ray greenblatt

Hawthorne Predicts the Future! in The House of The Seven Gables

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By Ray Greenblatt
          In his Preface Nathaniel Hawthorne clearly lays out what he proposes to do in his novel: “The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.  It is a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist, which the reader, according to his pleasure,  may either disregard,  or allow it to float almost imperceptibly about the characters and events for the sake of a picturesque effect.”
          Thus, Hawthorne had no intention of writing a Realistic novel. Within his rubric his characters could be ideal or totally debased; his plot could involve many coincidences and a pat conclusion; his writing style could be ornate, wandering—even bordering on the supernatural. But I observe that the floor supporting this dreamland has many realistic planks that reveal actual life in 1851 when this story was first published and into the possible future. He delves into diets, diversions, professions, inventions, and more.
          Let us begin our discussion in the kitchen, for a person’s breakfast can reveal his heart, caloric or aerobic.  The cooks are perusing an old recipe volume that features: “Venison, turkeys, capons, larded partridges, puddings, cakes, and Christmas pies.” (“The Guest”) However, their reality is a bit more humble. They fry an egg with a fresh broiled mackerel, mocha coffee, a golden Indian cake and fresh churned butter smelling of clover-blossoms.  As moderns we say Bravo! to the fish broiled, and hope the butter is used sparingly.
          We also know today that “presentation” contributes greatly toward a satisfying meal. So they selected from among their many antiques: “a small and ancient table, supported on its slender and graceful legs,” a damask jug, old china cups and saucers, crested spoons, a silver cream jug, and fresh roses in a glass pitcher.  The table sat beside a large window looking out on the garden where “the early sunshine came twinkling through the branches of the pear tree.”
          What can a young woman’s elbow grease do to save an old house, in this case a two hundred year old mansion. “The grime and sordidness of the House of the Seven Gables seemed to have vanished since her appearance there; the gnawing tooth of the dry-rot was stayed among the old timbers of it skeleton frame; the dust had ceased to settle down so densely, from the antique ceilings, upon the floors and furniture of the rooms below . . .the shadows of gloomy events that haunted the else lonely and desolate apartments; the heavy, breathless scent which death had left in more than one of the bedchambers.” (“Clifford and Phoebe”)
          We have to remember that the House of the Seven Gables is a real structure in the old port town of Salem, Massachusetts. It was owned by Hawthorne’s cousin whom he visited many times. Over the years the building has been preserved since it is the oldest surviving 17th century wooden mansion in New England. But no cement foundation nor sump pump, no weather-stripping nor thermal windows, no non-flammable shingles nor smoke detectors.
          Let us stroll into “The Pyncheon Garden”—which can scarcely be called that—for that is where the egg and the roses came from. In one section there are squashes, bean-vines, currant bushes, bees and hummingbirds, and a well for water. The remainder of the plot was badly overgrown with weeds. A rooster, two hens, and a baby chick are all that remain of the flock . Certainly they can’t compare with Mr. Perdue’s hundreds of thousands on his chicken ranches.   If this garden were better cultivated, it could provide sufficient protein and vitamins from fruits and greens in our dietary pyramid for a family.
          Now that we have sustenance under our belt, let us observe what family-run cent-shops were selling. In “May and November” a young woman has given her much older relative new ideas for items to sell: raisins, apples, flour, thread; and gingerbread cookies, molasses candy, and toys like Dutch wooden milk-maids, whistles, trumpets which are mostly for children.
          These shops cannot compete with the newly rising large-volume stores: “Groceries, toy-shops, dry-goods stores, with their immense panes of plate-glass, their gorgeous fixtures, their vast and complete assortment of merchandise, in which fortunes had been invested; and those noble mirrors at the farther end of each establishment, doubling all this wealth by a brightly burnished vista of unrealities! On one side of the street this splendid bazaar, with a multitude of perfumed and glossy salesmen, smirking, smiling, bowing, and measuring out the goods.” (“The First Customer”)
          It’s starting to sound a bit like Dickens with that extended string of present participles. Ironic that in this admittedly unreal novel Hawthorne is branding the department stores of the early 19th century as “unreal.” The mom & pop stores always had a difficult time. Today polyconglomerates like Walmart are bestowing the final deathblow.
          Let’s go to a parade. So many novels have had parade sequences in them, perhaps circus parades, mummers parades, Easter parades, etc. Hawthorne’s parade is not a gaudy one. It is for elders with idle time; it brings life to them when they can’t actively pursue it. From “An Arched Window” a man can view over the course of a day: a horse cab, omnibus, water-cart, butcher’s cart, fish-cart, a cart of vegetables, baker’s cart, scissor-grinder, barrel-organ with monkey.
          Now comes what we today consider a more typical parade, a political procession “with hundreds of flaunting banners and drums, fifes, clarions, and cymbals, reverberating between the rows of buildings, marched all through town,  and trailed its length of trampling footsteps, and most infrequent uproar . . .He can distinguish the tedious commonplace of each man’s visage, with the perspiration  and weary self-importance on it, and the very cut of his pantaloons, and the stiffness or laxity of his shirt-collar, and the dust on the back of his black coat.”
          Fortunately there is no sound amplification to send those with sensitive ears scurrying. However, in another decade (Hawthorne was to die in 1860 prematurely at age sixty) there would be veterans’ parades of Civil War combatants as the years rolled on; those participants eventually dwindled so that Southerners and Northerners commingled and marched in a more brotherly manner together.
          Since various trades and professions have been mentioned, let us investigate what jobs were open to a 19th century man. Of course, a woman was almost exclusively relegated to the home. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance if a man from a family of position was fortunate enough to be the oldest son, he would inherit the entire estate, becoming essentially a gentleman farmer. A younger brother—short of begging some property or financial settlement from his oldest brother—could enter the military (the cavalry was often a dashing choice) or enter the clergy. As time went on, becoming an attorney was also a gentleman’s option.
          The young man in our novel was flexible and daring for those times. Since America was still on the frontier in the 19th century, perhaps this was not so unusual in comparison with Europeans in a more rigidified society. Although Holgrave was just twenty-two, here are some of the positions he had already held with a limited amount of education but with keen intelligence and excess energy: schoolmaster, salesman in a store, newspaper editor, itinerant pedlar of perfumes, a dentist, hand aboard a packet-ship, member of a Fourierist community, lecturer on hypnotism, and presently in the novel a photographer, thus the chapter title “The Daguerreotypist.”
          These jobs had enabled him to travel not only throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic states but to France, Italy and Germany. Many younger people today get varied experience by working in summer jobs. As college tuitions soar, they are forced to think of many more creative ways to make a living. The future dictates that a worker of any age—up to his or her retirement—will change positions every four or five years in the natural course of an adult working life. Holgrave was ahead of the curve.
          In this novel we can even look at a man who has made it to the top; perhaps in a questionably ethical manner. This is naturally the villain of our piece, Jaffrey Pyncheon. What does a wealthy man’s day consist of? Visit an insurance office or bank directors’ meeting, meet a State Street broker, attend a real estate auction, buy a horse (today read that as a car), sit on the board of a charitable society, consult a family physician and ironically purchase a new tombstone for the long deceased wife.   Did Michael Milken or Bernie Madoff also do things like this recently?
          But truly his major goal is to meet with a political committee where the possibility is strong that Judge Pyncheon could be nominated to become “Governor Pyncheon.” ”Five-and-twenty years for the enjoyment of his real estate in town and country, his railroad, bank, and insurance shares, his United States stock—his wealth, in short, however invested, now in possession, or soon to be acquired; together with the public honors that have fallen upon him, and the weightier ones that are yet to fall! It is good! It is excellent! It is enough!” But for a greedy, immoral man it is never enough.
          Amid this Romance’s shadowy settings, complications of a half-dozen characters, and strokes of the Gothic, in one of the culminating chapters, “The Flight of Two Owls,” many controversial topics contemporaneous to Hawthorne’s time are raised. He posits through a character that perhaps we live too much by routine and rote: “The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousand-fold variety, gather about hearths, and pollute the life of house-holds. There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old house, rendered poisonous by one’s defunct forefathers and relatives.”
          In its most positive light our two major characters consider a train:  “It was novelty enough, indeed, that there were fifty human beings in close relation with them, under one long and narrow roof and drawn onward by the same mighty influence that had taken their two selves into its grasp. It seemed marvelous how all these people could remain so quietly in their seats, while so much noisy strength was at work in their behalf . . . sleep; sport; business; graver or lighter study; and the common and inevitable movement onward! It was life itself!”
          Hypnotism has its merits in that it might reveal things not known in conscious life. Electricity can transform all of us in ways not yet understood. Hawthorne feels that the telegraph by making the world so much smaller can also limit man’s privacy. What would he think of computer chips implanted in our brains!
          In 1854, three years after The House of the Seven Gables, H. D. Thoreau from an opposite direction but not less critical, wrote in Walden about the vapidity of the telegraph: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing to communicate.” About trains he was even more cynical: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man!” And perhaps we rue the fact that when trains were largely discontinued in the mid-twentieth century, the ties were pulled up. Critics now say that we should have developed rail service rather than encourage autos with their concomitant pollution of gasoline.
          As a coda since Dickens was mentioned earlier in this writing, let us examine Dr. Manette from A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The poor old man served fifteen years in the Bastille, unjustly sentenced by evildoers.  When he emerges, he is barely a shell of a man but slowly heals physically and emotionally. Nearly a decade before Dickens’ novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne had Clifford Pyncheon leave a prison term of thirty years perpetrated by our villain, cousin Jaffrey Pyncheon.  He, too, so close to insanity and death, slowly recovers due to those who love him. Hawthorne was ahead of his time in many ways, as well as ahead of the other major authors of his era.
          Hawthorne’s explanation of Romance, the style in which he wrote The House of the Seven Gables, is full of words which create a certain mood: “bygone, flitting, legend, gray, distance, mist, float, picturesque.” And yet, in a book he suggests far removed from the reality of the day, he has provided for us a very realistic look at major elements that define the society of his time, indeed, a civilization for our 21st century.
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You can find a copy here: https://www.amazon.com/House-Seven-Gables-Thrift-Editions/dp/0486408825

Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

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Summer Reading Recommendations

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Photograph by g emil reutter

 

Here are the top ten book reviews based on readership at North of Oxford for the first six month of 2017. Consider them for your summer reading.

 

Magnesium by Ray Buckley

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/magnesium/

Shoot the Messenger by John Dorsey

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/shoot-the-messenger/

100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/100-selected-poems-by-e-e-cummings/

Unmaking Atoms by Magdelina Ball

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/unmaking-atoms-by-magdalena-ball/

The Way Back by Joyce Meyers

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/the-way-back-by-joyce-meyers/

Seek the Holy Dark by Clare L. Martin

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/seek-the-holy-dark-by-clare-l-martin/

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s Poetics

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/03/03/whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolfs-poetics/

Martin Fierro by Jose Hernandez

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/martin-fierro-by-jose-hernandez/

Bird Flying through the Banquet by Judy Kronenfeld

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/bird-flying-through-the-banquet-by-judy-kronenfeld/

Justine by Lawrence Durrell

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/justine-by-lawrence-durrell/

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A WEEK ON THE CONCORD & MERRIMACK RIVERS

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Review by Ray Greenblatt

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Henry Thoreau made a week’s boating trip with his brother John in 1839. Henry was a mere 22! This voyage in a sailboat with oars would be a forerunner to the classic Walden; in it we see so many elements that reappear in the latter work. However, the former book was not published until 1849 and did not sell many copies. Henry’s brother would die at age 27 in 1842; Henry would succumb to tuberculosis at age 45. If in some obscure New England attic stacks of A Week are discovered, what would they now be worth!

.                                                                          STYLE

During his voyage Thoreau refers to many eras: Chinese, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Hindu, Moslem, etc. He concentrates on all aspects of Greek civilization: Orpheus, Jason, Pythagoras, Plato, Aurora. He philosophizes about astronomy, early American history, friendship, politics. He even discourses in detail on certain famous  individuals from Persius to Chaucer to Goethe.

Let us first consider the bare bones of Thoreau’s writing; later we will add the flesh. He often relies on a series of adjectives: “The few dull, thumping, stertorous sounds which we heard impressed us.” (200) Also, nouns, verbs, and even sentences are written in triplicate for emphasis. He often inverts his verb before the subject: “So have all things their higher and their lower uses.” (185) This puts stress on a key word. We notice metaphors and similes, but his analogies are subtle: “The fisherman, meanwhile, stands in three feet of water, under the same summer’s sun, arbitrating in other cases between muck-worm and shiner.” (21) Comparing a fisherman to a lawyer is unique. He also coins many original adages. Using the concept of money figuratively he writes: “The truth is, there is money buried everywhere, and you have only to go to work to find it.” (208)

Critics often write about Thoreau’s dryness and fact-oriented analyses. Yet, close reading discloses whimsy: “Some will remember, no doubt, not only that they went to the college, but that they went to the mountain. Every visit to its summit would, as it were, generalize the particular information gained below, and subject it to more catholic tests.” (197) Sometimes the humor holds a bite: “Perchance, after a few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their summers elsewhere meanwhile, nature will have leveled the Billerica dam, and the Lowell factories, and the Grass-ground River run clear again.” (32) This ecological statement still applies today!

Our author is excellent in description. Here the wind drives their boat under sail: “The mountains like school-boys turned their cheeks to it . . .The north wind stepped readily into the harness which we had provided, and pulled us along with good will . . .with our wings spread, but never lifting our head from the watery trench.” (384) He employs all his senses: “All these sounds, the crowing of cocks, the baying of dogs, and the hum of insects at noon, are the evidence of nature’s health or sound state.” (40) And “I see, smell, taste, hear, feel, that everlasting Something to which we are allied, at once our maker, our abode, our destiny, our very Selves.” (182) This will lead us to Thoreau’s views of nature.

.                                                                   NATURE

Thoreau fully believed that man was part of nature and could see transcendental things and the universe through it. Something as simple as a flower: “I have passed down the river before sunrise on a summer morning, between fields of lilies still shut in sleep; and when, at length, the flakes of sunlight from over the bank fell on the surface of the water, whole fields of white blossoms seemed to flash open before me, as I floated along, like the unfolding of a banner, so sensible is this flower to the influence of the sun’s rays.” (19)

Trees like the linden have been working partners with man: “It was once used for carving, and is still in demand for sounding-boards of piano-fortes and panes of carriages, and for various uses for which toughness and flexibility are required. Baskets and cradles are made of the twigs. Its sap affords sugar, and the honey made from its flowers is said to be preferred to any other. Its leaves are in some countries given to cattle, a kind of chocolate has been made of its fruit, a medicine has been prepared from an infusion of its flowers, and finally, the charcoal made of its wood is greatly valued for gunpowder.” (166)

The bream holds a special delight for him: “Seen in its native element, it is a very beautiful and compact fish, perfect in all its parts, and looks like a brilliant coin fresh from the mint. It is a perfect jewel of the river, the green, red, coppery, and golden reflections of its mottled sides being the concentration of such rays as struggle through the floating pads and flowers to the sandy bottom, and in harmony with the sunlit brown and yellow pebbles.” (26)

He admits to having killed and roasted a pigeon somewhat reluctantly: “We obtained one of these handsome birds, which lingered too long upon its perch, and plucked and broiled it here with some other game, to be carried along for our supper; for, beside the provisions which we carried with us, we depended mainly on the river and forest for our supply.” His philosophical reasoning: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.” (236)

Nature is so much older than man: “Here is the gray dawn for antiquity, and our tomorrow’s future should be at least paulo-post to theirs which we have put behind us. There are the red maple and birchen leaves, old runes which are not yet deciphered; catkins, pine cones, vines, oak leaves, and acorns; the very things themselves, and not their forms in stone,–so much the more ancient and venerable.” (266) Its beauty has a correspondence: “Undulation is the gentlest and most ideal of motions, produced by one fluid falling on another. Rippling is a more graceful flight. From a hill-top you may detect in it the wings of birds endlessly repeated. The two waving lines which represent the flight of birds appear to have been copied from the ripple.” (338)

