A Private View

I wrote this blog entry after a period of the usual sort of struggle – not really just a matter of writing or thinking, but more generally of lack of direction and general uncertainty. I think it’s an ok piece. Jocelyn Brooke deserves some decent criticism, and there isn’t that much around. It’s 50 years since he died, which I’d hoped to commemorate with something new, but I didn’t get round to it. Reblogging this from its old home is partly a small attempt to fulfil something along those lines, but also to kickstart more regular posting here, on Brooke and others.

Nothing seems worth talking about, writing a mere exercise in style. Experiments that might justify such an exercise seem egregious, and to obscure the matter in hand. Attempts at elegance come across as both callow and conservative, at worst pompous – like a child pretending to be an adult. Plain speaking seems uninteresting, and dangerously revealing of a moribund and fruitless intellect.

Clearly, a subject is needed.

Jocelyn Brooke is worth writing about for many reasons, but has hardly been written about at all. The ground is still fresh and I can tell myself that what I am writing is not an exercise in redundant self-gratification. We can pretend. It is, after all, a start.

More, I wrote elsewhere in faintish praise of his poetry, in my usual style of civil leering, which I suppose might just be all right in respect of his poetry, but is not representative of the man and his works, particularly where there is so little material praising him as he deserves.

And Brooke’s writing poses the problems facetiously sketched at the beginning of this piece with a tenfold intensity. His work occupies a landscape that intimidates expression but he charts it with a facility that is magical.

A Private View, published in 1954, is an unambitious looking book. A selection of four unconnected character portraits – perhaps works the author thought particularly good, worth preserving, but of a length difficult to be collected in any other way.

The title might give the impression that the reader is getting a privileged insight into the author’s normally inaccessible mental and spiritual estate, which to a certain extent is the case. For me the title also conveys reticence, a sense of things, certain memoirs for instance, of interest only to a limited audience, one’s family maybe, perhaps only for oneself; Private in the sense of being secluded, rather than providing any special level of disclosure.

‘Gerald Brockhurst’ is the centrepiece; it follows the intermittent acquaintance of the Brooke narrator with Brockhurst over a number of years, from initial affection and friendship to the loss of these. In this respect it bears some resemblance to The Passing of a Hero (published a year before). In fact, the declining and imperfect nature of personal acquaintance is a theme of Brooke’s, even in the vignettes.

Brockhurst is representative of a Brooke type – impressively vulgar and athletic early on, the demands of age overcome them, a coarsening of the youthful manner. There is drink, and more than a hint of incompetently realised homosexuality, but mainly there is a sense, as Brooke puts it at the end of ‘Gerald Brockhurst’, of ‘Time’s revenges and all the ruined years.’

This tendency of Brooke to revisit character types can result in them feeling almost allegorical…

I hesitate for several reasons – the nature of Brooke’s characters is in one way simple and in another way very complicated. Simple because they are well-drawn characters who display characteristics that interest Brooke and who have a certain tragi-comic potential, complicated because, well, this is from the preface to The Goose Cathedral –

The present volume, like its two predecessors, is neither entirely fictitious nor entirely autobiographical; by way of apology for this hybrid breed, I can only say that, as a method of composition, I happen to find it useful. To force my material into novel form would involve a Procrustean distortion of theme which, for me at least, would make the book pointless, and not worth the bother of writing. On the other hand ‘ straight’ autobiography is ruled out for more obvious reasons – the law of libel being one.

This applies to most of what he wrote. Although Brooke had an interest in characters whose behaviour was to some extent unconventional or disreputable, ‘the law of libel’ is surely only partly responsible for this method of composition he chose. Self-deprecating and intensely shy (his description of Denton Welch as “Hypersensitive, diffident, ‘difficult’” feels autobiographical) he was temperamentally unsuited to the sort of personal revelation that autobiography entails – its sordid succession of incoherent events.

He continues –

I have tried to solve these problems by presenting a blend of fact and fiction; but here a new difficulty arises, for certain personages and episodes exist on the border-line between truth and phantasy, and are consequently liable to confusion.

