Monthly Archives: August 2017

Joy and Freedom: More Thoughts on Pilgrimage

It’s intimidating to try to write anything coherent or thoughtful about a book like Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. The magnitude and depth of the narrative and language is impossible to capture in any sort of post, no matter the length. But one thought that keeps coming to my mind as I read about Miriam’s journey is how greatly I admire her because as a woman living in the early twentieth century, she defies many of the expectations placed upon her because of gender. She isn’t looking for a husband, she doesn’t necessarily want children, she supports herself financially and she lives on her own. I’ve always been fiscally independent and haven’t relied on a spouse for monetary stability;  from a very young age I assumed that I would have my own career and I also think it’s an important example to set for my daughter whom I am raising with the same outlook. But I can’t imagine striving for what Miriam calls this kind of “freedom” in the early 20th century when all of the females around her, including her sisters, depend on marriage for personal, economic support.

Richardson’s protagonist does make several attempts to be successful at one of the few professions open to women in 1915, that of teaching.  After the German finishing school which is described in “Pointed Roofs”, Miriam also takes a position as an instructor in a small boarding school in North London, which she finds exhausting and depressing.  When Miriam resides in the country home of the Currie’s as their governess, her surroundings are more peaceful and her job is easier, but she still doesn’t feel that she is truly free.

It’s not until the fourth chapter in Miriam’s story, “The Tunnel”, that she feels true joy and happiness because of her free life in London.  She has a demanding job as a secretary in the office of a busy dentist, for which position she earns one pound a week.  This allows her to rent a room which, although is small and shabby, is entirely her own space; for the first time in her life she experiences bliss in the deliberate choice of living in solitude.  I find myself cheering for Miriam and eagerly reading each and every page of her story to see what decisions, as an independent woman, she will make next.

What makes Richardson’s text so brilliant is the layers of imagery that she builds in order to demonstrate Miriam’s challenge of traditional, gender roles.  For instance, Miriam decides to take up smoking cigarettes, which at the time is considered a distinctly masculine habit.  While rolling her father’s cigarettes she surreptitiously smokes one and thoroughly enjoys the little buzz that she feels.  When she is a governess at the Currie’s she boldly plays billiards and smokes with the men while the other ladies who are guests at the house sit quietly nearby and gossip.  And into the narrative of “The Tunnel” Richardson carries the image of Miriam as smoker to extend the idea that she is challenging traditional gender roles.  When she is trying on knickers and a new hat she is admiring her different look while she is smoking.  A line from Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva kept coming to mind in these various scenes with Miriam smoking as she takes new, additional steps in her life toward independence: “I want the vibration of happiness.  I want the impartiality of Mozart.  But I also want inconsistency.  Freedom? it’s my final refuge.  I forced myself to freedom and I bear it not like a talent but with heroism: I’m heroically free.  And I want the flow.”  The subtleties of language, nuances of words and flickering of images in the writing compels me to read Pilgrimage with a slowness and deliberation that few other books have warranted.

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Angulus Coeli: The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The setting of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s only novel entitled The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a tropical, volcanic island in the Antilles which is dominated by an old, French, aristocratic family that is holding onto their traditional, Jacobean politics.  Not surprisingly, Fermor, most famous for his travel writing, begins his story with a detailed history and geographical description of his fictional island.  He imagines it being occupied by Arawaks and Carib natives and eventually being discovered by Columbus who annexed it for the Spanish crown; he further envisages the island being neglected by Spain and later taken over by the French whose noble families settle on the island and make it as prosperous as Martinique.  Fermor says that his island was little known and that “Cartographer and historian unconsciously conspired to ignore it.”    But he does, however, include an obscure passage, written in Latin, by an Franciscan missionary who is not at all complimentary about this tropical location.  In this addition of the text from NYRB Classics, the Latin is not translated.  I offer my own translation here because it sets up a structure for the important themes and ideas that Fermor explores throughout his narrative:

Insula Sancti Jacobi tantis opibus, tanta copia, tantaque pulcritudine ornata, sicut angulus coeli ipsius videtur, sed, ob mores improbos pravosque incolarum, ob jactanciam, luxuriam et gastrimargiam et Gallorum et nigrorum, insula Sancti Jacobi pessimam insularum aliarum omnium justius, immo, verum angulum Gehennae putanda est.

The island of Saint Jacques, with such wealth and such abundance and adorned with such beauty, seemed as if it were a corner of heaven itself, however, due to the excessive and depraved habits of its populace, due to their boastfulness, the luxury and the gluttony of both the French and the black men, the island of Saint Jacques must be more justly considered, indeed, the worst of all other islands,  a true corner of Hell.