Thoreau sees in nature a combination of exigency and the fanciful: “There seemed to be a great haste and preparation throughout Nature, as for a distinguished visitor; all her aisles had to be swept in the night by a thousand handmaidens, and a thousand pots to be boiled for the next day’s feasting,–such a whispering bustle, as if ten thousand fairies made  their fingers fly, silently sewing at the new carpet with which the earth was to be clothed, and the new drapery which was to adorn the trees. And then the wind would fall and die away, and we like it fell asleep again.” (355)

.                                                      LITERATURE & THE POET

The essayist and poet states that he likes quality books: “Books, not which afford us a cowering enjoyment, but in which each thought is of unusual daring; such as an idle man cannot read, and a timid one would not be entertained by, which even make us dangerous to existing institutions,–such call I good books.” (99) He wants nature woven into the literature: “The sentences are verdurous and blooming as evergreen and flowers, because they are rooted in fact and experience.” (107) Conversely, he condones bad books in which a man “finds himself reading a horse-rake, or spinning-jenny, or wooden nutmeg, or oak-leaf cigar, or steam-power press, or kitchen range, perchance, when he was seeking serene and biblical truths.” (99)

He highlights the value of the classics: “I know of no studies so composing as those of the classical scholar. When we have sat down to them, life seems as still and serene as if it were very far off, and I believe it is not habitually seen from any common platform so truly and unexaggerated as in the light of literature. In serene hours we contemplate the tour of the Greek and Latin authors with more pleasure than the traveler does the fairest scenery of Greece and Italy. Where shall we find a more refined society?” (239)

First, he reasons “to some extent, mythology is only the most ancient history and biography.” (60) However, he centers in on the worth of the poet: “Everything that is printed and bound in a book contains some echo at least of the best that is in literature . . . What would we not give for some great poem to read now, which would be in harmony with the scenery,–for if men read aright, methinks they would never read anything but poems. No history nor philosophy can supply their place.” (93)

The poet’s “words are the relation of his oldest and finest memory, a wisdom drawn from the remotest experience.” (101) To illustrate an idea, Thoreau would quote a poem or part of one, often his own. “The poet is no tender slip of fairy stock, who requires peculiar institutions and edicts for his defense, but the toughest son of earth and of Heaven, and by his greater strength and endurance his fainting companions will recognize the God in him. It is the worshipers of beauty, after all, who have done the real pioneer work of the world.” (362)

.                                                                       PHILOSOPHY

Thoreau’s philosophic views are grounded in the real. Take travel: “The cheapest way to travel, and the way to travel the farthest in the shortest distance, is to go afoot, carrying a dipper, a spoon, and a fish line, some Indian meal, some salt, and some sugar. When you come to a brook or a pond, you can catch fish and cook them; or you can boil a hasty-pudding; or you can buy a loaf of bread at a farmer’s house for fourpence, moisten it in the next brook that crosses the road, and dip into your sugar,–this alone will last you a whole day.” (325)

His views on government are more profound: “When I have not paid the tax which the State demanded for that protection which I did not want, itself has robbed me; when I have asserted the liberty it presumed to declare, itself has imprisoned me . . . Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.” (135) “Herein is the tragedy: that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery.” (136)

About religion he is even more accusatory: “The church is a sort of hospital for men’s souls, and as full of quackery as the hospital for their bodies. Those who are taken into it live like pensioners in their Retreat or Sailor’s Snug Harbor, where you may see a row of religious cripples sitting outside in sunny weather.” (77) He even rebuffs evangelicals:  “Tell me of the height of the mountains of the moon, or of the diameter of space, and I may believe you, but of the secret history of the Almighty, and I shall pronounce thee mad.” (71)

His religion rests in the mystical: “This earth was made for more mysterious and nobler inhabitants than men and women. In the hues of October sunsets, we see the portals to other mansion.” (403) What is our life: “We linger in manhood to tell the dreams of our childhood, and they are half forgotten ere we have learned the language. We have need to be earth-born as well as heaven-born.” (406) This leads us to Thoreau’s emphasis on the man of the earth, the countryman.

“The wilderness is near as well as dear to every man. Even the oldest villages are indebted to the border of wild wood which surrounds them, more than to the gardens of men. There is something indescribably inspiriting and beautiful in the aspect of the forest skirting and occasionally jutting into the midst of new towns, which like the sand-heaps of fresh fox-burrows, have sprung up in their midst. The very uprightness of the pines and maples asserts the ancient rectitude and vigor of nature. Our lives need the relief of such a background, where the pine flourishes and the jay still screams.” (179)

“How few circumstances are necessary to the well-being and serenity of man, how indifferent all employments are, and that any may seem noble and poetic to the eyes of men, if pursued with sufficient buoyancy and freedom. With liberty and pleasant weather, the simplest occupation, any unquestioned country mode of life which detains us in the open air, is alluring.” (220)

A man in nature is in touch with his soul: “Yet these men had no need to travel to be as wise as Solomon in all his glory, so similar are the lives of men in all countries, and fraught with the same homely experiences. One half the world knows how the other half lives.” (227)  “These are stirring autumn days, when men sweep by in crowds, amid the rustle of leaves like migrating finches; this is the true harvest of the year, when the air is but the breath of men, and the rustling of leaves is as the trampling of the crowd.” (359)

Our author also puts up with a certain type of rudeness among these men: “I therefore did not repel his rudeness, but quite innocently welcomed it all, and knew how to appreciate it, as if I were reading in an old drama a part well sustained. He was indeed a coarse and sensual man, and, as I have said, uncivil, but he had his just quarrel with nature and mankind, I have no doubt, only he had no artificial covering to his ill-humors.”

About these hearty men he says: “Men fuller of talk and rare adventure in the sun and wind and rain, than a chestnut is of meat, who were out not only in ’75 and 1812, but have been out every day of their lives . . . Look at their fields, and imagine what they might write, if ever they should put pen to paper. Or what they have not written on the face of the earth already, clearing, and burning, and scratching, and out and out, and over and over, again and again, erasing what they had already written for want of parchment.” (6) And this figurative “writing” brings us full circle in Thoreau’s philosophy.

In his fine book The Geography of Imagination, the renowned American critic Guy Davenport wrote about Thoreau: “He was clearly an ecologist; he was also a student of time, of cyclic movements in nature and of the miraculously synchronous organization of plants and animals. Hence his daily inspection of one woodscape, knowing every detail of its life . . . Thoreau’s love affair with the scrub-oak, homeliest of trees, began to have the qualities of myth, the Greek feeling for the olive which we find in Oedipus at Colonus.” (242) Even at such a young age as 22, we can see that Henry Thoreau had developed the skllls to write Walden years later.

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You can find the book here: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7720.html

Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets.  His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.

 

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF’S POETICS

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By Ray Greenblatt

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In this twenty-first century Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is one of the most famous authors in the world. Her many works have been analyzed; movies based on her life and writings have drawn enthusiastic audiences. Woolf wrote novels and short stories. Her non-fiction included letters, diaries, biographies and book reviews. However, I am interested in what we might call her “fantastical prose,” a form very close to the prose-poem. I have discovered these random pieces in two of her collections, MONDAY OR TUESDAY and THE DEATH OF THE MOTH.

I – MONDAY OR TUESDAY and Other Short Stories (1921)

By definition a short story must have a character or characters, or at least some personified thing, in which we see various human qualities. Also, this personage must go through a series of actions in order for some changes in character to take place. It would be even more enriching to the story to observe a vivid background against  which these movements occur.

We can open our discussion of Woolf’s poetic writing with BLUE & GREEN, a prose piece that comes closest to a poem. It can be quoted in its entirety:

Green

“The pointed fingers of glass hang downwards. The light slides down the glass, and drops a pool of green. All day long the ten fingers of the luster drop green upon the marble. The feathers of parakeets—their harsh cries—sharp blades of palm trees—green, too; green needles glittering in the sun. But the hard glass drips on to the marble; the pools hover above the desert sand; the camels lurch through them; the pools settle on the marble; rushes edge them; weeds clog them; here and there a white blossom; the frog flops over; at night the stars are set there unbroken.  Evening comes, and the shadow sweeps the green over the mantelpiece; the ruffled surface of ocean. No ships come; the aimless waves sway beneath the empty sky. It’s night; the needles drip blots of blue. The green’s out.

