ray greenblatt

The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene


By Ray Greenblatt

Graham Greene did not have much time to be poetic when writing his novels; he knew that a fast-moving plot was what held the reader. However, in his book reviews, essays, travel books, other elements could be expanded. In THE LAWLESS ROADS Greene explores the dynamics of Mexico in 1938, wandering many byways where he had the space to be descriptive as well as contemplative.

                                                       The Shadow of Hemingway

          Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway both began to write in the 1920’s. As the years evolved, Greene developed a philosophical, psychological style; while Hemingway’s remained essentially the same—basic word usage, spare sentences—growing stylized over time. But Hemingway’s almost immediate and worldwide effect on writing was a phenomenon. The writers especially of detective fiction employ his style to this very day. Greene’s “Entertainments,” his name for the six thrillers he wrote, were influenced by Hemingway; even to a degree this early travel book about Mexico. This style was apt for expressing what Greene experienced.

Greene uses a series of nouns loosely joined by “and.”  “In the market flowers and flies and ordure and sleep.” (90) “They were full of scent and sunlight and quiet and desertion.” (200) “This was real—the high empty rooms and the tiled and swarming floor and the heat and the sour river smell.” (126) Notice the high number of negatively charged nouns.

Perhaps with further nod to Hemingway, Graham Greene also uses strings of simple sentences. “The hammocks creaked and something fluttered in the roof and a child wailed.” (135) “This small place wedged in among the mountains round its locked decaying church, and time just going by and the aeroplane always coming tomorrow. “ (157) Sometimes that all-purpose “and” joins adjectives, even sentence fragments: “No one could resent it: he was so pink and old and he had so many introductions. And a police badge under his lapel. “ (32)

The tone of his writing can be blase: “He was like the tough case of something labeled fragile.” (105) Or the author himself steps into the scene: “I had taken him already and made a character of him and I had got him entirely wrong.” (33) Also the use of ironic humor: “A few bright blue birds mocked one with other people’s happiness.” (185) Selectively, the Hemingway style can be liberating and focus the reader on each word: “He hated Mexico with a little refined adder-like hatred.” (42) Not only is “hatred” repeated for emphasis; unique adjectives—“refined” and “adder-like”—can be more easily observed and enjoyed.

                                                            Meet The People

          The 1930’s, with a worldwide depression, were a sad time for the people of Mexico. Graham Greene shows us some happy folk. At a cockfight: “They had plump mild operatic faces.” (43) In a cantina: “Nothing one could say failed to feed that enormous flame of mirth: it roared like a draught in a chimney, sucking up words like scraps of paper.” (96)

But for the most part life was serious if not tragic. A rebel general: “One gold tooth like a flaw in character.” (50) “Many people had a kind of affection for him—an affection for an animal whose cage you enter with caution.” (51) Even the soldiers had a hard life: “I passed the poor huts of the soldiers—just twig and mud, like birds’ nests, on the bank.” (205)

The educated suffered similarly to the poor. A philosopher: “The old professor had thin white hair, a long white moustache, and blanched and bony hands. He had an air of melancholy breeding; he was very clean and very worn; he was like an old-fashioned vase standing among the junk at the end of an auction.” (47) A school- teacher: “He was benevolent and patronizing, he knew everybody, but unlike the priest he knew nothing at all. He sat there like a poster advertising something of no value to anyone at all.” (204)

An ancient peasant: “His hands were like last year’s leaves.” (161) Beggars at a railroad station: “They came up around the train on both sides of the track like mangy animals in a neglected zoo.” (58) Even children were afflicted: “Two small boys boarded the train at San Marco with guitars and played in the middle of the coach for centavos—sweet melancholy voices and large brown actors’ eyes.” (88) “A little blonde girl of two lay wearily asleep in her nurse’s arms. Washed out and fragile as a shell, with her tiny ears already drilled for rings and a gold bangle round the little bony wrist.” (95)

During this Mexican persecution priests were not spared: “In the mortuary, lids not quite closed and the obstinate mouth dropping open to show the big stony teeth, and the vacant face like a mask taken off and ready for any wearer.” (75) Greene gives most of his time to describing men; women were usually involved with the church, as we will later see. However, here is one tragic woman: “Through an open door in one of the little houses I came suddenly on a tall tragic woman with hollow handsome features and a strange twisted mouth—like an expression of agony.” (147)

                                                     Mexican Flora and Fauna

          Graham Greene is skilled in depicting people. Let us now see poetically how he brings the landscape to life: “The rough, friendly, complex hills.”(49) “An oriental flat-roofed town under the leonine wrinkled hills.” (192) Mountains from the air: “The mountains came nearer—heavy black bars one behind the other—and a silver horizontal gleam upon the ground was a waterfall.” (128) “The mountains crouched all round like large and friendly dogs.” (169) “The volcanoes were there, moving half submerged like icebergs along the horizon.”

The land ran the gamut from aridity to fecundity. “This was the dry season: you could see the hollows—like thumb-marks—waiting for the rains.” (128) “All the vegetation died out into a black and hopeless soil.” (94) “It was like the grave, the earth taking over before its day.” (152)  “You can’t open a book without some tiny scrap of life scuttling across the page.” (120) The ancient temples in the jungle: “You can see them on the point of being swallowed again by the forest; they have looked out for a minute, old wrinkled faces, and will soon withdraw.” (137)

The villages and towns were often run down. “It was like a place besieged by scavengers—sharks in the river and vultures in the street.”(103) “ In the yard a whirlwind, small and domestic, raised a pillar of dust.” (50) “The turkeys—those hideous Dali heads, with the mauve surrealist flaps of skin they had to toss aside to uncover the beak or eyes.” (142) “The cocks crowing for miles around, an odd Biblical rhapsody at dawn.” (35) And in the local river  “the carcasses of old stranded steamers held up the banks.” (102)

Yet the natural beauty could be stunning: “The sun dropped out of sight, the forests became black below their gilded tips. The world was all steel and gold, like war.” (160) “Only sunset cast some kind of gentle humanizing spell over this rocky cactus desolation—a faint gold, a subjective pity, as if one were looking at the world for a moment through a god’s anatomical and pitying eye.” (38) “The last pale golden light welling across the plain, dropping down over the ridge which ended it as if over the world’s edge, so that you thought of the light going on and on through quiet peaceful uninhabited space.” (166)

Greene traveled by local train: “We were like an overgrown fossil as we bumped at seven in the morning along the hideously familiar way to Istapa.” (189)  Also by train: “It moves in great loops to summer, the seasons change as you watch, the air thickens, and exhilaration stirs in the flaccid lungs.” (89) Here is an overview of the landscape: “At the top of the ridge above the Mexican plain one emerged far above the sunset, which poured out between the mountains—a pale green under-water light shading into gold across the Mexican plain towards the volcanic snows, over more churches than you could count of fake pink stone, over haciendas like broken toys, and the wrinkled hills, a hundred luminous miles.” (205)

                                                           The Greene Theology

          Graham Greene, a Catholic himself, was commissioned to evaluate how Mexico was surviving. For a decade the dictator President Calles tried to eradicate Catholicism from the country; many churches had been closed and priests killed. However, the people’s faith would not be stamped out. “The cathedral sails like an old rambling Spanish galleon.” (61) “The churches still stand, great white shells like the skulls you find bleached beside the forest paths.” (141) “Everywhere churches lift up their bruised and antique heads above the walls and trees.” (75)

It is mostly women who sustain the faith. “With their cave-dwellers’ faces and their long staffs they might have been Stone Age people emerging from forgotten caverns to pay their tribute to the Redeemer on Resurrection morning.” (185) If a church was unavailable, they would go to private homes: “All day you could see women hurrying with ostrich secrecy towards the house in the side street where the body and blood of Christ was reserved in the little room off the balcony.” (178)