The ‘confusion’ is presumably that to do with the possibility of mistaken identification, but as readers of Brooke’s remarkable Image of a Drawn Sword will know, the border-line between truth and phantasy is his natural home, and the confusion and uncertainty that his method creates is one of the ways in which his landscape is apprehended by the reader. The Brooke-narrator himself often finds it hard to place acquaintances he encounters in circumstances different to that in which he has known them before.

Every now and then the void beneath the pleasant surface can be seen –

‘I don’t know why you’ve been keeping him under a bushel for so long,’ he complained. ‘I think he’s very nice: I do so like that sort of athlete – so restful, don’t you think? And it’s odd and pleasing that his name should be Gerald.’

‘Why odd- or pleasing?’ I enquired with bewilderment.

‘Oh, haven’t you noticed? In novels, people like that are always called Gerald. There’s one in E.M. Forster, and another in Lawrence – you know, the man in Women in Love – and I once read a novel by Gilbert Frankau, when I was at school, called Gerald Cranston’s Lady; the hero was just the same type, terrifically hearty and military, with a moustache.’

‘You ought to write a little monograph on the subject,’ I suggested.

‘Yes, I did think of it – or we might start some very queer, esoteric sort of society, and make Gerald Brockhurst the president.’
Thereafter, for some considerable time, Eric and I ‘collected’ Geralds.

The enumeration of specific fictional parallels, the insistence on the relation of the presumably appropriated name and more or less factual character produces a strange, vertiginous sensation; a retrospective consideration of the synthetic nature of the hitherto solidly drawn Gerald, a dissolution of the conventional relations between fiction and autobiography and reality, so that the collected generations of ‘Gerald’ appear as Brooke wrote elsewhere not real people at all, but mere fleshless phantoms, images of ‘reality’ reflected in the distorting mirror of my own imagination.

This is, after all, the epistemological nature of the sort of fictional work where there is a strong element of autobiography and character portrait. But for Brooke it is not merely an epistemological consequence of the mode, but a string that he plays on, which gives his writing a sweet evanescence:

Some truths seem almost Falsehoods and some Falsehoods almost Truths; Wherein Falsehood and Truth seem almost aequilibriously stated, and but a few grains of distinction to bear down the balance … Besides, many things are known, as some are seen, that is by Parallaxis, or at some distance from their true and proper beings, the superficial regard of things having a different aspect from their true and central Natures.

This epigraph to A Mine of Serpents, taken from Sir Thomas Browne’s Christian Morals, applies not just to the concoction of character, but more generally to his writing. Apodictic expressions of sentiment and experience are impossible. Everything is contingent. To state a thing with certainty is to lie. Brooke’s oeuvre embodies this principle; he was in some ways a descendant of the fin-de-siecle aesthete, who rejected cumbersome Victorian and masculine proclamations of moral truth and took the beauty instead. In him this is realised through a mode that makes conventional patterns of fictional and autobiographical interpretative certainty elusive. Objects and events in his writing exist in relation to each other rather than triangulate from a fixed point in reality.

‘Alison Vyse’, the first piece in the collection, is delightful. A good deal of the humour is achieved, as is usually the case in Brooke’s childhood scenes, through a sort of Lilliputian effect, where childish concerns are given adult articulation – thus the delicious first line of the book:

At the age of six I was, like most normally constituted children, a polymorphous pervert.

Once again the effect is one of parallaxis, recollection being a synthesis of the recollector and the recollected, and not a simple descriptive process. Nor is it one way; Brooke’s acute sympathy for childhood and its perceptions allows the experiences of youth to enlighten maturer concerns. In ‘Alison Vyse’ there is a description of a scene which reads like a gloss on his adult work. Retreating to a secluded part of the garden his home at Sandgate that he called ‘the Bushes’ –

I would occupy myself with what I was wont to call, with deliberate indefiniteness, a ‘place’.

These ‘places’ (for there were a series of them) represented I can only suppose, an attempt to impose upon the inchoate waste land of the Bushes a local habitation and a name. …

..the Bushes, unlike the rest of the garden, seemed to possess no particular meaning or purpose, they existed, so to speak, in vacuou, a mere no-man’s-land between the flower-beds above and the shingle-floored terrace … below.