Blue

The snub-nosed monster rises to the surface and spouts through his blunt nostrils two columns of water, which, fiery-white in the centre, spray off into a fringe of blue beads. Strokes of blue line the black tarpaulin of his hide.  Slushing the water through mouth and nostrils he sings, heavy with water, and the blue closes over him dowsing the polished pebbles of his eyes.  Thrown upon the beach he lies, blunt, obtuse, shedding dry blue scales. Their metallic blue stains the rusty iron on the beach.  Blue are the ribs of the wrecked rowing boat. A wave rolls beneath the blue bells. But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.”

Green: where are we? It might be beside a tropic ocean: parakeets, palms, sand, rushes. But marble and mantelpiece disturb our focus. Is the viewer in her living room, perhaps imagining a seaside scene. “The green’s out” is an awkward sentence, for what purpose?

Blue: we are more sure now of the ocean location: beach, water, boat, wave. This connects with the “green” stanza. However, the striking final line is no longer connected with home: “But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.” What could this shift mean? This is indeed an imagistic prose-poem with little overt meaning.  Are the sea and fish sacred? Is the home as well?

The sentences could be readily arranged into poetic lines of two stanzas.

The prose piece of writing MONDAY OR TUESDAY is even more stream-of-conscious. This time it is about real life, but without characters or plot. A heron in flight frames the writing by appearing at the opening and closing:

“Desiring truth, awaiting it, laboriously distilling a few words, for ever desiring –(a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)—for ever desiring—(the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales; children swarm)—for ever desiring truth. Red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry ‘Iron for sale’—and truth?”

This prose-poem captures the busy—if not dizzying—daily life of an Edwardian city. Today’s poetry uses simpler words; Woolf employs weighty wording such as: asseverate, conglomerate, laboriously, divergently. “For ever desiring” becomes a refrain to discover the motivation for all this urban turmoil. Parentheses and dashes connect series of words, phrases, even sentences to replicate this activity.  As in the last mentioned poem, semi-colons could rope off individual poetic lines.

Rather than the sea or city, THE STRING QUARTET explores what emotions music can stir in a person:

“’But the tune, like all his tunes, makes one despair—I mean hope. What do I mean? That’s the worst of music! I want to dance, laugh, eat pink cakes, yellow cakes, drink thin, sharp wine. Or an indecent story, now—I could relish that. The older one grows the more one likes indecency. Hah! hah! I’m laughing. What at? You said nothing, nor did the old gentleman opposite . . .But suppose—suppose–hush!’”

“The boat sinks. Rising, the figures ascend, but now leaf thin, tapering to a dusky wraith, which, fiery tipped, draws its twofold passion from my heart. For me it sings, unseals my sorrow, thaws compassion, floods with love the sunless world, nor, ceasing, abates its tenderness but deftly, subtly, weaves in and out until in this pattern, this consummation, the cleft ones unify; soar, sob, sink to rest, sorrow and joy.”

“The green garden, moonlit pool, lemons, lovers, and fish are all dissolved in the opal sky, across which, as the horns are joined by trumpets and supported by clarions there rise white arches firmly planted on marble pillars . . . Tramp and trumpeting. Clang and clangour. Firm establishment. Fast foundations. March of myriads. Confusion and chaos trod to earth.”  The alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are powerful.

The audience member—we can suspect Woolf—has mentally floated far away on the music, because a string quartet does not consist of horns, trumpets nor clarions.  Her soul and her thoughts are truly stirred. We can only wonder if with discreet flashlight she jotted down these lines. Or did Virginia Woolf have a compendious memory that would hold all these feelings until she arrived home.

In A HAUNTED HOUSE you might detect two ghosts, but they live up to their wispy personas, not developing, only remaining ghostly observers.  If a plot exists it is nebulous: the ghosts return to see if their past home is intact:

“’Here we slept,’ she says. And he adds, ‘Kisses without number.’ ‘Waking in the morning—‘ ‘Silver between the trees—‘ ‘Upstairs—‘ ‘In the garden—‘ ‘When summer came—‘ ‘In winter snowtime—‘ The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.” “Heart” becomes a key word for Woolf because it leads to love.

“Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering, the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.” Certain words stress the ghostly couple’s quest–stooping , long, faces.

“’Safe, safe, safe,’ the heart of the house beats proudly. ‘Long years—‘ he sighs. ‘Again you found me.’  ‘Here,’ she murmurs, ‘sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—‘ Stooping , their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. ‘Safe! safe! safe! ‘ the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry ‘Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart?’” Can you detect  subtle rhymes at work in that passage?

Life, a pulse, the heart, and love. The ghost couple recall their love and search for it in the present living tenants of their house. This theme of the search for love will become a central one for Virginia Woolf in most of her future writing.

II –  THE DEATH OF THE MOTH and Other Essays (1942)

One year after Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941 and twenty-one years after her first collection of short fiction, her husband Leonard published a book that included some pieces which did not fit the definition of essay. Again, they resembled poetry parading as prose, i.e. prose-poetry. An essay is a discussion of a central topic proceeding logically from point to point. Woolf has a topic, but rather she flows with feelings that shadow logic. Many of her writing qualities are still embedded in these later pieces, but her theme of living life and loving fully becomes clearer.

In EVENING OVER SUSSEX Woolf seems to hover like a spirit over the countryside. As a poet often does, using personification she compares Sussex to a woman: “Evening is kind to Sussex, for Sussex is no longer young, and she is grateful for the veil of evening as an elderly woman is glad when a shade is drawn over a lamp, and only the outline of her face remains.” Now the human comparison shifts to: “The freckle of red villas on the coast is washed over by a thin lucid lake of brown air, in which they and their redness are drowned. It was still too early for lamps and too early for stars.”

Woolf is not attempting to analyze Sussex as an essayist would do step-by-step. This prose writing is like a lyric poem, which attempts to catch and hold a single impression. Here beauty of a landscape, or even a person, is momentary: “The fields are mottled, marbled—one’s perceptions blow out rapidly like air balls expanded by some rush of air, and then, when all seems blown to its fullest and tautest, with beauty and beauty and beauty, a pin pricks; it collapses.” Notice poetic word repetition.

At most she predicts the future for Sussex, and the world in general, in her conclusion: “’ I think much grossness will have evaporated. Things will have been scorched up, eliminated. There will be magic gates. Draughts fan-blown by electric power will cleanse houses. Lights intense and firmly directed will go over the earth, doing the work. Look at the moving light in that hill; it is the headlight of a car. By day and by night Sussex in five centuries will be full of charming thoughts, quick, effective beams.’”  Fanciful, positive and poetic ideas! Especially with a world war looming.

We could theorize that the piece THE DEATH OF THE MOTH is an intellectual analysis of the natural functions of life and death. However, any structure is minimized by effective use of poetics. As this prose-poem opens: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us.”

For Woolf the moth held a spirit like any living thing: “That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.” Yet, the life force in a moth is as powerful as the same life force in a human being.  Notice her poetic usage of a connector and the verbs: “One is apt to forge all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.”

In the conclusion, Woolf wants us to even witness the moth’s death, as we must all experience our own and loved ones’ deaths: “It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings.; nothing, I knew had any chance against death.”

STREET HAUNTING is sixteen pages long but still not an essay nor even a short story. Not one character is developed nor is there a plot. The structure is composed of wandering observations, which Woolf makes poetically and beautifully. She employed this technique long ago in the 1921 collection when she became a ghost in A HAUNTED HOUSE or concertgoer in THE STRING QUARTET.

STREET HAUNTING has a sub-title: “A London Adventure” but that adventure becomes various forms of lifestyles she collects as she strolls:

“The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful.”

“The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.”

“Here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them.”

“How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings  and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.”

Then the shops: “The carnal splendour of the butchers’ shops with their yellow flanks and purple steaks; the blue and red bunches of flowers burning so bravely through the plate glass of the florists’ windows.”

“They lie close to those shop windows where commerce offers to a world of  old women laid on doorsteps, of blind men, of hobbling dwarfs, sofas which are supported by the gilt necks of proud swans; tables inlaid with baskets of many coloured fruit; sideboards paved with green marble the better to support the weight of boars’ heads; and carpets so softened with age that their carnations have almost vanished in a pale green sea.”