Some might not take the faith seriously: “Three girls doing the Stations of the Cross, giggling and chattering from agony to agony.” (35) But an innate feeling abided: “During the Calles persecution God had lain in radio cabinets, behind bookshelves. He had been carried in a small boy’s pocket into prisons; he had been consumed in drawingrooms and in garages. “ (36) “A great bare pulled-about church hummed gently and continuously with the prayers of the people.” (36)  “They were like relays of labourers making a road up Calvary.” (36)

“Perhaps this is the population of heaven—these aged, painful, and ignorant faces: they are human goodness.” (40) “You would say that life itself for these was mortification enough.” (40) “Even if it were all untrue and there were no God, surely life was happier with the enormous supernatural promise than with the petty social fulfillment, the tiny pension and the machine-made furniture.” (45)

To conclude, let us have Graham Greene poetically offer some of his wisdom:

“Death dictates certain rites. Men make rules and hope in that way to tame death.” (44)

“Guns on their hips, the holsters and the cartridge belts beautifully worked, a decorative death.” (49)

Dictators “under their pretence of freedom have left so many chains.” (58)

Socialism “like an electric train gone wild, sparkling and jabbing down the Embankment.” (87)

“That Mexican façade of bonhomie—the embrace, the spar, the joke—with which they hide from themselves the cruelty and the treachery of their life.” (163)

“Despair has its own humour as well as its own courage.” (42)

“The little villages go up on the wounded clay with garages like tombs.” (46)

“It is before you cross a frontier that you experience fear.” (100)

“There is always something exhilarating about moving inward from the sea into an unknown country.” (104)

“It was like being forgotten in a maze when the ticket man had gone home.” (47)

“Man has a dreadful adaptability.” (137)

“Human kindness withering out like a flower in a vacuum flask.” (93)

“I suppose the love of life which periodically deserts most men was returning: like sexual desire, it moves in cycles.” (144)

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Lawless-Roads-Penguin-Classics/dp/0143039733

This review will be published by The Graham Greene Newsletter in print August 2019.

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.




The Love Poems of Kenneth Rexroth

By Ray Greenblatt


          Kenneth Rexroth was considered the senior member of the Beats. He was writing experimental free verse and lengthy exhortations to the world as early as the 1920’s, a generation before Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the West Coast poets.

          But I think he has been overlooked for his exquisite love lyrics. These poems are often set in the wildest of the back country. Let’s insinuate ourselves into these scenes of love to observe how Rexroth illuminates them:
         You beside me
          Like a colt swimming slowly in kelp
          In the nude sea
          Where ten thousand birds
          Move like a waved scarf
          On the long surge of sleep. (“Camargue”)
Rexroth loves to look minutely at his lover. Indeed she becomes part of nature:
          Eater of moonlight, drinker
          Of brightness, feet of jewels
          On the mountain, velvet feet
          In the meadow grass, darkness
          Braided with wild roses, wild
          Mare of the horizons.
          It’s enough that the green glow
          Runs through the down on your arms
          Like a grass fire and your eyes
          Are fogs of the same endless light.
          Let the folds and divisions
          Of your anatomy envelop
          All horizons. (“Air and Angels”)
The following poem opens with imagery that Rexroth remolds in his conclusion:
          Lean back. Give me your mouth.
          Your grace is as beautiful as sleep.
          You move against me like a wave
          That moves in sleep.
          Your body spreads across my brain
          Like a bird filled summer.
          My eyelids sink toward sleep in the hot
          Autumn of your uncoiled hair.
          Your body moves in my arms
          On the verge of sleep;
          And it is as though I held
          In my arms the bird filled
          Evening sky of summer. (“When We with Sappho”)
          Sometimes the locale shifts to a foreign city, but the intense sensuality remains:
          Your face topples into dark
          And the wind sounds like an army
          Breaking through dry reeds.
          We spread our aching bodies in the window
          And I can smell the odor of hay
          In the female smell of Venice. (“Sottoportico San Zaccaria”)
          At times Rexroth removes all censure so that our faces redden at the intimacy, as in “Floating”:
          Take me slowly while our gnawing lips
          Fumble against the humming blood in our throats.
          Move softly, do not move at all, but hold me,
          Deep, still, deep within you, while time slides away,
          As this river slides beyond this lily bed,
          And the thieving moments fuse and disappear
          In our mortal, timeless flesh.
The poet is also able to capture moments of a lover’s personality:
          Suddenly you laugh, like a pure
          Exulting flute, spring to your feet
          And plunge into the water.
          A white bird breaks from the rushes
          And flies away, and the boat rocks
          Drunkenly in the billows
          Of your nude jubilation. (“Still on Water”)
So many of his poems are like scenes caught by a painter—nuanced details, striking movements often in open air held fast in bright colors:
          A fervor parches you sometimes,
          And you hunch over it, silent,
          Cruel, and timid; and sometimes
          You are frightened with wantonness,
        And give me your desperation. (“Between Myself and Death”)
          As Kenneth Rexroth’s art matured, his view toward love developed deeper feelings and interpretations. In “Incarnation” after a day of climbing, the narrator returns to camp and glimpses his love in the distance:
          The crinkled iris petal,
          The gold hairs powdered with pollen,
          And the obscure cantata
          Of the tangled water, and the
          Burning, impassive snow peaks,
          Are knotted together here.
          This moment of fact and vision
          Seizes immortality,
          Becomes the person of this place.
          The responsibility
          Of love realized and beauty
          Seen burns in a burning angel
          Real beyond flower or stone.
The lover remembers all his past loves, the highs and lows:
          Under this tree for a moment,
          We have escaped the bitterness
          Of love, and love lost, and love
          Betrayed. And what might have been,
          And what might be, fall equally
          Away with what is, and leave
          Only these ideograms
          Printed on the immortal
          Hydrocarbons of flesh and stone. (“Lyell’s Hypothesis Again”)
Sometimes we must apologize for mistakes to let the relationship heal and continue to grow:
          Now my heart
          Turns towards you, awake at last,
          Penitent, lost in the last
          Loneliness. Speak to me. Talk
          To me. Break the black silence.
          Speak of a tree full of leaves,
          Of a flying bird, the new
          Moon in the sunset, a poem,
          A book, a person. (“Loneliness”)
An outer and inner peace can be achieved eventually as seen in “Quietly”:
          So quiet, our bodies, worn with the
          Times and the penances of love, our
          Brains curled, quiet in their shells, dormant,
          Our hearts slow, quiet, reliable
          In their interlocked rhythms, the pulse
          In your thigh caressing my cheek. Quiet.
          At times Rexroth infused a religious tone into his poems of love:
          Let us bring to each other
          The gifts brought once west through deserts—
          The precious metal of our mingled hair,
          The frankincense of enraptured arms and legs,
          The myrrh of desperate, invincible kisses—
          Let us celebrate the daily
          Recurrent nativity of love,
          The endless epiphany of our fluent selves.  (“Lute Music”)
          “She Is Away” is from a more mature poet’s point of view:
 O love,
          I who am lost and damned with words,
          Whose words are a business and an art,
          I have no words. These word, this poem, this
          Is all confusion and ignorance.
          But I know that coached by your sweet heart,
          My heart beat one free beat and sent
          Through all my flesh the blood of truth.
          Kenneth Rexroth lived from 1905 until 1982. His first wife Andree died in 1940, and he always revered her memory in several lyrics over the years. A very touching one simply titled “Andree Rexroth” concludes:
          Bright trout poised in the current—
          The raccoon’s track at the water’s edge—
          A bittern booming in the distance—
          Your ashes scattered on this mountain—
          Moving seaward on this stream.
          In the realm of poetry there is almost nothing more difficult to write than an original love lyric. We have looked at a number of passages. To conclude I would like to quote in full a short but very effective poem #X by Rexroth out of a series of linked poems titled “The Thin Edge of Your Pride”:
          Out of the westborne now shall come a memory
          Floated upon it by my hands,
          By my lips that remember your kisses.
          It shall caress your hands, your lips,
          Your breasts, your thighs, with kisses,
          As real as flesh, as real as memory of flesh.
          I shall come to you with the spring,
          Spring’s flesh in the world,
          Translucent narcissus, dogwood like a vision,
          And phallic crocus,
          Spring’s flesh in my hands.
All poems are taken from: The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)
You can find the book here:



Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.

