the action of a novel to be confined to a traditional home, with the characters engaging in conversation across the kitchen table, for it to be regarded as domestic. Of course I am well aware what the lamenting lady meant. She meant that the old-fashioned domestic novel was disappearing. Naturally it is. The old-fashioned everything is disappearing, and has been disappearing steadily for thousands of years.

Yesterday I met an American, clearly a man of taste and discernment, who asked me for the name and address of the artist who had created the suit in which I happened to be clad. He said that in the old days he used to order all his clothes in London, but he had given up London tailors because they demanded so many tryings-on. However he was now inclined to return to them. I then told him my most famous experience: how I had spent three months, and given at least twelve tryings-on, and exhausted two tailoring firms, in the attempt, ultimately successful, to obtain three evening waistcoats that would fit without crease. Not that I am hard to please!

Wherever I go it seems that people of a certain age are complaining to me about things 'not being as they were in our day'. And they seem to take for granted that I will agree with them. Only today a neighbour, rather older than myself, was bemoaning modern food, the difficulty of getting 'real' meat and 'proper' vegetables such as were, apparently, in abundance when he was a boy. Is this a sort of resentment that life has been so unaccountably unfair as to make us old? For myself, if I were offered the opportunity to relive my youth I would politely decline - once has been sufficient for me.

Sunday, 13 March 2016


Dominion Hotel, Avignon.
March 13th., 1926.

Image result for avignon dominion hotel postcard
We came here from Menton and are proceeding in easy stages back to England via Paris. The aim is to arrive in plenty of time for the birth. Dorothy is huge!

Today for the first time I knew what the mistral can be. It blew strongly, a harsh, cold-warm, dry wind that dries you up and discomforts the skin. Also the town is full of dust. I thought of a longish article on hotels this morning, and I wrote 1,000 words of it before dinner, upset though I was by the mistral. I think it must be the mistral which unfavourably affects the temper and manner of the employees here. The mistral is agacant.

We drove in clouds of dust to the cathedral. Closed but the post-card seller took us by a side door. It is a very remarkable piece of architecture, and not much like anything else. Then we saw the 'point of view'. Fine. It disclosed the strange interest of all the district around about. A district for centuries 'not France'. 'France lies over there'.

Image result for avignon dominion hotel postcardAfter lunch and siesta I went alone to the Palace des Papes. There are four visits a day, the last at 3.30. The Palais has little or no aesthetic interest. Its interest is archaeological and social. Only one open staircase. All the many others together with endless narrow corridors are cut in the thick walls (8 or 10 feet thick), as it were secretly. And everywhere are little holes, through which everyone could be spied on by somebody else. An impression unpleasant, mean, and particularly medieval.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Oh Lena!

75 Cadogan Square, London
March 12th., 1924

I lost my heart to Miss Ashwell on first meeting her in 1914. She was then in charge of the Womens Emergency Corps at Old Bedford College, Baker Street. How exhilarating her femininity, its effect amplified by the two lines of young women, badged as messengers, in the outer hall, earnest, eager and braced for action. I am not a man who has inspired much devotion from women - I fear my looks and mannerisms are against me - and to be the centre of such attention was novel indeed. It is an experience I have never forgotten, and at its centre was Miss Ashwell as she was known, though in fact married to the surgeon Henry Simpson. Was there a spark in her eye when we spoke? Possibly I imagined what I wished to see.

Regrettably, in spite of the fact that we are both 'theatre people', we have had no contact in the intervening years but last evening I saw her again at a performance of Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple" by her "Once a week players". It was at the Century Theatre, Arch Street, North Kensington. She is only a few years younger than myself, so over 50, but still beautiful. She has a way of looking, beneath her heavy lids, which seems to turn my insides into a form of pap. How I wish I had had the courage to pursue an acquaintance with her a decade ago, husband or no, but it is wishful thinking. I lack courage for affairs of the heart.

The "Once a week players" specialised in the presentation of plays with minimal scenery and props in village and suburban halls. They were in fact an extension of Miss Ashwell's troop entertainments from the war. But now she is managing the Century Theatre and that is their base. Still they dispensed practically with props and scenery. Just a few tables, chairs, window-frames, door-frames, and curtain. Same furniture throughout, whether for a general's headquarters or a widow's modest home. Everything very poor and cheap; but nicely done - not overstepping the modesty of nature. I complimented Miss Ashwell on the performance at the end and she rewarded me with one of her enigmatic smiles. I could expect no more and might have received much less.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Out of place

Thursday, March 10th., 1928. 
75 Cadogan Square, London.

Image result for waldorf astor temple placeI recently made the acquaintance of Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor. I had met Lady Astor's sister, Mrs. Phipps, at Ruth Draper's in December and was later introduced to the Viscount. I was a little surprised by the invitation to Temple Place, one of the grandest houses in London by all repute. It is just across from the Victoria Embankment, in the Temple area and deserves its reputation. It is as if a country mansion has been set down in the city, and I suppose that was the intention. They have a very interesting collection of Egyptian curiosities there at the moment which I was able to examine.

Image result for william waldorf astor 2 temple placeBuilt by William Waldorf Astor, then the richest man in the world, in 1895 it has a distinct Arts and Crafts feel - lots of wood panelling, carving, stained glass and hanging lights. The central staircase, with glazed roof is very grand indeed. To be honest I felt myself to be rather out of place - there is nothing like this in the Five Towns. But the Viscount and his wife were very welcoming and she especially seemed genuinely interested in my writing; I don't think the Viscount is a reading man. My impression is that the couple do not use the place very much now, preferring their country place at Cliveden. Nancy Astor is a rather lovely woman, and of course the first woman to take a seat in the Commons. Quite how she reconciles this with the sort of life she leads I have no idea and felt it inopportune to inquire.

I sometimes wonder if my marriage would have been better served had I had a London house instead of Comarques. Marguerite was never really happy there and was always nagging me for us to live in London. It is ironic that I have lived here since I left her. But on balance I don't think it would have made much difference. She would still have met and become infatuated with Legros, or if not him then some other young spark. I don't seem to have the gift of making women happy, though I like them and get on with them very well in a general way. Dorothy isn't happy though she puts a brave face on things. It may be that I am so set in my ways and tend to be perhaps too particular, not to say obsessive. My sister Tertia when she lived with me sometimes called me 'an old woman'. Maybe she had the right of it.