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

Woolf is skillful at combining nature and human imagery. She concludes this poetic piece by saying that to know all types of people and their vitality is the keenest kind of pleasure: ”One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?”

I mostly allowed Virginia Woolf to speak for herself because it is nearly time to conclude the review; and vividly, originally, elegantly does she write poetic prose.

In her prose-poetry Virginia Woolf has explored the love of house, music, city, nature, love of life itself. However, most of her life she was pursued by a figurative “water wraith,” which drove her to an early death. In contrast to the other written pieces we have explored, I offer the prose-poem OLD MRS. GREY which deals directly with death:

“There are moments even in England, now, when even the busiest, most contented suddenly let fall what they hold—it may be the week’s washing. Sheets and pyjamas crumble and dissolve in their hands, because, though they do not state this in so many words, it seems silly to take the washing round to Mrs. Peel when out there over the fields over the hills, there is no washing; no pinning of clothes to lines; mangling and ironing; no work at all, but boundless rest. Stainless and boundless rest; space unlimited; untrodden grass; wild birds flying; hills whose smooth uprise continue that flight.” Is Woolf hinting at heaven?

“The fire looked like a small spot of dusty light feebly tying to escape from the embarrassing pressure of the pouring sunshine.” A striking poetic image.

An old woman has come to the end of her life and can go no farther now nearly blind: “And now at the age of ninety-two they saw nothing but a zigzag of pain wriggling across the door, pain that twisted her legs as it wriggled; jerked her body to and fro like a marionette. Her body was wrapped round the pain as a damp sheet is folded over a wire. The wire was spasmodically jerked by a cruel invisible hand.”

All that the woman could see out her front door: “The morning spread seven foot by four green and sunny. Like a fling of grain the birds settled on the land. She was jerked again by another tweak of the tormenting hand.”

The image of the wire used in washing is continued. She only wants eternal rest but life forces will not allow it: “So we—humanity—insist that the body shall still cling to the wire. We put out the eyes and the ears; but we pinion it there, with a bottle of medicine, a cup of tea, a dying fire, like a rook on a barn door; but a rook that still lives, even with a nail through it.”

By definition poetry capitalizes on rhythm, imagery, intensity. Prose does not: fiction spins out a tale, while an essay analyzes a topic. No writer of short stories or essays would have time or use space as Virginia Woolf did in her poetic musings. Yes, when she wanted, her stories and novels, her biographies and reviews were clearly shaped and developed. Yet she was also a poet who—oddly to us perhaps—chose never to publish even one chapbook of poetry.

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To learn more visit: http://www.virginiawoolfsociety.co.uk/index.html

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Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

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POETICS IN THE FICTION OF DYLAN THOMAS

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By Ray Greenblatt

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Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) wrote this collection of ten short stories in 1940.  The characters from A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1952) are here but more fleshed out: Dan Jenkins (“The Fight”), Jack Williams (“Peaches”), the Protheros (“Old Garbo”). And Thomas’ poetic style is revealed in the prose as well: vivid imagery, alliteration, purposeful run-on lines, many adjectives, humor, strong emotions from joy to sadness. In most of these stories Dylan is his own narrator; we even observe him growing from his pre-teens into a young man in his twenties. How much is made up we don’t really know and will leave to the critics, yet the stories are intriguing.

Thomas writes impressionistic stories about his life (or at least about a boy named Dylan) in Wales. “Peaches” is about Dylan staying on his Aunt and Uncle’s farm with his rich friend Jack for two weeks in the summer.

“He sang all the way to Gorsehill in an affectionate bass voice, and conducted the wind with his whip. He did not need to touch the reins. Once on the rough road, between hedges twisting out to twig the mare by the bridle and poke our caps, we stopped at a whispered ‘Whoa,’ for uncle to light his pipe and set the darkness on fire and show his long, red, drunken fox’s face to me, with its bristling side-bushes and wet, sensitive nose.”

“Uncle looked twice as tall as Annie. He could have carried her about under his coat and brought her out suddenly, a little, brown-skinned, toothless, hunchbacked woman with a cracked sing-song voice.”

Jack’s mother pays the Aunt and Uncle money to board Jack, but she is a snob. When they offer her what they think a treat of canned peaches, she abruptly turns them down. After she leaves, Uncle, who has been drinking heavily, curses her out. Jack hears and phones his mother to take him home.

Despite all this, Dylan loves the farm: “There was nowhere like that farm-yard in all the slapdash country, nowhere so poor and grand and dirty as that square of mud and rubbish and bad wood and falling stone, where a bucketful of old and bedraggled hens scratched and laid small eggs.”

“I felt all my young body like an excited animal surrounding me, the torn knees bent, the bumping heart, the long heat and depth between the legs, the sweat prickling in the hands, the tunnels down to the eardrums, the little balls of dirt between the toes, the eyes in the sockets, the tucked-up voice, the blood racing, the memory around and within flying, jumping, swimming, and waiting to pounce.”

In “A Visit to Grandpa’s” Dylan’s grandfather is becoming senile. In bed he imagines he’s driving a carriage: “He was sitting straight up in bed and rocking from side to side as though the bed were on a rough road; the knotted edge of the counterpane were his reins; his invisible horse stood in a shadow beyond the bedside candle. Over a white flannel nightshirt he was wearing a red waistcoat with walnut-sized brass buttons.”

When he does drive a cart, it is as if the pony is a powerful team of steeds: “On the last day but one of my visit I was taken to Llanstephan in a governess cart pulled by a short, weak pony. Grandpa might have been driving a bison, so tightly he held the reins, so ferociously cracked the long whip, so blasphemously shouted warning to boys who played in the road, so stoutly stood with his gaitered legs apart and cursed the demon strength and willfulness of his tottering pony.”

After he is found missing, the townsfolk discover him on a bridge on the way–he claims–to be buried, although he is still hale. “Grandpa did not answer, but inclined his face to the river wind, so that his beard was set dancing and wagging as though he talked, and watched the coracle men move, like turtles, on the shore . . . For a moment grandpa reflected, then: ‘There’s no sense in lying dead in Llanstephan,’ he said. ‘The ground is comfy in Llangadock; you can twitch your legs without putting them in the sea.’”

Dylan dominated in the first story and Grandpa in the second. However, in “Patricia, Edith, and Arnold” a new child is introduced. The story told in the third person involves adults: two maids who are friends are supposedly loved by one young man. When together they question him; he chooses Patricia. But she declares that he has lied to her friend Edith and spurns him. Meanwhile, the young boy Patricia takes care of has no idea what is going on with these adults, as he plays:

“He backed the Flying Welshman from the washhouse to the open door of the coal-hole and pulled hard on the brake that was a hammer in his pocket: assistants in uniform ran out with fuel; he spoke to a saluting fireman, and the engine shuffled off, round the barbed walls of China that kept the cats away, by the frozen rivers in the sink, in and out of the coal-hole tunnel.”

Yet he senses that something is going on: “He knew that this was an afternoon on which anything might happen; it might snow enough for sliding on a tray; uncles from America, where he had no uncles, might arrive with revolvers and St. Bernards; Ferguson’s shop might catch on fire and all the piece-packets fall on the pavements.”

Yet he does not understand the actions, let alone feelings, of adults: “When who comes? He threw the snowball high into the silently driving fall. Edith’s crying in the deadened park was clear and thin as a whistle, and, disowning the soft girls and standing away from them in case a stranger passed, a man with boots to his thighs, or a sneering, bigger boy from the Uplands, he piled snow against the wire of the tennis court and thrust his hands into the snow like a baker making bread. As he delved and moulded the snow into loaves, saying under his breath, ‘This is the way it is done, ladies and gentleman.’”

“The Fight” is, in my opinion, the funniest story because Dylan gets inside a boy’s imaginative head. He fights with an unknown boy named Dan. “I threw a stone at his face. He took off his spectacles, put them in his coat pocket, took off his coat, hung it neatly on the railings, and attacked . . . I was down in the dust, hot and scratched and biting, then up and dancing, and I butted the boy in the belly and we tumbled in a heap. I saw through a closing eye that his nose was bleeding. I hit his nose. He tore at my collar and spun me round by the hair.”