Reader Picks for the Holidays 2018


The following list consists of 15 book reviews published in 2018 that have generated the most interest from our readers as of November 2018. Click the links and consider a purchase for your holiday gift giving.


The Conduit and other Visionary Tales of Morphing Whimsy by Richard Gessner



Border Crossings by Thaddeus Rutkowski



The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer



Appearances by Michael Collins



The Infinite Doctrine of Water by Michael T. Young



A Look Back- Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley



Leaning into the Infinite by Marc Vincenz



Monte Carlo Days & Nights by Susan Tepper


Layout 1

The Gates of Pearl by Jill Hoffman



Ornaments by David Daniel


Daggerfrontcoverhigh-res-730x1097 (1)

A Bright and Pleading Dagger by Nicole Rivas



Thieves in the Family by Maria Lisella



Logos by Gil Fagiani



A Fire Without Light by Darren Demaree


Lasater Philosopy of Ranching by Laurence M Lasater cover photo

The Lasater Philosophy of Cattle Ranching




William Sansom—Poetic Stylist



By Ray Greenblatt

We find poetry in the damnedest places. Sometimes in a TV ad; perhaps a bit of doggerel, but fresh in its context. Sometimes a phrase leaping from a letter we have written; surprising ourselves with this unconscious creativity. William Sansom (1912-1976) was primarily a fiction writer, penning articles probably for monetary supplement in numerous periodicals. However, this essay form reveals a deep poetic vein in his writing. His novels have fallen out of favor, but this collection of prose should be revisited.

Pleasures Strange and Simple covers a very broad gamut of topics. Sansom writes about: Henri Rousseau (Sansom also was a painter), nudism, restaurants, pets (from a glow-worm to a tarantula), tight-rope walkers, faces, Poe, dancing (Sansom was a jazz pianist), etc. Let us examine some of these twenty-three topics.


          Sansom explores a London train station, although the title of this essay is cryptic. He explains that Russian horses were trained for the World’s Fair near one of the station tunnels; near another tunnel stood a house owned by the King of Denmark, thus the names for the areas stuck. Here are the tracks: “Iron poles like the standards of ancient battles announce speed limits with mysterious metal numerals. Signals flap like tired high-stepping birds. Disc-signs dot the line like a scarlet fungus growth. Black engines glide like skaters on mysterious errands obliquely over a great iron-meshed rink. On wet days these move through low-pressed clouds of their own smoke and steam with the purposeless going and coming, the sense of haunted quest, of doomed despondent phantoms.” (45)

In that passage alone we can observe so many poetic qualities: varied rhythms (fitting for an oncoming train), series, alliteration, rhyme, and generally quite vivid word usage. Here we are inside a tunnel: “Half-way along the flint-track the rail raises its voice to remark, in dull embery lights, that no one should shunt past that point. At the needle-point ends of the tunnel, light still shows—but dull gold light, or light of fiery red, as the faraway daylight refracts at mid-day a strange sunset of distant smokes and steams.” (43)

In a tunnel recess Sansom watches: “Looking out from them the great iron engine pounding down seems more animated than usual, smoke and fire-glow give it life, it looks a little mad like a monstrous runaway horse or some vast and lively piece of furniture seen by a child in a dream. At a busy time of day a man can be trapped for as long as an hour or more in such safety vents with traffic continually passing and belching the blackening, sickening, throttling smoke.” (44) Again his metaphors are striking and his use of triplets powerful. He can, likewise, relate to a child’s view of the world.

                                                        IN THE MIDST OF LIFE

          Sansom contends that many people think life a touch boring, but accidents can befall a person at any time to overturn such complacency. He examines some who are already nervous about life: “Those who can never enter a lift unless their hearts, creaking like the tender cables that raise them, drop to their boots.” (58) But what about the following episodes: “Watching the light make a chandelier of sun-flashed icicles along the eaves, rejoicing in this new warmth and the great benison of the thaw. But you might not notice the long, heavy and sharply-pointed bull-icicle hanging like a glass dagger several storeys exactly above your own head.” (59)

We can observe Sansom’s lightness and ironic humor in this essay. Here is another possible mishap concerning a stack of barrels: ”A whisper of a lurch, a shifting creak, the dribble of a roll that informs those packed against it and stacked above. And then, as if a nervous message has shivered through the flanks of the herd, as if an instinctual urge for migration has galvanised the great colloquy—all the huge, heavy, headless mass of wood comes rolling down and onwards with the vertigo of a mighty, lumbering, thundering tidal wave.” (60) His choice of “sound” words (onomatopoeia) add to the emotion.

                                                      THREE INSECTS

          The tongue-in-cheek humor continues in this essay. First about a moth and a flame: “Its black eyes gazed fervently into the yellow fire above. It stared up at the yellow fire that had already burned off its foremost antennas with black eyes fixed in deep fanatical understanding. Slender whitish legs clasped the black wick, like hands wrung in prayer. And its wings! Its wings flowed downwards like a knight’s mantle, clasped high, spreading bravely over the armour of its body down to the platform of pale candle grease.” (173) A bit gruesome but very minute observation.

Now a beetle: “Beneath lay a rock pool. A new world of water, alien to the beetle, where strange drowned hairs waved, where shells slept, where perhaps the only movement was a slight bubbling of sand as a limpet thrust out its blind, toeless foot and dragged itself one, only one, pace forward. The beetle paused above this new world. Its feelers waved at the gleaming water. It tasted fresh enchantments, it savoured the grand limitless vista of new ground, new life, horizonless possibilities, space.” (175)

Notice the effectiveness of personification where the insect seems to display the sensibilities of a human. Finally a fly in a bathtub: “What a huge world confronted this little black pegasus in motor goggles! What vast tracks of smooth enamel, what complexities of mountain and valley lay bare to its exploring eye. What irregular pipe strata, what phenomena of taps and hooks, what chains and bowls and baskets and pipes, pipes, pipes—each a giant’s causeway for the small inquisitive visitor.” (177) As in a ballad the repetition builds the tension.

                                              TO SOUTHEND ON AN EAGLE

          In summer a Londoner takes a boat, the Eagle, down the Thames River for a day at the shore in Southend. “Warehouses and factories slipped backwards by. The sundecks were packed with a perplexity of chairs, now claimed with battling ardour and set out in rows facing the water-view.” (180) “Slipped backwards by” is unique phrasing that catches the ear as well as eye.

As time went on: “To the wide open sunlight that on this day shone hot through thin-veiled cloud, putting a curious grey sparkle on the water, grey-gilding everything, giving an air of misted dream to what on that broad river was in reality a strange industrial water-idyll.” (181)

At Southend entertainment of all sorts awaits: “The gentle Ferris Wheel, distorting mirrors and dark places wild with winds and skeletons. Or a deckchair on the beach. Or the beach without a deckchair. Or a stalk round the stalls and stands and the sea-food sellers’ and the ice-creameries and those most magical booths that sell vast globes of electric pink sugar floss.” (184) Again the use of “and” stresses the plethora of delights.