The building of these ‘places’ kept me happily occupied for some weeks; but in due course, as was to be expected, my secret was discovered by the grown-ups who, plainly mystified by these curious and apparently pointless constructions, proceeded (like visitors to an exhibition of abstract pictures) to advance a number of ingenious theories as to what, exactly, they were ‘meant to be’.

‘Why, there’s a road – and there’s a garage’ (pointing to one of the toy motors) ‘and surely that’s a house’. … Like some pioneer of Cubism, I would listen, with a supercilious disdain, to their fatuous comments: outwardly calm, but inwardly enraged by such attempts to translate my essays in Significant Form into the humdrum terms of mere academic realism.

and later

‘A place can’t just be a place,’ Alison asserted, with a cold reasonableness which horrified me. I realised that what she said was, in fact, perfectly logical and accurate; yet I knew, also, without being able to express it, that my ‘places’ were unique and self-sufficient – they were not garages or forts or anything else; they were just Places, meaningless to others, perhaps, but to myself immensely and perennially significant.

It need hardly be added that this description of the childhood psyche is also a description of the adult’s conception of the world. No matter how wryly indulgent of childhood the tone, here again is the ‘inchoate waste land’, the vacuum in which his work is suspended.

Brooke’s almost habitual ironic, understated humour does not just provide a good deal of the charm of his writing, but is yet another device for avoiding sincere expression (an English characteristic as well, of course). It is not always easy to tell with certainty what Brooke or his narrator’s attitude to a person or occurrence is. Humour is yet another example of understanding by parallaxis. No matter how down-to-earth the tone, the reader is but loosely anchored upon a psychic littoral, a place of uncertainty where bald statements of untempered fact are inadequate and misleading.

Once more, in ‘Alison Vyse’, one of those trivial-seeming voids appears momentarily, from behind the placid surface, when the child Jocelyn uses ‘a very bad word’ at Alison.

‘All right, then,’ I interjected, ‘if I’m a devil you’re a ____, so there.’
The moment I had uttered the awful, the unforgivable word, I regretted it.

On being questioned by his mother, Brooke admits the crime but not the word. An interrogation ensues.

Which word had I used? Did it begin with a D? Did it begin – surely it couldn’t have begun – with a B? Throughout that evening the dreadful inquisition proceeded; finally, by dint of excluding every letter of the alphabet in turn, the appalling syllables were extracted from me.

Which word indeed? At this distance, with the vastly increased acceptance of swearing on all levels of society and culture, it’s difficult to judge what it might have been. In the the other portraits ‘Bastard’ is written and ‘Fuck’ implied – so that the blank here seems an expression of childish innocence. None of the guesses I can make quite fit, to the extent that, given the nature of Brooke’s approach, I began to wonder whether that blank represents just that, a blank, an unsayable, like the 100th name of God. Again, a realisation of the uncertain relation of his writing to concrete events is brought into focus.

‘Kurt Schlegel’ is different from the other three pieces in A Private View. A note at the beginning of the book tells the reader one reason for this, that it was first ‘conceived and delivered’ as a broadcast talk for the BBC. Schlegel is a gloomy Palestinian Jew who Brooke meets while in the army (and who appears briefly in A Mine of Serpents). He’s rather facetiously drawn, and the tendency to make him finish his sentences with ‘isn’t it’, no matter how accurate, has the effect of making him seem like a fatuous comedy portrayal of a Welshman. As the piece develops weightier themes than Brooke usually deals with emerge. Racial tradition and the burden of historical suffering are contemplated, the narrator’s relationship with the subject is less ambiguous than normal, and the humorous tone is by and large, though not entirely, absent. Without these deflective mechanisms, and with the greater expression of sincerity, the void, which is normally only implied or fleetingly inferred, becomes material:

Kurt said no more. We sat, smoking, for a few minutes more, the twilight deepening around us. The footballers had gone, and the whole landscape – the cliff-top, the town behind us, the little bay between the cliffs – was folded in a profound silence. I had an odd sense, sitting here in the dusk above the sea, of being, not only on the extreme verge of land, but on some remote margin of life itself. The ordinary preoccupations of our existence – food and sleep and work – seemed curiously thinned-out and immaterial. We had only to take a step or two, and we could walk over the cliff-side on to the jagged rocks two or three hundred feet below; and it seemed to me that it would require only some slight movement of the mind to precipitate me into some spiritual néant beyond the verges of my consciousness.

