April 5, 2013
After writing a post not long ago on a book about a small provincial river in France – it seems more than fitting to follow up with a book about a small provincial river in England. Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s just-released book Silt Road: The Story of a Lost River unearths (quite literally) the meandering path and lost history of the Wey, a more or less obscure river about halfway between London and Oxford. The Wey is but seven winding miles in length and one can drive from its source to the point where it disappears forever in a half hour. But with dual epigraphs from Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and from W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, Rangeley-Wilson signals that Silt Road is ambitious and intends to transgress typical book categories.
The premise of Silt Road is simple: the author, a well-respected authority on trout fishing around the world, becomes intrigued and then obsessed by a local stream that seemingly harbors the occasional trout. Efforts to track it from start to finish fail, as the river keeps disappearing underground, under highways, into drainage culverts, beneath buildings. The hide-and-seek game of where is the river soon leads to why and when. Why does the river disappear so often and when did all that happen? As it turns out, Rangeley-Wilson’s obsessiveness is matched ounce for ounce by his dogged research skills, and slowly Rangeley-Wilson peels away at the strata of history literally beneath his feet and the rather astonishing history of the Wye is revealed. We learn about the erotic exploits of the well-named Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781) and his randy fellows whose gatherings in the wood by the Wye were both satanic and priapic. We learn that much of the local machinery destroyed by the Luddite riots of the 1830s was thrown in the Wye. We learn that the local beech forests (now nearly wiped out) supplied the wood for the classic Windsor chair and that chair makers in the area were producing 4,500 chairs a day late in the nineteenth century. We learn that, until specimens were exported from the Wye, the entire southern hemisphere of this planet had no trout.
It takes a bit of hubris and a dash of humor to give a book about a polluted little river in England a title that will surely call to mind the great Silk Road that once spanned Asia, but I give Rangeley-Wilson credit for keeping me thoroughly engaged. His message is that, properly told, local history can become universal. As a reader, I felt as if I had stowed away in Rangeley-Wilson’s rucksack as he tromped around the fringes of English villages and conducted his research, employing everything from satellite maps to aging reels of microfiche to interviews in local pubs over a few pints. Silt Road pays polite homage to Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in the way Rangeley-Wilson blends the genres of history, exploration, autobiography, and such, and also in the use of his own snapshots and reproductions of historic images and documents as illustrative material. But Rangeley-Wilson can also veer off into the industrial wastelands and working-class districts more frequently found in the books of Iain Sinclair.
I also give him credit for insisting on depth rather than breadth and sticking with his subject for the entire book. (It helps that he writes damned well.) This is a book that is already being compared to works by Roger Deakin and Robert MacFarlane, two authors who can’t seem to stay in one place for more than a chapter. As much as I appreciate Deakin’s classic Waterlog, I find it a bit disconcerting that every chapter begins by setting off for new territory. I often feel that Deakin was at his best when he just stayed home and wrote about his own backyard. In Silt Road, Charles Rangeley-Wilson sticks to his own neighborhood and it pays off.
March 18, 2013
The backs of the books stand in rows. I know them all still, I remember arranging them in order. I implore them with my eyes. Speak to me – take me up – take me, Life of my Youth – you who are care-free, beautiful – receive me again.
I wait, I wait….
Nothing – nothing -
As a follow-up to Julien Gracq’s World War II novel Balcony in the Forest, I thought I needed to read one of those classics I had managed to avoid for decades – Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel from the First World War All Quiet on the Western Front, which seems to have been in print continuously since it was first published in 1929. I’m glad I did. The novel focuses on young Paul Bäumer and some of his schoolmates, who find themselves transformed by the war and their efforts to survive it. “We have become a wasteland,” Paul observes of his generation. They have been betrayed by their teachers and the leaders, they have no personal animus against the French or the Russians – except that they have been taught to see them as the enemy – and it is they who find themselves on the front lines.
“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.
Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom war is useful.”
“Well, I’m not one of them,” grins Tjaden.
“Not you, not anybody else here.”
“Who are they then?” persists Tjaden. “It isn’t any use to the Kaiser either. He has everything he can want already.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” contradicts Kat, “he has not had a war up till now. And every full-grown emperor requires at least one war, otherwise he would not become famous. You look in your school books.”
But when they are at the front, their will to survive leads them to fight like animals. “If your own father came over with [the enemy] you would not hesitate to fling a bomb at him.”
As a war novel, All Quiet is surprisingly still relevant more than eighty years and scores of wars after it was written. The scenes of trench warfare, aerial strafing, mustard gas, intense shelling barrages, and vicious hand-to-hand combat are utterly nerve-wracking and are as gruesome as anything I’ve ever read. Few books have suggested the horror and chaos of warfare quite like this. But equally important is what happens when Paul returns home to his mother and home town for a few weeks of leave. He suffers from what we would likely call post traumatic stress syndrome and he finds there is simply no way to bridge the gulf between those who have seen battle and those who have not. Everyone asks what the front is like, but he cannot describe it and they would never really understand. “Attack, counter-attack, charge, repulse – these are words, but what do they signify?” Language, Paul realizes, has failed him. After a few days futilely struggling to retain any sense of his prior life, Paul is ready to return to the front and to his band of fellow soldiers who share this war with him.