                                                  THROUGH A GLASS LIGHTLY

          Sansom recalls the mood glass set for him at an early age: “Grey light, grey and bright but never precisely clear, never exactly alive—as though the finest pale veil has been drawn across the eyes, as though indeed one is for a moment standing within the dead time of the past itself. And this becomes doubly mysterious—for this light was itself the past’s own light, our present illusion was then its actuality, this is no dust of bones; what is was.” (51)

Glass conditioned the light in London: “In such avenues of dolorous bluish glass it seemed to rain the whole year round. In the sunniest days an underwater gloom persisted. Leaving the front-door one stood for a moment startled—questioning the polished mosaic path for a bloom of moisture, the laurels for a slow dripping, the cast-iron tracery above for a glimpse of dark rainclouds in a sky that proved itself to be blue, almost, as the jealous panes that guarded it.” (53)

Many glass conservatories were erected: “Then bellying, jellying from back or side came the Conservatory. A soundless, breathless wilderness of pots and palms and wicker chairs. Sometimes a tinted frieze decorated the upper windows—red or yellow or purple as the hind-window of a tram. Sometimes the ironwork curled in a tasteful floral design from each supporting pillar.” (54)

Arcades soon appeared: “Arcades are one of the thoroughly useful things that also give pleasure. But why pleasure? It is very mysterious. Is it the sense that this is private property, a sense of pleasant intrusion? Or is it an animal, or even a womby, instinct for enclosure—the more exquisite for a kind of daylight filtering through, the hunter’s day and the safety of the lair at one and the same time?” (56) Not only does Sansom philosophize but he also shares English cultural history.

                                MY FIRST FIRE – FROM A FIREMAN’S JOURNAL

          William Sansom became a fireman in London during World War Two; thus, he gives more space to these adventures in this collection of essays. Their firehouse is so proud to get a new fire engine:  “So on that afternoon instantly all such men raced for their scrim and brasso, and then for an hour the great lady could hardly be seen for the massing of elbows—boney elbows, dimpled elbows, elbows high and short fat elbows, greased elbows all pistoning up and down like the limbs of worker-ants pushing and tugging at an enormous and bemused queen.” (187)

He gets inside the engine: “At any hour of the day you could—if you dared—raise her bonnet and see the bristles of your beard in the gleaming copper engine pipes. That petrol-engine became a masterpiece of artisan artcraft—gay as a Birmingham barge. Its bulk was blackleaded to a pewter brilliance, its little pipes of copper and brass polished until they ran like sparks. Its fan was lacquered scarlet, and everywhere there had been painted little bands of garden-roller green.” (187)

This is how a fire looks: “The coppery-red reflection of fire in the sky and on every building everywhere. This colour has the same enervating constancy as the smell of a fire. This too is solid, unwavering. After several hours it nauseates the eyes. It is live colour, the colour of a living element, it cannot grow dim and neutral with familiarity. It glares and sickens all the time. Every window, every brick, every tile, every block of stone, reflects this vivid colour force. There is just the coppery-red and the black shadows and no other colour.” (191)

In the previous paragraph he had hinted at the odor of fire: “A hundred other stores and factories each cook the firemen their own sweet dishes . . . a sugar factory—acres of boiling sweet molasses . . . a paint factory—and the poisonous fumes of blistered chemicals . . . a rubber depository . . . a toffee warehouse.” (193)

The look of a burning house: “It was a blue, moonlit night and the flames blazed orange. The house stood dark and detached in its own garden of trees and shrubbery walls. It was all dark up to the top two floors and there the bright fire suddenly began. Windows sprang to life. And above, through broken rafters, the flames curled out nakedly into the night. A hail of sparks and small embers eddied round the chimneys and false turrets.  The house looked like a miniature castle on fire, a pyrotechnic display piece, the kind of fire you would find drawn in a children’s fairy book.” (193)

He looks for his fellow firemen in the house; when he glances them it resembles a tableau painting: “Then I saw them. The fireglow from the room flickered over their silver buttons and over the water on their faces and helmets and leggings. Their faces were black, like sweeps’ faces, with white eye-rings and pink rings round their mouths. They were all clustered round the nozzle of the hose, leaning forward against the recoil of water pressure, heads bent down to protect their faces from the singeing heat, swaying from side to side as they swept the room with a thundering broom of white water.” (197) A suitable way, I think, to end a discussion by a writer who was also an artist.

Let us hope that William Sansom’s novels will be rediscovered in the near future. During his lifetime he never published even one book of poetry!

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Pleasures-Strange-Simple-Sansom-William/dp/B0000CIGGJ

Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.


Winters of Content by Osbert Sitwell


By Ray Greenblatt

The Sitwells were an aristocratic and talented family; they were eccentric but all accomplished writers. Sister Edith (1887-1964) wrote poetry; younger brother Sacheverell (1897-1988) became an art critic. Osbert (1892-1969) was multi-talented as a poet, art critic, novelist, and best-selling autobiographer of five volumes.

The Sitwells loved the Arts. They attended gallery openings, concerts and hosted what became historically famous artistic soirees. They financed the young musician William Walton; Edith, especially, encouraged the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew.

When Osbert wrote travel books, he was able to break free from any cloying family pressures to write in his most free style, a richly poetic one. In Winters of Content (1932) he takes the fresh approach of traveling in Italy in the winter months, often comparing the northern and southern climates. First he gets us onto the train.

“Men in blue uniforms push trolleys, deal in clean, white pillows for night-journeys; pillows that are suspended in rows from a rod of a hand-wagon . . . drag behind them rattling tables on which are hot macaroni, under a silver shield, cold macaroni, grey railway chickens, every kind of sausage, edible and inedible, and bottles of red and white wine, all the time loudly hymning the names of their delectable commodities.” (112)

“The mind of the train-goer, therefore, must employ itself in other, interior directions, engage itself with remembrances, hopes, or the material difficulties of keeping clean, since to look out of a rattling and dirty window, through the smoke of a fast-moving, mid-nineteenth-century factory, quickly palls.” (15)

This gives him time to muse about northern winter in his city of Scarborough, Yorkshire: “Day followed day, and the ice still spread its flat, colourless flowers at the edges of the drive. The grass all round had been struck, as it were, by winter, that doleful magician, into the blades of knives and scissors . . . The empty flower-beds, frosted mounds, resembled freshly dug graves in the foreground of this dead expanse of country, and the frost could be seen lying white on the farther, bigger hummocks wherein are thrown together the bones of the first Danish invaders, killed so long go, when this land was all forest and fen.” (31)

In stark contrast he remembers grapes on sale in Italy during the winter: “A display of grapes, for instance, at the time of the vintage was a thing never to be forgotten; grapes of a thousand different species, unimaginable in their beauty, of every shape, round, oval, or pointed like the ears of fawns, showing an infinite variety of invention, even in the way the fruit was clustered on its wooden stalk, while in colour they ranged from emerald and azure, to dark blue and purple, mauve, maroon, and almost primrose yellow, but all translucent, and thus conveying a warmth of tone denied to all other fruit save red currants, until one wondered why they were not grown, like flowers, for their beauty as much as for their flavour?” (95)

He, likewise, finds beauty in an Italian winter garden: “The garden, deficient in summer qualities, acquires a fresh merit in this patient, spiritual waiting for new birth, while the trees, although bare, except for the cypresses, have assumed a more intricate beauty. Now, as we passed on our way to the picture gallery, ice crackled round the feet of the goddesses in the wide fountains, and the last, few, yellow leaves drifted slowly down through the still air, turning over and over, and seeming to flash as they fell. “ (198)

He then compares the Palladium architecture used in England: “Not only must they Palladianise their homes, but the very landscape itself. And in this respect, with their parks and groups of trees, their canals and statues, they were more successful. They must build their grottoes along the river, their stucco, pagan shrines on a knoll, their pillared bridges across the end of a lake.” (74)

While in Italy even though the Palladian villa is old, “The original mouldings of window and door, the ceilings, garlanded and vaulted, and all of the most exquisite order, the painted balustrades and painted columns, have been allowed to remain in the state to which time has reduced them, and in the world which these things frame, unhindered by furniture and bric-a-brac, exists a whole mythology called back to being after a century’s neglect” (78).