In scenes that are I think partly related to this image of being on the remote margin of life, both Basil Medlicott in A Mine of Serpents and Gerald Brockhurst swim off into the sea, and Brooke gets the sensation that they are going to carry on swimming with no return; in the case of Brockhurst –

I remembered his look of blank, unutterable misery as he spoke of his misfortunes; and the thought struck me, with a desolating horror, that he might, in a moment of sudden despair, cease to struggle with the strong, downward pull of the waves…

I wonder, in fact, whether it is too fanciful to associate the sea and outdoor bathing generally (a recurring theme) with the néant Brooke identifies above, with soldiering the cure; and to associate the inland country to which he went on his childhood holidays with youth and beauty, the things that Brooke, not without wry self-deprecation, valued most. He implies something of the sort in The Military Orchid;

At the time Sandgate lacked romance, being merely the place where we lived (…); during the autumn and winter, the village became for me a Land of Lost Content, the symbol of a happiness which would only be renewed again in the spring. (With most children, this state of affairs is reversed: it is the seaside which enshrines the memory of summer-happiness, not, as for me, the country.) Later, in adolescence, Sandgate too would become part of the legend of the past, the private myth; but in childhood, it was the village in the Elham Valley which, alone possessed the quality of romance.

To return to the point about Brooke’s persistently ironic tone, when he is not being humorous, there is a crepuscular gloom of the sort that suffuses his Image of a Drawn Sword so hauntingly, a materialisation of darkness. We leave Kurt

..slumped upon the fallen tombstone in the fading twilight: the figure of an outcast, rootless and without hope, bearing about with him always, like a hidden tumour, his heritage of persecution and disaster.

‘Miss Wimpole’ is the final portrait and is a return to the scenes of childhood that opened the book. It is light-hearted and amusing, on occasion in fact very funny – particularly in a recital of the Jabberwocky, and the description of a dinner table conflagration. Miss Wimpole is an actress of sorts (although what sort exactly is never made clear to the child Brooke). We go back, in a manner of speaking, to the stage, where we started with ‘Alison Vyse’ – an example of the delicate threads that hold his apparently loosely arranged works together. In an altogether lighter fashion the portrait once again follows the arc of so many of Brooke’s character portraits, initial affection, on this occasion on the part of his family, specifically his father, turning into uneasy tolerance, into a slightly embarrassed and quiet ‘dropping’ of the relationship.

If there is, to get back to where I tailed off, something esoterically allegorical about his characters, with the many variations on similar types (and the variations on similar sounding names that I can never quite believe could belong to anyone), then there is something almost totemistic about his objects – the orchids, the fireworks, the childhood places. I’m reminded of what Brooke said about Denton Welch –

…it was the little things – not only dolls’ houses and chinoiserie, but things seen on a country walk, a ruined church, a flower, a young man bathing – which served him best as defences against his growing weakness and his prescience of an early death.

The latter morbid elements are specific to Welch but if they are substituted for a more general sense of futilitarian angst, an awareness of the inchoate (to use Brooke’s word) void I have attempted to identify, then I hope some sense of the faint mystical quality that delicately scents his work is conveyed. These objects are to a certain extent sacred, and guard against the coarseness that Brooke so often describes developing in his masculine acquaintances; they preserve the childhood qualities of perception.