Berthe de Rennes, an elderly woman who now resides on an island in the Aegean, tells the story of Saint-Jacques and the exciting six years she spent there in her youth during the last decade of the nineteenth century.  Her audience is an unnamed Englishman she meets on the beach who visits her over the course of a few weeks while he is vacationing in the Aegean.   Berthe was orphaned, she tells her visitor, and had been taken in by an elderly aunt in France when her cousin, Count Serindan of Saint-Jacques, invited her to come live with his family and serve as the nanny and tutor to his four children.  Fermor beautifully captures the sights, sounds, tastes, textures and smells of this lush, tropical place, and through the descriptions of Berthe’s paintings and drawings of the island we glimpse an angulus coeli (corner of heaven):

The sketch-books covered the entire life of the island.  All of the fine buildings of the capital were there, the statues of Plessis and Rumbold and Scudamore and Braithwaite and Schoelcher; views of savannah and volcanic ravine and stifling forest; punctilious flower-paintings of hibiscus and balisier, of looping lianas, tree-ferns and dark branches where the Night Flowering Cereus grew.  Even the monuments and inscriptions of churches were copied down.  There was an abundance of negroes and negresses in their brilliant village costumes and flamboyantly disguised for carnival.

There is, however, a darker, more sinister side to this island which appears to be a paradise on a merely superficial level.  The Count employs many mulattoes on his estate whose lighter complexions and facial features resemble the Serindans.  Fermor leaves us to imagine for ourselves whether or not the unions between employers and laborers were forced or consensual.  Perhaps the most disturbing instance of debauchery is Fermor’s hint that Gentilien, the Count’s own butler, is the same age as his master and looks enough like the Count to be his brother—a glimpse at the mores improbos (depraved habits) going on for generations on this island.  The Serindan family’s influence over the lives of everyone on the island is eerily described by Fermor as “Olympian” which reference brings to mind the many amorous conquests of the Ancient Greek deity, Zeus.

It is during a ball that the Count throws for carnival that the excess and luxury of the island is fully revealed.  The lavish, overindulgent meal—a reflection of the gastrimargiam (gluttony) noted in the missionary’s Latin passage— that the Count has prepared for his Mardi Gras party brings to mind Trimalchio’s extravagant, Roman cena (dinner) in Petronius’s Satyricon. 

In the kitchen, urchins, sea-eggs and dwarf oysters—the last still clustering in scores on lengths of mangrove-stalk—were heaped in pails.  The snow-white whorls of the conch shells (each of them opening to display a pink internal helix) were arrayed like a tritons’ orchestra announcing, in a silent fanfare, the later delights of Iambi flambe au rhum.  A swarm of little frogs swam agitatedly round their tank; the shell of a turtle had already been evacuated by its lodger.  Horny backed iguanas, trussed like captured dragons, moved restlessly in their baskets.  The Count stopped and gazed at them.

The preparations for this decadent meal are a precursor to the wild and outlandish drama that will occur later on that evening.   Fermor is a master at composing exciting stories and weaves a fist fight ending with a duel challenge, an attempted elopement, a prank involving a deadly, venomous snake, and an appearance by lepers disguised as dominoes into the events that all take place during the Count’s Mardi Gras celebration.  Fermor creates an exciting, intense, romantic plot, the pivotal events of which unfold during the ball and involve Berthe, her favorite cousin, Josephine and the arrogant son of the island’s governor.

Volcanic explosions and imagery of hell and burning all permeate the last part of Fermor’s vivid narrative.  In a final, catastrophic, natural event the island pays its cosmic debt for such opulence and becomes the verum angulum Gehennae (true corner of hell) of the monk’s earlier description.    Saint-Jacques manifests itself as a Caribbean version of Sodom and Gomorrah which Biblical locations, because of their excess, are plunged into a fiery, violent, hellish end.  Fermor’s insinuation in the text that Berthe—who now ironically lives in Mytilene, the capital of  Lesbos—is much closer to Josephine than any of her other family members, augments the image of Saint-Jacques as a nineteenth century version of these profligate cities.

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Pilgrimage and Mourning the Loss of Summer Vacation

My levels of anxiety have been at an all-time high in the last few days as I contemplate all of the tasks that go into the beginning of a new semester.  The first week entails hours of meetings, listening to various speakers and leadership team planning.  My mind is swimming with thoughts of various administrative duties I need to perform, of ideas from leadership articles I have been required to read and of dread at the anticipation of sitting through hours of speakers that are supposed to motivate us for the new term.  But as I was reading Pilgrimage, Dorothy Richardson reminded me of the real purpose of my chosen profession, engaging with students.  The advice that is given to Miriam as she completes her first teaching job is just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago and it applies to every teacher, no matter the grade level or subject one instructs:

To truly fulfil the most serious role of the teacher you must enter into the personality of each pupil and must sympathize with the struggles of each one upon the path on which our feet are set.  Efforts to good kindliness and thought for others must be encouraged.  The teacher shall be sunshine, human sunshine, encouraging all effort and all lovely things in the personality of the pupil.