Sitwell posits an important factor why fine art was so abundant in Italy: “An enlightened discernment in such things then increased the prestige of a royal person more than any individual prowess in the killing of beast and bird; and an eye that at once detected a fine picture or a rising artist was recognized as being of more value to the State than one which, with an alarming and blue-rolling rapidity, immediately discovered any aberration in the matter of buttons upon a single uniform in the whole army corps.” (294)

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Venice is such a unique city built upon the water: “Composed of gigantic stone rafts, weighed down with marble and white, cut stone, as it floats on the green, flat surfaces of the lagoons, of necessity Venice supplies its own landscape and offers no other. Here slender towers and top-heavy Venetian chimneys replace trees, domes compensate the absence of hills, and the facades of palaces form the most shining and precipitous of cliffs.” (17)

“Although it may have been an exception for this time of year, Fortune sent a series of golden days, sequined with sunlight but cold enough to make walking a luxury rather than a fatigue, while in the narrow streets the crowds, inspired by the weather, jostled and laughed, and even in the smaller canals there would be little green waves, flopping and fluttering with bird-like wings under the gondolas and traghettos.” (48)

Sitwell sits at Florian’s café where winter alters the scene:“Here it was very pleasant. The café had reverted to being Italian. There were no foreigners, but Venetians of all ages sat hunched for hours over a small cup of coffee, or played draughts or chess in corners. The little rooms, which with their painted glass panels so delicately resemble Victorian bon-bon boxes—and are thus most appropriate to their use—could, now that the glass doors were closed and frosted by breathing, be admired in all their minute and delicious proportions.” (58)

Many mysterious buildings wait to be explored: “That exquisite little patrician Casino which lies just off the Merceria; a place which, though so near, is hard to find and difficult to see. Here the rooms are very small and of the finest, jewel-like workmanship. One lovely little apartment bears, high up on a wall, over the space between two diminutive doors, a bellying gilded grating, behind which the musicians—two of them at the most—could ensconce themselves.” (53)

Churches play a special role in man’s life, like St. Mark’s:  “They created this great church, set in the white spray of fretted stone that so well expresses its origin, to protect and assure them. And this fabric contained in it every colour of the earth and of the sun, and was full of growing things—trees, leaves, and flowers—but ones enduring day and night, winter and summer, because fashioned of gold mosaic, agate, alabaster, or marble; and singing, light, and incense were no doubt exhaled from it unendingly, then as now, into the void outside.” (90)

So many buildings in Italy are superb like the Castel del Monte: “The rooms are high, and the vaulting of their marble roofs is most graceful, for it springs lightly from above groups of three slender marble pillars clustered together. The windows, both the larger ones facing the country, with the smaller ones, giving on to the court, are exquisitely lovely. The walls are, again, lined with a square pattern of dark marbles, while the floors are composed of alternate grey and black marble, or of slightly contrasted stone.” (138)

In another palazzo: “The paintings match the architecture in a truly amazing fashion, for they represent arcaded galleries, from which people of a past age and of the utmost verisimilitude are gazing down, in front of niches in which stand tall statues, upon the interlopers of today. These frescoed figures, although they must be considerably over life-size, appear completely natural, absolutely real.” (48)

Sitwell theorizes why elephants are included in the architecture in southern Italy: “Fifty or so miles away is the site of Cannae, where Hannibal, doubtless with the aid of his African elephants, inflicted a fearful defeat upon the Roman troops. And the sight of these fabulous beasts, imported by the Carthaginian armies, may well have abided, between dream and nightmare, for many centuries in the folk-memory, and thus, after a period of digestion, have found its strange perpetuation in stone.” (130)

He also intuits how the painter El Greco was influenced by the landscape: “From the window of his house, noticing how the ashen and cinder-coloured hills, so improbably streaked and dappled, altered the shapes of the muleteers, of the townspeople strolling into the country, and even of the beasts that were trying to find pasture on these bare humps; and how, further, the strong light, pouring down, changed utterly in its turn the forms of the hills and of the crenellated walls and sharp, dog-toothed towers of the city.” (226)

Books of that era were also superlative: “Nearly all of them contain, in addition to countless full-page engravings, often the work of the most distinguished artists of the day, other ones which open up from the centre of the book, leaf after leaf, growing and diminishing like an ancient dining-room table . . . Because of the talented artists employed on it, because of its massive, even cumbersome, proportions, exquisite binding and the lavishness of its printing, the expense of any volume of this kind must have been very heavy.” (236)

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Sometimes touring was a chore and a disappointment:  “Not a soul stirred. Across the side-streets, a line or two of patched and mended clothes gaped on the air. The sky above, too, betrayed in its tone a peculiar blue vacancy, the sun, round and distinct, appearing to be its sole inmate, just as, below, the Renaissance warrior prince, posturing so solemnly—and quite alone—in the centre of this deserted square, would seem to be the only occupant of his realm: a realm frozen by some curious plague.” (273)

Sitwell wonders what Dickens, whose books are his sole companions, would do: “Rising from my chair, I looked out of the window down into the long and empty street, wondering how he would have begun a story here, with the footsteps sounding out far away under a distant arcade in such a staccato and frightened pattern; footsteps walking briskly for the comfort of their owner, in the same way a man may sing to himself to ward off the terror of empty places, and only muffled for an instant in the moaning of a bitter wind.” (109)

Wind can play tricks on a traveler: “Sweeping up here, high into the air, a piece of paper, and here lifting a journal out of one traveller’s hand and dashing it in the face of another, snatching the breath suddenly out of one man, or ventriloquist-like, carrying some word spoken by him many yards away, so that his companion cannot hear it, and then depositing it of a sudden where it will startle and affright a stranger.” (112)

“Every now and then comes a spell of the particular clattering, jingling rain of these latitudes, its long, grey strings dangling past the windows of the bedrooms down into the high, narrow street for three days at a time, until they seem to form one of those curtains, composed of hollow portions of bamboo, alternating with beads threaded upon a number of cords, that are peculiar to jugglers, mediums, and the cheaper kind of public-house.” (156)

But one day it clears: “The extraordinary and unexpected vision of this enormous range lying so lightly over the blue and marbled sea, so distinct, each mountain veined where the streams flowed down it, the contours so plainly marked, and the snow appearing from here as though stained to various intensities of colour with spilt wine, almost compensated us for the wasted weeks.” (163)

Sitwell has learned to relax, unlike others: “What ideals of sport inspiring the rich young Englishman to face the tsetse-fly and malaria in order to kill animals, striped, elegant and lovely, or armoured and grotesque, in their native swamps and jungles, and to wonder what hardships they will endure, what sandstorms, siroccos, and agues, what typhoons, monsoons, and hurricanes? . . . All these reflections lend a contrasted serenity to the onlooker.” (119)

In peaceful contemplation, memories are triggered: “Rings of light, moving with the particular fluttering, as of butterflies, that is their rhythm, flickered in swarms across the low, painted ceiling of the dining-room next morning. The presence of these tangible, golden insects in itself repays the longest of cold journeys: for, wherever you are sitting—let us say, with your back to the window—each of them is a continual and instant reminder, just as much as would be the most exquisite view of canal or church, gondola or lagoon, of the city in which you are staying.” (36)

He revels in the fact that real life is never far away from the past captured in art: “Thus, while I looked round, examining doors and widows, plaster reliefs and painted ceilings, and realizing with delight the subtle, melodious planning of this house, the golden afternoon was slipping away outside, so that sometimes it called me to the window, to watch the lengthening shadows of the trees, or the tall, thin-waisted, Paleolithic shadows of the gardeners.” (79)

Sitwell observes the people with as much interest, such as an ancient waiter: “This wizened, whiskered old man was so much the epitome of his profession that it is impossible to summon up his image unless one allows it to materialize, as might a spirit, out of the steam issuing from the dishes he uncovered; an amiable but obstinate little phantom, thus for a moment drawing sustenance from the food he carried but never ate.” (247)