Beauty is not less deep
If it should die at last,
The greatest prize men keep
Is glory that is past
Denton Welch, Journals (ed. Jocelyn Brooke)

I have focused on elements that make Brooke look rather different than he is. I should add therefore that there is no strain of contradiction in his writing – he is not paradoxical, or conceptually modernistic. Everything is done with the lightest of touches, with the easy and straightforward grace that he admired physically in young men. The unpretentious biographical voice and the easy swing of recollection is yet so subtle that it can adapt itself without apparent effort to both the mundane and the philosophical.

These beautiful, elusive, funny but melancholy books are a delight. It is sad but in a way entirely appropriate to his quiet genius that they go so easily out of print. Anthony Powell wrote that Brooke liked corresponding – the sort of relationship ‘that did not make him feel hemmed in,’ and guesses an ‘unwillingness to cope with face-to-face cordialities of a kind that might at the same time be agreeable in letters’. Brooke’s writings are so personable, that I like to think they provide that intimacy that perhaps he never found with sufficient ease in life.

(Oh, and I meant to say earlier – If this intimacy-but-at-a-distance is a characteristic of Brooke, it is also a characteristic of the English and it’s worth noting, if we’re going to play that fruitless bagatelle called ‘The English Proust’ (and Brooke deserves that title much more than any other writer I can think of) the adjective is not merely a qualifier but a positive inidication of unique characteristics.)

It should be obvious from what I have said that a biography of Brooke would be of special interest – a chance to see just how he arranged his experiences into their published form. I am told that a biography has in fact just recently been written and I hope it finds some sort of publication [it has been published, as part of a trio of Bishopsbourne writer biographies]

A lovely addition to his obituary in The Times, written by ‘a friend’, sums him up what it is like to read him very well.

Jocelyn Brooke’s field may not have been wide nor his output large, but everything to which he set his hand showed a delicacy of feeling and perception – for language, for landscape, for his own beloved East Kent, and for the acute experiences of childhood – which have given extreme pleasure to his readers.

Behind the work was a gentle, sensitive man, of a nature saved from sweetness by a fine sense of irony, who will be sadly missed.

He died, aged 57, in the late autumn of 1966, at his home in Bishopsbourne, Kent.

There is an excellent JB website, cleanly and intelligently designed, with an all-too-rare cheerful and relaxed looking photo.

.

* and I once read a novel by Gilbert Frankau – Gilbert Frankau – Popular romantic novelist (who in 1933 wrote an article called ‘As a Jew I am Not Against Hitler’ apparently. Later retracted, presumably when he discovered the feeling was not reciprocal.)

* Which word indeed? – ‘Bitch’ seems likeliest, although Brooke seems to imply not, ‘B’ apparently already having been accounted for. (edit – on reflection I think ‘whore’ is in fact the likeliest candidate – the point stands though – the word is unknowable)

* Objects and events in his writing exist in relation to each other rather than triangulate from a fixed point in reality – Nabokov wrote somewhere or other that the word ‘reality’ (or was it ‘real’) is the only word in the English language that should appear in inverted commas. I’m not sure this is at all the case. In fact I think the opposite, and anyone who smugly pipes up, ‘Ah, but what do you mean by real?’ will get the treatment an Glaswegian chap I once knew used to dole out to people who had crossed him: they would get his pint over their head, which he would follow by drinking their pint in one gulp, all the while fixing them with a wildly angry eye, before storming off.

Death is a very little thing

Enough life and money has been spent on this sterile quest. The pole has already been discovered. What is the use of another expedition?

Winston Churchill, then 1st Lord of the Admiralty, 23rd January, 1914

Dear Mr Winston Churchill,

Do please look favourably … I am trying to do good and serious work … Death is a very little thing, and Knowledge very great … And really Regent Street holds out more dangers on a busy day, than the 5 million square miles that constitute the Antarctic continent.

Ernest Shackleton, 27th February, 1914

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DER WAHRHEIT IST KONKRET

as Hegel had it, and as Brecht had up on the wall of his Danish retreat (der Dänische Zufluchsstäte) and later in his New York home. it’s a pleasingly astringent thing to say to yourself whenever you find your thoughts becoming too fanciful or high-flown.

i’ve been really enjoying the poems in the Faber Book of 20th Century German Poems, edited and with a really good introduction by Michael Hofmann, and have been coming back to the Brecht poems in particular. This one’s been stuck in my head for the last couple of days:
(although I don’t speak a word of german i do like pretending i can pronounce the words, so original first, then translation.)