The writing in All Quiet on the Western Front bears a very close kinship with German Expressionist art of the 1920s. It’s frank, brutal, and satiric. Remarque stays close to the surface of his characters, never pushing into great psychological depths. The book’s power lies in taking full advantage of the reader’s imagination. The scenes at the front continually reminded me of the horrific series of etchings by Otto Dix from 1924 called Der Krieg (The War). (The entire series can be viewed on MoMA’s website.)
Otto Dix, “Battle Weary,” 1924
Similarly, All Quiet is full of biting satire that calls to mind George Grosz, whose work often captured the gulf between Germany’s fat cats and the proletariat forced to begged on the streets and fight their wars. Here, Paul’s former teacher Kantorek, who smugly and patriotically urged his students to sign up, finds himself drafted, while some of his former students take their revenge in handing out his new gear.
I see Kantorek and I am scarcely able to stifle my laughter. He is wearing a faded blue tunic. On the back and in the sleeves there are big dark patches. The tunic must have belonged to a giant. The black, worn breeches are just as much too short; they reach barely halfway down his calf. The boots, tough old clod-hoppers, with turned-up toes and laces at the side are much too big for him. But as a compensation the cap is too small, a terrible, dirty, mean little pill-box. The whole rig-out is just pitiful.
George Grosz, untitled etching
Assigned to a blockhouse on a hilltop high above the Meuse River deep in the Ardennes Forest, Lt. Grange at first finds his new home “perfectly improbable.” It’s nothing more than a concrete bunker comically topped by a little house where a handful of men live. It feels as if they were perched in a children’s tree house, “as if they were on a roof and the ladder had been taken away.” The time is autumn 1939. The German invasions of Poland, Norway, and Denmark seem far away and France is preparing as if this is going to be a rematch of the trench warfare of the First World War. “The war? Who knows if there is a war?”
In surprisingly short order, however, Grange adapts to the hilltop hideaway where he and his men spend their days making half-hearted efforts to walk patrols and laying out the barbed wire with which they’ve been supplied, barbed wire, it seems, that is without many barbs. They have guns that don’t work and the parts they order never arrive. But that doesn’t seem to matter. What Grange responds to deeply is the forest.
The forest breathed, more ample now, awakened, alert, its remotest hiding places suddenly stirred by the enigmatic signs of time’s reversion – an age of great hunts, of proud cavalcades – as if the old Merovingian lair were quickened by a forgotten scent in the air that made it live again.
The forest is a living entity that continually breathes, and for many months to come its breathing will manage to absorb the existence of the distant war. But for Grange, the forest is something more. Whenever he listens to the forest he hears the ocean, even though the North Sea is more than a hundred miles away, beyond Belgium.
…both men held their breath for a moment, listening to the great respiration of the woods around them that made a kind of low and intermittent music, the long deep murmur of an undertow that came from the groves of firs near Les Fraitures…
We never learn much about Grange’s prior life, but in the forest, in spite of the crude conditions and the hint of war on the horizon, Grange begins to realize that he is a changed man. “It seemed as if his life were no longer divided, partitioned…” Nevertheless, it is not exactly clear to him why this should be so – “…a question it had become urgent to understand were being asked – but Grange did not understand.” He becomes seduced by a local woman he meets in the forest one day – a woman variously described as a “rain sprite,” a “plant in the sun,” as “nature itself” or as a “witch” – and they embark on a romance that lasts until the imminent approach of the German army. In his quarters, he surreptitiously begins to study the official brochure that reproduces the silhouettes of the German armored vehicles, afraid of being caught by his men “as if he were pouring over obscene photographs.”
Eventually, as “the phoney war” inexorably becomes real and threatens the French border, even the forest can no longer repel or absorb it; the earth becomes “like a corpse beginning to smell.” Grange’s superior gives him the option of another post, far from the front, but Grange refuses. “‘I like it here.’ He felt as if he were hearing the words for the first time, astonished to have known the truth so long.”
What is it about this forest that compels him to stay here in his concrete tree house in the woods above the tiny village of Les Falizes?
What most reminded him of his exaltation at Les Falizes, where he seemed to breathe as never before, was the beginning of summer vacations in his childhood – the fever seizing him as soon as he could look out the train windows, still miles away from the coast, and see the trees gradually shrink, stunted by the salt wind – the anxiety suddenly filling his throat at the mere thought that his room in the hotel might not overlook the sea. And the next day there would be the sand castles, too, when his heart beat stronger than anywhere else just standing next to them, because he knew, and at the same time could not believe, that the tide would soon cover them.