Or a mock argument between two old friends: “They were immensely enjoying a row; nothing dangerous or vital, but a delicious, forensic quarrel, packed with rhetoric and gesture, a tear melting in the eye, a sob, or, more rarely, a snarl of anger. Either of them, moreover, was liable suddenly to interrupt his pace, and stand stock still, as though rooted to the spot by the fervency of his own argument, and  would then proceed to harangue his friend with passionate eloquence.” (150)

He even loved the sound of the names of towns: “Cremona, a bone-thin, lemon-coloured city of music, assuming in the mind the shape of a three-arched bridge, of which the middle syllable forms the chief span; then follow Guastalla, like Gonzaga, the prouder of sumptuous Spanish names, cities of tents, pitched, it seems, for conquering grandees, of black and sepia velvet heavily encrusted with gold; Mirandola, most perfectly balanced of musical sounds, associated for ever with poetry.” (269)

Osbert Sitwell wrote three other travel books, all with poetic sensibility: Discursions on Travel, Art and Life (1925), Escape with Me (1939), and Four Continents (1954). Being the men of the family, Sacheverell’s son inherited the English family house “Renishaw.” Osbert Sitwell was given the Italian palazzo his father had renovated “Montegufoni,” in a country where this book Winters of Content proves that he was most at home.

You can find the book here:


Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.

Roumeli by Patrick Leigh Fermor



By Ray Greenblatt


Parrick Leigh Fermor, known as Paddy to everybody, was bright and dropped out of school at age 18.  He was from an English aristocratic family but preferred to live with the native people of Greece. His fame was confirmed when during World War II fighting with Greek guerilla forces, he captured a German general. For the remainder of his long life (1915-2011) he lived mostly in Greece speaking several dialects of Greek and studying its history.

The Roumeli is a vast mountainous area in central Greece. Paddy was fascinated by and admired the Sarakatsan, the herdsmen he encountered. This is how one man dressed: “A rough black pill-box was tilted askew on his matted and whiskered head. His black double-breasted waistcoat of homespun goats’ hair was tucked into a black sash below which a hairy and broad-pleated black kilt jutted stiffly to his knees.” (4) A contrasting woman: “All was made up of stern black and white lines and angles and so broad and solid-seeming were the black white-banded pleats that if any of the girls made a movement, their heavy and unwieldy clothes moved with the stiffness of armour.” (21)

Internally “those of the mountains are active, lean, spare, hawk-eyed men, with features scooped and chiseled by sun, wind, rain, snow and hail. They give more than an impression, during their occasional descents to the lowlands, of their enemies the wolves, and still more, of eagles. They live beyond the reach of the authorities, and, as we have seen, the border between pastoral life and lawlessness is often vague. They spell, in fact, independence and inviolacy.” (48)

Here is where they lived: “It was an entire village of beautifully thatched Sarakatsan huts, giant beehives swelling and tapering in tiers of cropped reed which overlapped with the precision of the plating on a seven-banded armadillo. They were topped with wooden crosses near holes in the thatch through which thin blue smoke curled.” (9)

It is a very ancient culture little disturbed by modern times: “Almost every sentence uttered and every gesture made is hallowed by usage; it is the accumulation of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years; hereditary, patriarchal, established, immutable, conservative, and self-sufficient, everything emerges from a  vast expanse of time as smooth with long handling as the shuttle of a loom, the blurred carving on a distaff or the patina on the shaft of a crook.” (29)

This is what visitors are offered at a feast: “Strangers, on occasions like these, are the objects of eager solicitude: special titbits, forkfuls of liver and kidney, and yet more recondite morsels are constantly being proffered and helpings of brain are delved from heads which have been bisected lengthwise and opened like a casket, each half, sometimes still equipped with a singed and twisting horn.” (16)

They loved their summer pastures: “Whenever their talk veered to their summer pastures in the Zagora, all their eyes lit up like those of the children of Israel at the thought of Canaan, and all spoke at once. That’s where we should come and stay with them. What pigeons, what hares! You didn’t need wine there—the air made you drunk; and as for the shade, the grass, the trees and the water—why the water came gushing out of the living rock as cold as ice, you couldn’t drink it it was so cold, and you could drink it by the oka, and feel like a giant. Words failed them.” (60)

Historically “they must have grazed their flocks in mid-air for aeons, vaguely aware, perhaps, of the War of Troy, the clash of the Greek cities, the elephants of Pyrrhus assembling in the valleys and Alexander’s departure to conquer the world. News of the Roman onslaught, the landing of St Paul on the Macedonian coast and the fall of the West would have reached them late and garbled; the barbarian influx and the long afternoon and evening of Byzantium would have been slow to impinge.” (33)

Religiously to these people “God the Father and Jesus are the same Person and He (or They) is known as Ai, a dialect abbreviation of ayios (hagios)—‘saint’ or ‘holy one.’ Sometimes He is known as Proto Ai, or the First among the saints, sometimes as Aphenti, the Lord, from the ancient Greek word authentes (from which the Turkish title, ‘effendi’, also derives). All over Greece, the army of saints has taken the place of the ancient pantheon.” (35)

A bus driver tells Paddy the limitations of the old beliefs:  “Those old Greeks, our celebrated ancestors, are a nuisance and I’ll tell you why. They haunt us. We can never be as great as they were, nobody can. They make us feel guilty. We can’t do anything, people think because of a few old books and temples and lumps of marble. And clever foreigners who know all about the ancients come here expecting to be surrounded by Apollos and gentlemen in helmets and laurel leaves.” (63)

Paddy’s love of song will transition us into a detailed discussion of his poetic writing style. The Sarakatsan loved music: “These songs unfold with a slow metrical elaboration of semi-tones and recapitulated half-lines and with a force of delivery which seems to strain the singer to the brink of syncope. Their heads are flung backwards with eyes half closed or faraway and the veins of their foreheads and necks project like thongs. The stories, usually heroic narratives, frequently veiled in a parable, are as fierce and melancholy as the music.” (17)

“The music that began to hover through the hut was moving and breathless. It started with long and deep notes separated by pauses; then it shot aloft in patterns of great complexity. Repeated and accelerating trills led to sustained high notes which left the tune quivering in mid-air before plummeting an octave to those low and long-drawn initial semibreves. Notes of an icy clarity alternated with notes of a stirring, reedy, and at moments almost rasping hoarseness. “ (54)

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As we can already observe, Paddy’s writing is rich in description, color and feeling. He employs alliteration to tie images together: “The place was alive with bleating and barking and bells, and gold with evening dust.” (50) Ellipsis emphasizes a person remembering: “. . . I had a few, but good ones, I used to graze them not far from Kios, in Bithynia, near Nicaea on the Asian coast. That was years, years ago . . . Caiques sailing past in the Sea of Marmara could hear my bells . . . But the Rhodope is where we all belong . . .” (14)

Sometimes he uses an unusual word: “The old man’s oakapple-jointed fingers kept pushing a minute saucepan into the embers.” (52) Listing also captures the entirety of a shepherd’s life: “They have their own expressions for all the tupping, lambing, weaning, shearing, carding, spinning, milking, seething, scalding, straining, basket-weaving, path-finding, tent-pitching, camp-striking, trough-scooping and weather-divining round which their whole life turns.” (13)

His descriptions can be so fresh and strong. Here he describes the mountain girls as if in an old painting:  “The faint radiance robbed them all of a dimension. Darkly haloed by their interlocking shadows, they melted into the wall and their black and white figures assumed the aspect of a fresco, half-lit; here and there an earring, a coin, a bracelet, a ring or a necklace gleamed for a moment and dimmed again with the rise and fall of the wick like fragments of gilt or isolated gold tesserae in a mosaic.” (25) Another strong visual in the hut: “When a new faggot was thrown on, the flames made the tall hut dance in a gold hollow above a mob of shadows and highlit the bleached and matted hair and those faces shaped by the blasts of winter and the summer solstice.” (53)