Dylan earns the badge of a black eye. “He said I had the best black eye in Wales, perhaps it was the best black eye in Europe; he bet Tunney never had a black eye like that . . . That afternoon I went to school with an eye-shade on. If I had a black silk sling I would have been as gay and desperate as the wounded captain in the book that my sister used to read, and that I read under the bedclothes at night, secretly with a flash-lamp.”

They immediately become friends and Dylan goes to Dan’s house for the day. “He was a composer and a poet too; he had written seven historical novels before he was twelve, and he played the piano and the violin; his mother made wool pictures, his brother was a clerk at the docks and syncopated; his aunt kept a preparatory school on the first floor, and his father wrote music for the organ.”

In Dan’s home they meet several eccentrics at dinner. “Mrs. Bevan smiled at her, assured, and began to eat. She was grey-haired and grey-faced. Perhaps she was grey all over. I tried to undress her, but my mind grew frightened when it came to her short flannel petticoat and navy bloomers to the knees. I couldn’t even dare unbutton her tall boots to see how grey her legs were. She looked up from her plate and gave me a wicked smile.”

By the fifth story “Just like Little Dogs” Dylan is now a lonely young man during the Depression. “The night before, quick little scarecrows had bent and picked at the track-line and a solitary dignified scavenger wandered three miles by the edge with a crumpled coal sack and a park-keeper’s steel-tipped stick. Now they were tucked up in sacks, asleep in a siding, their heads in bins, their beards in straw, in coal-trucks thinking of fires, or lying beyond pickings on Jack Stiff’s slab near the pub in the Fishguard Alley, where the methylated-spirit drinkers danced into the policemen’s arms and women like lumps of clothes in a pool waited, in doorways and holes in the soaking wall, for vampires or firemen.”

He meets two sad men who had to marry their wives. The judge in their paternity suits states that they acted “just like little dogs.” They stand in the dark doing nothing like Dylan as a train passes. “It tore over us, the arch bellowed, the wheels screamed through our heads, we were deafened and spark-blinded and crushed under the fiery weight and we rose again, like battered black men, in the grave of the arch. No noise at all from the swallowed town. The trams had rattled themselves dumb. A pressure of the hidden sea rubbed away the smudge of the docks. Only three young men alive.”

He suddenly realizes that his life could become theirs. However, he feels a perverse pleasure. “I was a lonely nightwalker and a steady stander-at-corners. I liked to walk through the wet town after midnight, when the streets were deserted and the window lights out, alone and alive on the glistening tramlines in dead and empty High Street under the moon, gigantically sad in the damp streets by ghostly Ebenezer Chapel. And I never felt more a part of the remote and overpressing world, or more full of love and arrogance and pity and humility, not for myself alone, but for the living earth I suffered on.”

The elements of loneliness and the sea begin to play larger roles in Thomas’ remaining stories.  In “Who Do You Wish Was with Us” Dylan and his friend Raymond have the feeling of hiking free in nature. “We went on up Sketty Road at a very great speed, our haversacks jumping on our backs. We rapped on every gate to give a terrific walker’s benediction to the people in the choking houses. Like a breath of fresh air we passed a man in office pin-stripes standing, with a dog-lead in his hand, whistling at a corner. Tossing the sounds and smells of the town from us with the swing of shoulders and loose-limbed strides, half-way up the road we heard women on an outing call.”

They get to the shore. “Laughing on the cliff above the very long golden beach, we pointed out to each other, as though the other were blind, the great rock of the Worm’s Head. The sea was out. We crossed over on slipping stones and stood, at last, triumphantly on the windy top. There was monstrous, thick grass there that made us spring-heeled, and we laughed and bounced on it, scaring the sheep who ran up and down the battered sides like goats.”

Amid this exhilaration Raymond cannot keep down his inner turmoil. He says: “’I used to hold my father down on the bed when he had fits. I had to change the sheets twice a day for my brother, there was blood on everything. I watched him getting thinner and thinner; in the end you could lift him up with one hand. And his wife wouldn’t go to see him because he coughed in her face, Mother couldn’t move, and I had to cook as well, cook and nurse and change the sheets and hold father down when he got mad. It’s embittered my outlook.’”

Dylan, of course, has heard all of this before. All they can do for relief is imagine what friends they would like to have at the beach with them. “”I wish Gwilym was here, too,’ I said. ‘I’ve told you about him. He could give a sermon to the sea’ . . .’I wish my brother was with us,’ Ray said. He climbed on to the flat of the rock and dried his feet. ‘I wish Harry was here. I wish he was here now, at this moment, on this rock’ . . . A wind, cornering the Head, chilled through our summer shirts, and the sea began to cover our rock quickly, our rock already covered with friends, with living and dead, racing against the darkness.”

Drunkenness also plays a part in the next two stories of an adult Dylan Thomas. In “Old Garbo,” he is a cub reporter who admires Mr. Farr, an ace journalist. “He was the senior reporter, a great shorthand writer, a chain-smoker, a bitter drinker, very humorous, round-faced and round-bellied, with dart holes in his nose . . . He might have been a mincing-mannered man, with a strut and a cane to balance it, a watch-chain cross the waistcoat, a gold tooth, even perhaps a flower from his own garden in his buttonhole.”

They go drinking together. “I leant against the bar, between an alderman and a solicitor, drinking bitter, wishing that my father could see me now and glad, at the same time, that he was visiting Uncle A. in Aberavon. He could not fail to see that I was a boy no longer, nor fail to be angry at the angle of my fag and my hat and the threat of the clutched tankard. I liked the taste of beer, its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam at the corners.”

In the bar a Mrs. Prothero (called Old Garbo because she is the antithesis of the actress in every way) buys drinks for everyone. “ [I] thought of the long legs and startling faces of the chorus girls I had seen walking arm in arm, earlier that week, up and down the streets in the winter sunshine . . . their hair raven-black or silver; their scent and paint reminded me of the hot and chocolate-coloured East, their eyes were pools.”

Since her daughter supposedly died in childbirth, her cronies had raised some money for her. When Old Garbo learned her daughter had lived but the grandchild died, out of embarrassment she jumped off a bridge. However, neither Dylan nor Mr. Farr was sober enough to cover the suicide for the newspaper.  “Two small men, Mr. Farr and his twin brother, led me on an ice-rink to the door, and the night air slapped me down. The evening happened suddenly. A wall slumped over and knocked off my trilby; Mr. Farr’s brother disappeared under the cobbles. Here came a wall like a buffalo; dodge him, son.”

“One Warm Saturday” an overly romantic young man on vacation sits on the beach in a depressed state. “The young man sat alone with the shadows of his failure at his side . . . The young man, in his wilderness, saw the holiday Saturday set down before him, false and pretty, as a flat picture under the vulgar sun . . . He thought dramatically in his isolation, to an old shame and pity; outside all holiday, like a young man doomed for ever to the company of his maggots, beyond the high and ordinary, sweating, sun-awakened power and stupidity of the summer flesh on a day and a world out.”

Soon after, he falls in love with a woman beside the beach who seems to return his love. “It was the calm, unstartled certainty of her bearing before his glance from head to foot, the innocent knowledge, in her smile and the set of her head, that she was defended by her gentleness and accessible strangeness against all rude encounters and picking looks, that made his fingers tremble . . . Like a confident girl before a camera, she sat smiling, her hands folded, her head slightly to one side so that the rose brushed her neck. She accepted his admiration. The girl in a million took his long look to herself, and cherished his stupid love.”

A group of them, heavily drinking, go to the woman’s room. “He saw her as a wise, soft girl whom no hard company could spoil, for her soft self, bare to the heart, broke through every defence of her sensual falsifiers. As he thought this, phrasing her gentleness, faithlessly running to words away from the real room and his love in the middle, he woke with a start saw her lively body six steps from him, no calm heart dressed in a sentence, but a pretty girl, to be got and kept. He must catch hold of her fast.” However, when Dylan goes to find a toilet, in his drunkenness he gets totally lost and cannot find his way back to her.