When the motorized German army finally does appear on the horizon across the Meuse in May, after swiftly slicing through Belgium, Grange feels something akin to relief. “He felt his mind floating high on the waters of catastrophe.”
[It was] a marvelous, almost appealing terror that Grange felt rising from the depths of his childhood – from fairy tales: the terror of children lost in the woods at twilight, listening to the faraway branches crack beneath the dreadful heels of the seven-league boots.
The enemy doesn’t actually appear until eighteen pages from the end of the book, but the finale is swift. The blockhouse is quickly assaulted by gunfire and Grange and his men are forced to flee into the open, where he manages to shoot and destroy a tank. “It was intoxicating,” Grange thinks. He realizes that he has reacted without panic during his first moments of combat. “He felt somehow invulnerable.” At the novel’s end, Grange is wounded and makes his way back into the blockhouse.
Life fell back to this sweetish silence, the peace of a field of asphodels, only the faint rustle of blood within the ear, like the sound of the unattainable sea in a shell…Then he pulled the blanket up over his head and went to sleep.
Balcony in the Forest is a strange, elusive novel. Is Grange an unrealistic dreamer who takes refuge from the realities of war in the dream forests of childhood fairy tales? Or is he tapping into some primal force or existential plane that transcends the pettiness of human history?
Julien Gracq. Balcony in the Forest. NY: Columbia University Press, 1987. Translated from the French by Richard Howard.
February 23, 2013
After reading Julien Gracq’s The Narrow Waters, I moved on to his book of essays called, in English, Reading Writing (originally published in France in 1980 as En Lisant En Écrivant). The sixteen essays have titles like Literature and Painting, Landscape and the Novel, Literature and History, Literature and Cinema, and Surrealism – titles that in no way hint at the digressive, unpredictable nature of Gracq’s writing. Like a hiker calmly ascending a craggy hill, Gracq surefootedly heads this way and that, following a path that often only he can spy. Gracq, who lived from 1910 to 2007, writes with a mission, offering an alternative to the literary criticism of his day – and, indeed, of ours.
What I want from a literary critic – and what is rarely given – is for the critic to tell me, better than I could do myself, why reading a book gives me pleasure that cannot be replaced…what it has exclusively is all that matters to me.
Gracq, then, is an intense reader and tough to please. He also openly admits that the nineteenth century – which he would say lasts from Stendhal to Proust – is his century and that it is French literature which gives him the most pleasure, especially Stendhal. For him, literature is most assuredly not a text, it is never something that can be disassembled, dissected, or understood mechanistically.
…the secret of a work resides much less in the ingenuity of its organization than in the quality of its material: if I enter a novel by Stendhal or a poem by Nerval without prejudice, I am first and foremost only the scent of a rose, like Condillac’s statue – without eyes, ears, or localized perceptions – and the artwork thereby offers me its distinctive operative character, which is to occupy my entire inner cavity immediately and without any differentiation, like a gas that is expanding. Revealing its total elasticity and the undivided immanence of its true presence: it cannot be subdivided, because its virtue resides entirely in each particle.
The bad novelist – by which I mean the skilled and indifferent novelist – is the one who tries to bring to life, to animate from the outside and on the whole faithfully, the local color that strikes him as specific to a subject he has judged ingenious or picturesque – the true novelist is the one who cheats, who asks the subject, above all, through oblique and unexpected paths, to give him access once again to his personal palette, knowing full well that in terms of his local color, the only kind that can make an impression is his own.
The title itself – Reading Writing – implies several permutations of meaning. The book contains essays on being a reader and on being a writer, and those that are more literally on the reading of writing – i.e. on the art of literature. But of equal importance is Gracq’s insistence that literature is a kind of shared partnership between reader and writer.
The reading of a literary work is not only the decanting from one mind into another of an organized complex of ideas and images, or a subject’s active work on a collection of signs that must be resuscitated in a new way throughout, it is also the reader’s reception, in the course of a fully regulated visit, where not a comma can be changed in the itinerary, by someone: the conceiver and the constructor, now the naked proprietor, who gives you a tour of his domain from start to finish and from whose company you cannot be liberated.
In keeping with the major chord struck in The Narrow Waters, Gracq repeatedly returns to the unique role that memory plays for the reader.
In the novel reader’s mind, the whole stratification of memory is created while reading, a process perhaps like folding linear sequences of material in layers, like a piece of fabric.
Nine-tenths of the pleasures we owe to art over a lifetime are conveyed not by direct contact with the work but by memory alone.
Even when, on occasion, I failed to follow Gracq through this erudite, personal, and, at times, contradictory book, it was always an immense pleasure to read. There was always a startling and illuminating insight or turn of phrase just around the corner. I’ll leave you with one more example:
There has never existed a more terrifying waffle iron in literature than the classic tragedy in five acts.
[Julien Gracq, Reading Writing. NY: Turtle Point Press, n.d. Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.]