Zufluchtsstäte

Ein Ruder liegt auf dem Dach. Ein mittlerer Wind
Wird das Stroh nicht wegtragen.
Im Hof für die Schaukel der Kinder sind
Pfähle eingeschlagen.
Die Post kommt zweimal hin
Wo die Briefe wilkimmen wären.
Den Sund herunter kommen die Fähren.
Das Haus hat vier Türen, daraus zu fliehn.

[1937.]

(A Place of Refuge

An oar lies on the roof. A moderate wind
Will not carry away the thatch.
In the yard posts are set for
The children’s swing.
The mail comes twice a day
Where letters would be welcome.
Down the Sound come the ferries. 
The house has four doors to escape by.

trans. John Willet)

Why do I like it? There’s a ghostly sense of uncertainty and unease about the now of the poem. The absences are alarming. It’s tense and watchful. The first line has a strange and unstable image – the oar on the roof feels like the consequence of an atmospheric upheaval, but the wind is only moderate. In fact the second line claims stability – this instability is in fact solidity. The yard posts are ‘set for / The children’s swing’ but there is no swing there. Has it been removed? a reminder of loss of innocence, of flight maybe? Or is it yet to come? If a swing has been there before, it can be set between those two posts again, when there are children once more. In its absence it holds in potential both possibilities, swinging neither this way nor that. Will there be a future here, where there was a past? Both future and past flow away from this isolated point in time.

‘Down the Sound come the ferries’ – this is something that happens daily, continuously, reliably. Solid, habitual present tense. ‘Down the Sound’ feels like a rather jangling translation. The original German has a lovely balance  and flow: ‘Den Sund – herunter kommen – die Fahren’ – with the lingering, almost longing sound of ‘Fahren’ before the blank practicality of ‘Das Haus hat vier Türen’, again balancing something continuous and reliable – the ferries – against spatial and temporal uncertainty: any one of those four walls, any direction, might need to be the  method of a sudden exit, at any time. The refuge is necessarily porous. And after all, what else might those reliable ferries bring?

It all constitutes the refuge as an ambiguous notion – a place of safety, but also a place to which you run out of fear or danger.

I’m uncertain about ‘the mail comes twice a day / where letters would be welcome.’ It’s an unnerving image  – communication without anything to be communicated, administrative continuity but without any ability to bring things that you actually want. And what are the letters that are wished for? Letters from loved ones who have not left Germany perhaps? Or letters to relieve solitude and fear, bringing a sense of the outside world?

It’s a very guarded poem – it won’t put its money on any particular outcome. But, like the other Brecht poems I’ve read, it’s also wide open, like a raw nerve or an open eye – it’s not a self-indulgent poem (he does not seem like a self-indulgent poet).

Expanded existentially, it could be argued that it becomes about a permanent state of uncertainty and futures being held in abeyance in the face of that uncertainty, though I think Brecht would reject the existential reading (not KONKRET enough) and just say in times of war and state violence this is who you are, refuges are where you live, this is what the world becomes.

blind man, have mercy on me

When I was about five or six, nothing produced a greater feeling of dread than a Mervyn Peake illustration of Blind Pew from a copy of Treasure Island given me when I was young. Peake’s Treasure Island illustrations use no outlines, but are composed of the finest etchings of pen, so that nothing is distinct but emerges as it were from a sea mist. The bullying, terrifying Pew himself seems woven from the darkness around him, his blindness part of the fabric of the world in which he exists and a thing more powerful than sight.

The picture shows him moments before he gets trampled to death by a horse. He has taken a wrong turn, and the caption has him piteously pleading and wheedling –

‘Johnny, Black Dog, Dirk,’ and other names, ‘you won’t leave old Pew, mates – not old Pew?’

blind pew

I still find it utterly hypnotic – no illustration or work of art has a more immediate hold over me.