We observe the same theme of a man trying to prove himself but failing in “Extraordinary Little Cough.” Dylan and three other boys go camping by the sea.  “Four boys on a roof—one tall, dark, regular-featured, precise of speech, in a good suit, a boy of the world; one squat, ungainly, red-haired, his red wrists fighting out of  short, frayed sleeves; one heavily spectacled, small-paunched, with indoor shoulders and feet in always unlaced boots wanting to go different ways; one small, thin, indecisively active, quick to get dirty, curly—saw their field in front of them, a fortnight’s  new home that had thick, pricking hedges for walls, the sea for a front garden, a green gutter for a lavatory, and a wind-struck tree in the middle.”

There they meet two other school chums and three girls. The story is mostly about how young people interact. “I could have swept the ground with my cap, kissed my hand gaily, called them senoritas, and made them smile without tolerance. Or I could have stayed at a distance, and this would have been better still, my hair blown in the wind, though there was no wind at all that evening, wrapped in mystery and staring at the sun, too aloof to speak to girls.”

And yet, Dylan is not the major character since so many people abound in this story. It is mostly about George Hooping, one of the four boys, nicknamed “Little Cough” for his surname. He is the odd man out trying to prove himself but is always the butt of a joke. I feel that Dylan Thomas is starting to change direction again with his stories.

After exploring pre-teenage boys then young men, he is now interested in groups.  Also, the number of poetic descriptions lessens and dialogue grows. The last story “Where Tawe Flows” will illustrate the point. Four men (again Dylan is one of them) meet regularly to write a book, titled “Where Tawe Flows,” in which each of them tells a story in very bare language.:

“’It wasn’t the doctor’s death, but where and how he died,’ said Mr. Evans. ‘He died in a bed-sitting-room in the arms of a certain lady. A woman of the town.’

‘Kiss me!’ Mr. Roberts said. ‘Seventy-five years old. I’m glad you asked us to remember his age, Mr. Evans.’

‘But how did Mary Phillips come to live in Bellevue? You haven’t told us that,’ Mr. Thomas said.

‘The William Hugheses wouldn’t have the niece of a man who died in those circumstances—‘

‘However complimentary to his manhood,’ Mr. Humphries said, stammering. ‘“

The use of dialogue Thomas had perfected in his numerous radio broadcasts and movie scripts. Perhaps these elements in the later stories hint toward Dylan Thomas wanting to write a full-length novel, something he never had the time to do.

Dylan Thomas died so young, but in his short life he excelled in poetry and short fiction. One hears echoes of James Joyce in Thomas’ emotional display of young characters’ feelings of love.  Thomas would undoubtedly have read this Celtic forerunner whose work began to dominate the world in 1916 with his first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Yet, Thomas’ prose in turn influenced American writers who came after him. J.D. Salinger, in Europe during World War Two, could have read Thomas. Salinger employed American colloquialisms used by the young as Thomas did the British. And another echo is heard in the writing of John Updike who attended Oxford in 1954, just after Thomas’ death. Updike often describes the woodlands and the sea in his work against which young people interact. We can only conjecture what further influences Dylan Thomas might have disseminated to the literary world had he lived longer.

You can find books by Dylan Thomas at New Directions http://www.ndbooks.com/author/dylan-thomas-d/

 

Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

 

 

 