Beside the visual, Paddy also captures smells: “An agreeable and pungent aroma of milk, curds, goats’ hair, tobacco and woodsmoke filled the place.” (53) And he can net pure energy through his words: “Eagerly or ironically, they listened to my stumbling, gesticulating, half-ancient and half-modern onomatopoea-laced pantomime of the tidings.” (53)

The tribesmen share their innermost thoughts with this young Englishman, for whom they have great respect, who is trying so hard to learn Greek and their culture. “Existence, these glances say, is a torment, an enemy, an adventure and a joke which we are in league to undergo, outwit, exploit and enjoy on equal terms as accomplices, fellow-hedonists and fellow-victims.” (53)

Although the shepherds of Roumali dominate this book, Paddy also touched on the Greek monasteries to the north, Crete to the south, and the present situation in Greece. He defines the “old” Greek language as “an expensive faded leather case stamped with a tarnished monogram, holding a set of geometrical instruments; stiff jointed dividers and compasses neatly slotted into their plush beds.” (105) Whereas, “modern” Greek is “an everyday instrument—a spade, an adze or a sickle—the edge thinned and keen with honing and bright from the whetstone; and the wooden shaft, mellow with sweat and smooth with the patina of generations of handling, lies in the palm with an easy balance.” (105)

Each region of Greece is unique: “These regions are not empty landscapes but the mineral backcloth—stage, stage-wings and proscenium—of a theatre flung up for the Greeks themselves . . . Each pair of eyes and each voice is anarchically distinct. Isolated against horizontal and zigzag, magnified by a lens of light, sharpened by the sun’s behaviour, fragmented above blazing thorns or transfigured by lightning, every face in turn is the protagonist of its own drama.” (124)

Of the Greek personality generally he states: “Talk is an addiction and it is conducted with invention, great narrative gifts, the knack of repartee, the spirit of contradiction, the questioning of authority, mockery, self-mockery, satire and humor. Love of pleasure emerges in the pan-hellenic passion for sitting up late eating and drinking and singing whenever the slightest excuse crops up.” (114)

Another amazing fact about Patrick Leigh Fermor is that in 1933 at age eighteen he decided to walk from Holland to Constantinople. After forty-four years he wrote A Time of Gifts (1977) that took him from Holland to then Czechoslovakia. Eleven years later his second installment came out, Between the Woods and the Water (1986) tracing his journey from Czechoslovakia to Romania. These books were written from memory, Paddy having lost his notes long before! The final volume, The Broken Road (2013), only in rough manuscript form, was issued after his death.  However, he had reached Constantinople.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Roumeli-Travels-Northern-Greece-Classics/dp/159017187X


Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.