I am truly grateful for a lovely summer that involved lots of reading, swimming, sunbathing, traveling and spending time with my family.  I know how lucky I am to have this extended time off.  I just have to grit my teeth and get through the next week of “professional development” before I get to greet my always fabulous Latin and Ancient Greek students.

I hope all of my readers and visitors have also had a wonderful summer.

 

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Pointed Roofs: Some initial thoughts on Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson

I was immediately drawn into the world that Dorothy Richardson creates for her heroine, Miriam Henderson, in Pilgrimage.  Miriam is the third in line of four girls in a middle class English family who has fallen on hard times.  When Pointed Roofs begins, Miriam is nervous about her impending trip to a German finishing school where she will teach English to wealthy, upper class English and German girls.  She has accepted the position in order to relieve some of her family’s monetary woes, but at seventeen she is frightened to leave her safe environment that includes the constant love, support and guidance of her sisters.

Pointed Roofs is the first of thirteen chapters in Richardson’s semi-autobiographical novel that follows the life of Miriam Henderson.  The thirteen chapters, published between 1915 and 1967, are rather lengthy—Pointed Roofs is 185 pages— and are self-contained volumes or novellas that describe different periods in Miriam’s life.   Even though the book is written in the third person, May Sinclair famously labeled Richardson’s style of prose as “stream-of-consciousness.”  We see the finishing school, her students, her supervisor at the school, and Germany from Miriam’s perspective which always contains a charming innocence.

One of the first things she notices at the German school, which comes as a great surprise to her, is the distinct lack of a daily schedule.  Classes, outings, music performances, and baths are all announced spontaneously at the whim of the headmistress, Fräulein Pfaff.  During her time as the English instructor at the school she only teaches one formal class to her students and after her single performance as an instructor there is an unspoken expectation that Miriam is to teach the girls English whenever they go on walks through town.  Miriam comes to realize that the so-called education that these girls are to receive is rather light since all of them will end up as the wives of wealthy German men and will not have much use for a rigorous, academic curriculum.  It makes her appreciate the education that she received at her English school which she realizes was muchmore serious and valuable.

The strength of Richardson’s narrative lies in her ability to make the most mundane tasks seem interesting and new as they are viewed through the eyes of young and insecure Miriam.  Because she is shy and painfully self-conscious, the simple activities of sitting at meals, making eye contact and polite chit chat with the other girls become ordeals for her.  She immediately notices that her pupils, especially the German girls, play the piano more beautifully than her because of their ability to relax and give themselves over to the enjoyment of music.  One of the funniest scenes, as well as one of the most-telling of Miriam’s timorous character, is when she is summoned to have her hair washed.  Leaning her head over the basin while she has eggs cracked and massaged into her hair is the ultimate indignity for her.  She is trying to establish herself as an authority figure among the girls, some of whom she is only two or three years older; when she is lined up to have herself cleaned like the rest of them she feels she has taken a step back and her humiliation is further increased when she has to show up to tea with a wet, unruly mop of hair.

Richardson, through additional symbols and storylines subtly woven throughout the text, highlights the tension Miriam feels between her formerly, isolated life as a child in England and her new experiences as she attempts to become an adult in Germany.  For example, her parents and sisters send her new, stylish blouses and a skirt which make her terribly uncomfortable because she is so used to the confined feel of a corset.  As she is evolving into a different, more mature young woman, her clothes mimic the loosening of her previously, restrained life which has been given up for this new, freeing adventure.  In addition, she finds herself alone in the saal with Pastor Lahmann who, by asking to see her glasses, makes a pathetic attempt at flirting with her.  Miriam completely misses the reason for the Pastor’s attention and she is further baffled when  Fräulein Pfaff, who comes upon them in the saal, appears angry and irritated with her.  Even though she is an adult, on her own, in a foreign land, earning her own living, her charming innocence still lingers over all of her experiences.

Even though Richardson wrote this first volume more than 100 years ago, I identified with Miriam’s character on multiple levels.  I am excited to see where the rest of Pilgrimage takes her and I look forward to reading the novel (I am actually reading the Virago editions which are divided into four volumes) going into autumn.

Please visit Times Flow Stemmed (special thanks go to Anthony whose enthusiasm for Richardson prompted me to being reading Pilgrimage)  and  Beyond Eden Rock for more detailed insights into and discussions of Dorothy Richardson.