Justine by Lawrence Durrell

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Review by Ray Greenblatt
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No, not 18th century French pornography by the Marquis de Sade. Rather, modern realism written by an Englishman. Birth in the Punjab, India, and death in Avignon gave Lawrence Durrell a breadth of experience, which spurred him to write about many different kinds of people–with a rich and diverse writing style.
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 He could list interesting facts in a travel book, like Reflections on a Marine Venus: “The festival of Helios was yearly in September. His priest gave the name to the year. The Colossus was built in his likeness, and the coinage of the realm bore his image, while in the great yearly festival which honored his name white or tawny lambs, white rams, white horses and red honey were offered as a sacrifice; and the wrestlers, boxers and charioteers contended for a wreath of white poplar. So great were the festivals of Helios that neighboring States sent both their best athletes as competitors and their diplomatic envoys.” (45)
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On the other hand he could employ dry humor, as in tales of the Consular Service, Sauve Qui Peut: “In the Old Days before Time Was . . . diplomacy was a quiet and restful trade carried on in soothing inanity among a hundred shady legations and embassies all over the globe . . . Minted at Eton, moulded by Balliol, and mellowed to the sunset tone of old brick by a Grand Tour, the fellow was in clover, and he knew it. Handpicked, packaged, dusted over lightly with male hormone, he was delivered to his post without a bally scratch.” (158) However, Durrell’s intent in creating Justine was much more important to him than mere fact-finding or humor and became significant to the reading public. I was most impressed by his ability to poetically describe characters and setting.
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                                                          Major Characters
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The novel Justine focuses on human relationships; and the focal point is the woman Justine. Two men are bewitched by her. Yes, she is beautiful, but ironically not one clear picture of her is given, since each person imagines her in a different way. Let us meet those three people all living in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, just before WWII begins.
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Nessim is a wealthy Egyptian businessman: “He looked up at you with that pale almond face, the expression shuttered, withdrawn, almost pleading.  And yet somewhere through all this gentleness ran a steel cord, for his staff was perpetually surprised to find out that, inattentive as he appeared to be, there was no detail of the business which he did not know.” (25)
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Eventually Nessim marries Justine: “Her love was like a skin in which he lay sewn like the infant Heracles; and her efforts to achieve herself had led her always towards, and not away from him. The world has no use for this sort of paradox I know; but it seemed to me then that Nessim knew and accepted her in a way impossible to explain to someone for whom love is still entangled with the qualities of possessiveness.” (28)
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Justine has had a troubled life and is constantly restless, trying to find herself in many ways. Darley, the writer who narrates the story, falls in love with her too. As in the various views of Justine, we see Darley only through others, as in a figure-ground. As Justine is headstrong and mysterious, Melissa is frail and honest.  Darley loves her also. “We idled arm in arm by the sea that afternoon, our conversations full of the debris of lives lived without forethought, without architecture. We had not a taste in common. Our characters and predispositions were wholly different, and yet in the magical ease of this friendship we felt something promised us. I like, also, to remember that first kiss by the sea, the wind blowing up a flake of hair at each white temple—a kiss broken off by the laughter which beset her.” (53)
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Cohen is an older man who, spurning his wife and children, pursued a relationship with Melissa. Here is how Darley first observed him: “I for my part could not bear to look at that heavy pock-marked face with its bestial saturnine cluster of tormented features smeared on it—could not bear to think of his gross intimacies with her: those sweaty little hands covered as thickly as a porcupine with black hair.”(20)
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Now that Cohen is dying, Darley has another view: “The flesh had sunk down upon his cheek-bones exposing the long slightly curved nose to its very root and throwing into relief the carved nostrils. This gave the whole mouth and jaw a buoyancy, a spirit which must have characterized his face in earliest youth.” (94)
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                                                              Supporting Characters
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For the moment putting aside this roiling plot, what bewitches me the most is Lawrence Durrell’s powerful use of character description. Let us consider six additional but very extraordinary people.
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Capodistria is the man murdered for an unknown reason. “He is more of a goblin than a man, you would think. The flat triangular head of a snake with the huge frontal lobes; the hair grows forward in a widow’s peak. A whitish flickering tongue is forever busy keeping his thin lips moist. He is ineffably rich and does not have to lift a finger for himself. He sits all day on the terrace of the Brokers’ Club  watching the women pass, with the restless eye of someone endlessly shuffling through an old soiled pack of cards.” (29)
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A French attaché Pombal is a close friend of Darley. “He sits at his desk in the Consulate-General covered by a perpetual confetti of pasteboard cards bearing the names of his colleagues. He is a pegamoid sloth of a man, a vast slow fellow given to prolonged afternoon siestas and Crebillon fils. His handkerchiefs smell wondrously of Eau de Portugal.” (18)
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A wise man, Balthazar is the one to whom many go for advice: “He is thin, stoops slightly, and has a deep croaking voice of great beauty, particularly when he quotes or recites. In speaking he never looks at you directly . . . his yellow goat-eyes are those of a hypnotist. In not looking at you he is sparing you from a regard so pitiless that it would discountenance you for an evening.” (81)
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Mnemjian is not just a misshapen barber: “He is the memory man, the archives of the city. If you should wish to know the ancestry or income of the most casual passer-by you have only to ask him; he will recite the details in a sing-song voice as he strops his razor and tries it upon the coarse black hair of his forearm. What he does not know he can find out in a matter of moments.” (32)
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Pursewarden represents the dangers of artistic fame: “His freedom, gained through a modest financial success, has begun to bore him. He has begun to feel more and more wanting in true greatness while his name has been daily swelling in size like some disgusting poster. He has realized that people are walking the street with a Reputation now and not a man.” (102)
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Formerly a sailor, Scobie is now connected with the Egyptian police force: “Eyes like dead moons, a distinct curvature of the pirate’s spinal column, and a taste of quinqueremes. It was not blood which flowed in Scobie’s veins but green salt water, deep-sea stuff. His walk is the slow rolling grinding trudge of a saint walking on Galilee.  His talk is a green-water jargon swept up in five oceans—an antique shop of polite fable bristling with sextants, astrolabes, porpentines and isobars. When he sings, which he so often does, it is in the very accents of the Old Man of the Sea. Like a patron saint he has left little pieces of his flesh all over the world.” (112)
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                                                               Alexandria: Place
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 The city seems to be a living essence unto itself. It can influence people as well as be a projection of their personalities.  Again, Lawrence Durrell is a master of powerful description. “Never had the early dawn-light seemed so good to Nessim. The city looked to him as brilliant as a precious stone. The shrill telephones whose voices filled the great stone buildings in which the financiers really lived, sounded to him like the voices of great fruitful mechanical birds. They glittered with a pharaonic youthfulness. The trees in the park had been rinsed down by an unaccustomed dawn rain.” (182)
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Likewise, the dusk is as significant: “The first blank lamps had begun to stiffen the damp paper background of Alexandria. The sea-wall with its lines of cafes swallowed in the spray glowed with a smudged and trembling phosphorescence.  The wind blew dead south. Mareotis crouched among the reeds , stiff as a crouching sphinx.” (83)  Mareotis is a lake just outside of the city.
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 The darkness adds a sinister dimension to the city: “ And then add screams in the night behind other shutters in that crooked street: the bey beating his wives because he was impotent. The old herb-woman selling herself every night on the flat ground among the razed houses—a sulky mysterious whining. The soft ‘pelm’ noise of bare black feet passing on the baked mud street, late at night.” (54)
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Each season offered a special poignancy. “I am recalling now how during that last spring (forever) we walked together at full moon, overcome by the soft dazed air of the city, the quiet ablutions of water and moonlight that polished it like a great casket. An aerial lunacy among the deserted trees of the dark squares, and the long dusty roads reaching away from midnight to midnight, bluer than oxygen.” (123)
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“In autumn the female bays turn to uneasy phosphorous and after the long chafing days of dust one feels the first palpitations of the autumn, like the wings of a butterfly fluttering to unwrap themselves. Mareotis turns lemon-mauve and its muddy flanks are starred by sheets of radiant anemones, growing through the quickened plaster-mud of the shore.” (40) Not being a writer of limited vocabulary, Durrell employs forms of the word “phosphorescent” multiply. Perhaps Alexandria’s climate held an intangible quality which intrigued him. Physics defines the word as “emission of radiation continuing after excitation ceases.”
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“The slither of tyres across the waves of the desert under a sky blue and frost-bound in winter; or in summer a fearful lunar bombardment which turned the sea to phosphorous—bodies shining like tin, crushed in electric bubbles; or walking to the last spit of land near Montaza, sneaking through the dense green darkness of the King’s gardens.” (126)
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Sometimes rain is heavy; the Pharos is the lighthouse :”Today, unexpectedly, comes a squinting spring shower, stiffening the dust and pollen of the city, flailing the glass roof of the studio . . . Prodigious archery over the parks where the palm-trees have been dragged back taut; a mythology of yellow-maned waves attacking the Pharos. At night the city is full of new sounds, the pulls and stresses of the wind, until you feel it has become a ship, its old timbers groaning and creaking with every assault of the weather.” (106)
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Or in the other extreme a sandstorm: “The harsh sobbing air dries the membranes of throats and noses, and makes eyes raw with the configurations of conjunctivitis. Clouds of dried blood walk the streets like prophecies; the sand is settling into the sea like powder into the curls of a stale wig. Choked fountain-pens, dry lips—and along the slats of the Venetian shutters thin white drifts as of young snow. The ghostly feluccas passing along the canal are crewed by ghouls with wrapped heads.” (131)
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A fitting conclusion to these descriptions of Alexandria would be a train station at night where one vividly feels life’s arrivals and departures. “The long pull of the train into the silver light reminds me of the sudden long pull of the vertebrae of her white back turning in bed. ‘Melissa’ I call out, but the giant sniffing of the engine blots out all sound. She begins to tilt, to curve and slide; and quick as a scene-shifter the station packs away advertisement after advertisement, stacking them in the darkness . . . The shadowy figure is sliding away down the steel rails into the darkness; a final lurch and the train pours away down a tunnel, as if turned to liquid.” (91)
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                                                               Philosophy
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So much happens in the novel Justine to so many persons. Each person seems to have a personal philosophy of life and is apt to discuss it in the course of the book. As a conclusion to a review of a book that offers a descriptive banquet, let us touch on some key philosophical strands.
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The concept of prayer is explored: “I caught the sweet voice of the blind muzzein from the mosque reciting the “Ebed”—a voice hanging like a hair in the palm-cooled upper airs of Alexandria . . . The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy consciousness like a serpent, coil after shining coil of words—the voice of the muzzein sinking from register to register of gravity—until the whole morning seemed dense with its marvelous healing powers, the intimations of a grace undeserved and unexpected.” (22)
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         Memory is a constant motif throughout the novel: “Far off events, transformed by memory, acquire a burnished brilliance because they are seen in isolation, divorced from the details of before and after, the fibres and wrappings of time. The actors, too, suffer a transformation; they sink slowly deeper and deeper into the ocean of memory like weighted bodies, finding at every level a new assessment, a new evaluation in the human heart.” (206)
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Here is a view of Art: “The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this—that only here, in the silence of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold—the meaning of the pattern. For us artists there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life; in this way, not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfill it in its true potential—the imagination.” (14)
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However, love is what all the characters are searching for and evaluating. Some people feel that love is limited quantitatively: “Love is horribly stable, and each of us is only allotted a certain portion of it, a ration. It is capable of appearing in an infinity of forms and attaching itself to an infinity of people. But it is limited in quantity, can be used up, become shop-worn and faded before it reaches its true object.” (115) This is certainly in opposition to Christian love which teaches that it can grow with usage like a muscle.
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A danger of love is jealousy: “But here too I was sufficiently detached to observe how much love feeds upon jealousy, for as a woman out of my reach yet in my arms, she became ten times more desirable, more necessary. It was a heartbreaking predicament for a man who had no intention of falling in love, and for a woman who only wished to be delivered of an obsession and set free to love.” (69)
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Here is a startling analogy of how we must work our way from a physical to spiritual love: “You climb through the physical body, softly parting the muscle-schemes to admit you—muscle striped and unstriped; you examine the coil ignition of the guts in the abdomen, the sweetbreads, the liver choked with refuse . . .You are searching for a co-ordinating scheme, the syntax of a Will which might stabilize everything and take the tragedy out of it.” (124)
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But we must happily admit that there can be joy and awe in true love. “We did not dare to link arms, but our hands kept meeting involuntarily as we walked, as if they had not shaken off the spell of the afternoon and could not bear to be separated.  We parted speechlessly too, in the little square with its dying trees burnt to the colour of coffee by the sun; parted with only one look—as if we wished to take up emplacements in each other’s mind forever. “ (77) I have not explicated the complex plot of this novel. My intent was primarily to show Lawrence Durrell’s powerful descriptions of character and setting. Yet, in this section we can observe the moral issues with which the characters wrestled.
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Lawrence Durrell worked in all literary genres: fiction, poetry, drama, essays;  also in letters, travel and humor. But especially in the novel he probed character and incident so deeply that in his writing career he was compelled to create multiply connected novels: two books made up the work titled The Revolt of Aphrodite; The Avignon Quintet; and The Alexandria Quartet.  In this latter series, for me, Justine fascinates and sparkles the most intensely.
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Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

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