A Look Back- Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

By Ray Greenblatt
Early in his career Aldous Huxley was a comic author in the tradition of Thomas Love Peacock and Ronald Firbank; a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and even P. G. Wodehouse. He was part of a well-to-do famous family: his father Leonard Huxley was a teacher, his grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley was a scientist. His mother Julia Arnold Huxley was the headmistress of a girl’s school and the sister of the author Mrs. Humphrey Ward; also on his mother’s side Matthew Arnold was a renowned poet. Huxley displayed a flare for wit, irony, bombast, bon mot, and psychological probing of character. However, he did more than most satirists: he philosophically explored the questions  of twentieth century life and found them eternal.
In this second novel Antic Hay written in 1923, Huxley employs many writing devices: sometimes he inserts a poem, musical lyrics or a short lecture on architecture, e.g. Yet, everything in this book is wrapped in comedy, whether it runs from light to just plain silly to mordant. I see his two major literary contributions to be description of character but especially philosophy of life including social mores as well as scientific speculation.
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Huxley is skillful at describing a scene. First a road: “Polished by the wheels and shining like an old and precious bronze, the road stretched before them, reflecting the lamps. It had the inviting air of a road which goes on for ever.” (235) Night: “Once more the wind blew; darkness came down and the gas lamps round the square lit up the outer leaves of the plane trees, touched the privet bushes inside the railings with an emerald light; behind them was impenetrable night; instead of shorn grass and bedded geraniums was mystery, there were endless depths.” (13) Stained glass in a church: “The vast window opposite, all blue and jaundiced and bloody with nineteenth century glass.” (1) And a house: “Gumbril senior occupied a tall, narrow-shouldered and rachitic house in a little obscure square not far from Paddington.” (12)
However, he excels at bringing characters to life—no matter how absurd they might be—making each actor in this comedy distinct. Even many of their names could be taken symbolically to reveal their nature. Let us begin with Theodore Gumbril junior, our anti-hero, because he is as lost at the end of the novel as he was at the beginning. He shows flashes of wit, but at heart he is a “glum” young man, on his way to nowhere perhaps by “tumbrel,”  thus his name.
Here is Gumbril in a library: “He had been utterly incapable of thinking of any other book, among the two or three hundred thousand on the shelves, that he wanted to read.” (183) He momentarily thinks that he has found an aid to motivation: “The beard now supplied the deficiencies in the stylobate, and planted now on a firm basement of will, the order of the senses, the aerial attic of ideas reared themselves with  more classical harmoniousness of proportion.” (88)
Mercaptan is a mediocre journalist at best, in love with his own prose and opinions; his scientific name means “a chemical compound with a disagreeable odor.” “Like movable raisins in the suet of his snouty face, Mr. Mercaptan’s brown little eyes rolled amorous avowals.” (201) Another man happy in his ignorance is a scientist who studies kidneys; “Shearwater” certainly suggests that biological process. His fate is to fall in love: “He was silent. Spectrally, like a dim haunting ghost, he had hung about  her; dumbly, dumbly imploring, appealing.” (63)
Casimir Lypiatt is a dreadful painter, which everyone knows except him,  who roars about his greatness; “Casimir” is Slavic for “destroying the peace.” “Even the forehead was ruined when he laughed. Foreheads are generally the human part of people’s faces. Let the nose twitch and the mouth grin and the eyes twinkle monkeyishly as you like; the forehead can still be calm and serene, the forehead still  knows how to be human. But when Casimir laughed, his forehead joined in the general distorting grimace.” (69) Likewise, Coleman (“cold man”) is a total cynic about life including seduction:  “What an intoxication, he said,  looking up to the ceiling like a chicken that has taken a sip of water; he smacked his lips.” (218)
As secondary characters, Bojanus is a simple tailor with many opinions about life: “He cocked his head on one side, and the fine waxed end of his moustache was like a pointer aimed up at some remote star.” (83) And yet, his name scientifically translates as “the excretory organ of a mollusk.” Boldero is a capitalistic investor, “bold” to make a profit. “He was like a caterpillar: he ate all that was put before him, he consumed a hundred times his own mental weight every day. Other people’s ideas, other people’s knowledge—they were his food. He devoured them and they were at once his own.” (109)
Since they are the cynosure for most of the male characters, I have saved for last two ladies of quite different disposition. Myra Viveash is the siren who lures men to her. Indeed, “Myra” in Greek means “extraordinary” and Viveash sounds ironically similar to “vivacious.” However beautiful and enticing a woman, her soul is hollow supposedly due to the loss of her great love in the Great War. “At seven o’clock Mrs. Viveash woke up. She shook her head to feel if the pain were still rolling about loose inside her skull.” (224) And “slowly, walking along her private knife-edge between her personal abysses.” (151)  In startling contrast is Rosie who peers through rose-colored lenses at life: “She looked at him sideways, then closed down the magnolia petals, and smiled. This was going to be the real thing—one of those long, those interminable, or at any rate indefinitely  renewable conversations about love; witty, subtle, penetrating and bold, like the conversations in books, like the conversations across the tea table between brilliant young poets and ladies of quality,  grown fastidious through an excessive experience, fastidious, and a little weary, but still, in their subtle way, insatiably curious.” (95) Conversely Rosie’s husband thinks of her: “She seemed to have been improving lately. And tonight, she had been a model of non-existence.” (107)
                                                            II – PHILOSOPHY
Unlike most comic writers who go for the immediate gag, Aldous Huxley is more far-reaching. The observations about life in his characters ‘  thoughts and mouths are stimulating and for the most part true. Since the novel opens in a school, let us begin with ideas of education. About students: “They were two ugly, stupid-looking louts, who ought to have been apprenticed years ago to some useful trade. Instead of which they were wasting their own and their teachers’ and their more intelligent comrades’ time in trying, quite vainly, to acquire an elegant literary education.” (3) The teachers: “You weren’t sufficiently interested in anything to want to devote yourself to it. That was why you sought the last refuge of feeble minds with classical educations, you became a schoolmaster.” (14) “Until all teachers are geniuses and enthusiasts, nobody will learn anything, except what they teach themselves.” (15) The administrators: “For the Headmaster was as fierce as he was capricious. He was for ever discovering something new. Two terms ago it had been singeing; after the hair-cut and before the shampoo, there must be singeing.” (7)
An appreciation of the Arts is strong in this novel: “The Chinese statues looked out from the niche; the Maillols passionately meditated, slept and were more than alive. The Goyas hung on the walls, there was a Boucher in the bathroom; and when he entered with his guests, what a Piazzetta exploded about the dining-room mantelpiece!” (9) About classical music: “How pure the passion, how unaffected, clear and without clot or pretension the unhappiness of that slow movement which followed! Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Pure and unsullied; pure and unmixed, unadulterated. Not passionate, thank God; only sensual and sentimental.” (144) Even jazz, a relatively new musical form at that time, is touched upon: “At each recurrence of the refrain the four negroes of the orchestra, or at least the three of them who played with their hands alone—for the saxophonist always blew at this point with a redoubled sweetness, enriching the passage with a warbling contrapuntal soliloquy that fairly wrung the entrails and transported the pierced heart—broke into melancholy and drawling song.” (162)
Architecture, too, is stressed as a Fine Art: “Knowing by a century of experience how beautiful, how graceful, how soothing to the mind is an ordered piece of town-planning, we pull down almost the only specimen of it we possess and put up in its place a chaos of Portland stone that is an offence against civilization.” (130) Architecture to some can be seen as even superior to music: “Architecture is a more difficult and intellectual art than music. Music—that’s just a faculty you’re born with, as you might be born with a snub nose. But the sense of plastic beauty—though that’s, of course, also an inborn faculty—is something that has to be developed and intellectually ripened. It’s an affair of the mind; experience and thought have to draw it out.” (128)
Religion and its concomitant ethics is examined from many angles. “God is a sense of warmth about the heart, God as exultation, God as tears in the eyes, God as a rush of power or thought—that was all right. But God as truth, God as 2+2=4—that wasn’t so clearly all right. Was there any chance of their being the same? Were there bridges to join the two worlds.” (1) “Good; good? It was a word people only used nowadays with a kind of deprecating humourousness. Good. Beyond good and evil? We are all that nowadays. Or merely below them , like earwigs?” (2) “When the future and the past are abolished, when it is only the present instant, whether enchanted or unenchanted, that counts, when there are no causes or motives, no future consequences to be considered, how can there be responsibility.” (156) Coleman cynically reasons: “It’s only when you believe in God, and especially in hell, that you can really begin enjoying life. For instance, when in a few moments you surrender yourself to the importunities of my bloody beard, how prodigiously much more you’d enjoy it if you could believe you were committing the sin against the Holy Ghost.” (217)
Under the heading of science, Gumbril wants to advertise the pneumatic trousers he has invented: “All we have to do is talk about the great nerve centres of the spine; the shocks they get when you sit down too hard; the wearing exhaustion to which long-protracted sitting on unpadded seats subjects them. We’ll have to talk very scientifically about the great lumbar ganglia.” (114) In the laboratory: “The animals devoted to the service of physiology were woken by the sudden opening of the door, the sudden irruption of light. The albino she-rabbits lollopped out and shook their ears and pointed their tremulous noses toward the door. The cock into which Shearwater had engrafted an ovary came out, not knowing whether to crow or cluck.” (246) Huxley even considers the possibility of ESP: “I let my telepathic faculty lie idle, preferring to employ an elaborate and cumbrous arrangement of symbols in order to make my thoughts known to you through your senses . . . If we knew a good method of educating and drawing out the latent faculty, most of us could make ourselves moderately efficient telepaths . . . By the twenty-first century I believe we shall all be telepaths.” (238)
What do politicians look like? “Some wear orchids and eyeglasses, like Joe Chamberlain. Some let their ‘air grow, like Lloyd George. Some wear curious ‘ats, like Winston Churchill. Some put on black shirts, like this Mussolini, and some put on red ones, like Garibaldi. Some turn up their moustaches, like the German Emperor. Some turn them down, like Clemenceau.” (85) “Political liberty’s a swindle because a man doesn’t spend his time being political. He spends it sleeping, eating, amusing himself a little and working—mostly working.” (28) Politics dovetails with sociology: “Had one a right to be contented and well-fed, had one a right to one’s education and good taste, a right to knowledge and conversation and the leisurely complexities of love?” (63) “Cinema, newspapers, magazines, gramophones, football matches, wireless telephones—take them or leave them, if you want to amuse yourself.” (29)
This leads us to Huxley’s humorous views of love through his varied characters. “Whether one can be in love with more than one person at a time, whether love can exist without jealousy, whether pity, affection, desire can in any way replace the full and genuine passion—how often he had to thrash out these dreary questions!” (96) On the other hand, an ideal view of love would be: “She would be waiting for him, expecting him; and they would walk through the twiddly lanes—or perhaps there would be a governess cart for hire, with a fat pony like a tub on legs to pull it—they would look for flowers in the woods and perhaps he would still remember what sort of noise a whitethroat makes.” (154)
And from love to some general views of mankind: “If you will have sanitary conditions that don’t allow plagues to flourish properly. If you will tell mothers how to bring up their children, instead of allowing nature to kill them off in her natural way. If you will import unlimited supplies of corn and meat.  What can you expect? Of course the numbers go up.” (185) From the masses to the individual: “Every one’s a walking farce and a walking tragedy at the same time. The man who slips on a banana-skin and fractures his skull describes  against the sky, as he falls, the most richly comical arabesque.” (208) And finally what does time do to us: “Grief doesn’t kill, love doesn’t kill; but time kills everything, kills desire, kills sorrow, kills in the end the mind that feels them; wrinkles and softens the body while it still lives, rots it like a medlar, kills it too at last.” (152)
I do not agree with the last statement above; only Mrs. Viveash would be so negative. Two passages, it seems to me, contain a subtle meaning and beauty we can adopt. One has to do with silence: “All the regular, habitual, daily part of you would die. There would be an end of bandstands and whizzing factories , and one would have to begin living arduously in the quiet, arduously in some strange un-heard-of manner.” (141) This connects with a magic time that Gumbril senior  experiences: “They sat and chattered till the sun went down and twilight was past,  with intervals every now and then of silence that fell suddenly and inexplicably on all the birds at once, lasted through a few seconds of thrilling suspense, to end as suddenly and senselessly in an outburst of the same loud and simultaneous conversation.” (13) Serenity in nature is what Huxley seems to be inferring in order to find fulfillment.
As the years go on, Aldous Huxley’s novels darken into Brave New World, and his favored genre alters into non-fiction as in Science, Liberty and Peace and The Doors of Perception, in which he experiments with hallucinogenic drugs.  With weakening eyesight and multiple operations, he was to die at a relatively young age of 69. Yet, we have seen him at his most youthful and frothiest. No matter how much he changed, the early comedies will remain scintillating additions to the flow of humorous literature.
You can find the book here: Antic Hay
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society.His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.