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…And a Dream: Anna Soror by Marguerite Yourcenar

As I was reading Anna Soror, the third and final novella in Yourcenar’s Two Lives and a Dream, I kept thinking about the images of love that Ovid creates in Amores.  The beginning poems in Amores Book I, in particular, depict Love (Amor)—personified as  Cupid replete with arrows— as something to be feared because of its (or his)  unpredictable nature.  The poet himself has fallen victim to this volatile and unruly emotion and he is tortured because it is something over which he has no control.  He begins Amores 1.2 (the translation is my own):

Esse quid hoc dicam, quod tam mihi dura videntur
strata, neque in lecto pallia nostra sedent,
et vacuus somno noctem, quam longa, peregi,
lassaque versati corporis ossa dolent?
nam, puto, sentirem, siquo temptarer amore.
an subit et tecta callidus arte nocet?
sic erit; haeserunt tenues in corde sagittae,
et possessa ferus pecora versat Amor.

What should I call this, that my bedsheets seem
so hard to me, and my coverlets do not stay in their
place on my bed, and without sleep I have passed
the night, oh for so long, and the weary bones
of my tormented body are suffering? For I think
that I would feel it if I were tempted by love.
Or could it be that cunning Love has crept up
on me with its hidden arts? It will be thus;
Love’s subtle arrows have pierced my heart and
savage Love disturbs my breast which he
already occupies.

The image of Ovid’s tumultuous night recalls the character of Don Miguel who suffers from fevers, insomnia and exhaustion because he is in love with his sister, Anna.  Their story takes place in Naples in the late-16th century when their father, Don Alvaro, is serving as the Spanish Governor of that city.  They live in an elaborate, well-guarded castle and they are raised together by their mother, Donna Valentina, a pious women who cares deeply for both of her children.  Mother, daughter and son form a close bond that largely isolates them from the rest of the world.  When the three of them travel to southern Italy to oversee the grape harvest on one of the family estates, Donna Valentina is taken to her  bed with fever and her ensuing death devastates both of her children.  When their mother dies, the brother and sister oftentimes find themselves alone and this causes a strange tension between them.

Yourcenar, through an extreme example with incest, is attempting to make the same point about love as Ovid did with his poetry; love is unpredictable, it cannot be controlled, and no matter how hard we try to resist it or fight it or reason it away, it is an emotion to which we are all susceptible.  Yourcenar treats her characters with compassion and understanding.  Her story is not shocking, lewd or salacious, but instead she highlights the torment that Miguel and Anna feel in their deep and innocent love for one another.  Their feelings are very subtle at first and neither one of them understands why they are suffering from constant anxiety, haunting dreams and extreme fatigue.  Yourcenar is a master at slowly and steadily building tension in her stories.  She describes Don Miguel on one of his sleepless nights:

He no longer repressed his nightly fantasies.  He awaited with impatience the half consciousness of the mind falling asleep; with his face buried in his pillows, he gave himself over to his dreams.  He would awake from them with his hands burning, his mouth stale as if from a fever, and more obsessed than the day before.

And later, when brother and sister consummate their love during a brief period of joy and passion, Yourcenar’s text is subtle and sensitive.  She only composes a few lines about their sexual encounter: “In the darkness, she discerned his anguished face , which seemed eroded by tears.  The words she had prepared died on her lips.  She fell upon them with an anguished compassion.  They embraced.”  Don Miguel and Anna do not apologize or regret their relationship, but they fear eternal damnation so each chooses a penance in the hopes of mollifying their sin.  Don Miguel volunteers for a dangerous mission to rid the Mediterranean of pirates and dies in battle.  Anna, despite marrying and having two children, never feels the same joy that she experienced in her five days spent with Don Miguel.  Throughout her life she wears hair shirts and prays constantly in the hopes of being released from her sin.

Yourcenar does not shy away from exploring different kinds of forbidden love in her other writings.  In An Obscure Man, for instance, Nathanaël has an intimate, physical relationship with another man that he enjoys and for which he feels no remorse.  He knows the world would judge him for engaging in what are considered unnatural acts, but he refuses to believe that his genuine affection for another man should be considered wrong.  Yourcenar makes it clear in Anna, Soror that Don Miguel and Anna, likewise, are unapologetic for their sincere, kind and passionate love.  It is the church and its laws which they are taught to obey that condemns their connection and it is because of the church that each chooses a penance.

As Ovid’s poem progresses, he realizes that there is no fighting against Love (Amor) so he willfully surrenders to passion and embraces his fate.  The torment of the first scene of the poem in which he is tossing and turning in his bed fades away.   In the Postface to this collection of novellas, Yourcenar’s description of  her characters feels very similar to the force of Love that Ovid experiences: “Their passion is too powerful not to be acted upon, yet, despite the long inner conflict which precedes their fall, is immediately felt to be an ineffable happiness, so that no remorse penetrates them.”

I would also like to share this great article in the New Yorker about Marguerite Yourcenar that Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed recommended to me.  Yourcenar is a fascinating writer and I am looking forward to reading her memoirs as well as her historical fiction novel about the emperor Hadrian: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/14/becoming-the-emperor

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Historical Fiction, Novella