“i don’t think i’d like it if people liked me. i’d think that something had gone wrong.”

 

three obituaries of James Purdy, dead at age 94: explorer of once-taboo topics — "including sex, race, loss of innocence, corruption, violence, abortion and homosexuality"

 
              
James Purdy in 2005

             

 


James Purdy, Darkly Comic Writer, Dies at 94

By William Grimes 

 

James Purdy, whose dark, often savagely comic fiction evoked a psychic American landscape of deluded innocence, sexual obsession, violence and isolation, died Friday in Englewood, N.J. He was 94 and lived in Brooklyn Heights.

 

His death was confirmed by John Uecker, a friend and assistant. Wayward and unclassifiable, Mr. Purdy, the author of the novels “Malcolm” and “The Nephew,” labored at the margins of the literary mainstream, inspiring veneration or disdain. His nearly 20 novels and numerous short stories and plays either enchanted or baffled critics with their gothic treatment of small-town innocents adrift in a corrupt and meaningless world, his distinctive blend of plain speech with ornate, florid locutions, and the hallucinatory quality of his often degraded scenes.

 

“I can describe my books as I see them as American, imaginative, symbolic,” he told an interviewer for the reference work World Authors. “ My literary ancestors are two other Calvinists, Hawthorne and Melville.” He also stated, in another interview, that he was attracted only to stories that “bristled with impossibilities.”

 

If Mr. Purdy made limited headway against what he called, in an autobiographical sketch, “the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy and stagnant New York literary establishment,” he was proclaimed “an authentic American genius” by Gore Vidal and admired extravagantly by writers like Angus Wilson, John Cowper Powys and Edith Sitwell, who, reviewing the stories and short plays collected in “Children Is All” (1962), wrote that Mr. Purdy would “come to be recognized as one of the greatest living writers of fiction in our language.

 

James Otis Purdy was born in Ohio near the Indiana border but remained vague about where. Because of his father’s financial woes, he was reared, he said, “in a troubled atmosphere” and left home at an early age for Chicago, unprepared, he later admitted, for the big city. “It provided me with enough subject matter for the rest of my life,” he said.

 

After serving in the Army, he attended the University of Puebla in Puebla, Mexico, the University of Chicago and the University of Madrid. From 1949 to 1953 he taught at Lawrence College (now Lawrence University) in Appleton, Wis.

 

Mr. Purdy had little luck placing his short stories in magazines. Supporters of his work arranged for the private publication of his stories and the novella “63: Dream Palace,” about two orphaned brothers who leave West Virginia for Chicago, where they fall prey to a series of exploiters.

 

On a hunch, Mr. Purdy sent the books to Sitwell, who was impressed. The novella, she wrote to Mr. Purdy, was “a masterpiece from every point of view.” At her urging, Victor Gollancz published the stories and the novella in one volume, and British critical response encouraged New Directions Press to bring out the Gollancz volume as “Color of Darkness” in 1957.

 

Mr. Purdy’s early work met with critical enthusiasm, and in 1960 he moved to New York, where the photographer Carl Van Vechten introduced him to a circle of friends that included Paul Bowles and Dorothy Parker.

 

“Malcolm” (1959), Mr. Purdy’s first full-scale novel, further explored one of his cherished themes, innocence on the loose, this time in a picaresque tale whose Candide-like hero trips lightly from absurdity to perversity. The novel, lavishly praised by Dorothy Parker in a career-making review in Esquire, was adapted for the stage by Edward Albee.

 

In “The Nephew” (1961), Mr. Purdy slyly intimated the elusiveness of human character in the story of a Korean War soldier missing in action whose aunt tries to research his life for a memorial book. She discovers that the boy she thought she knew was a stranger not only to her but to the rest of the family and was quite possibly gay.

 

Mr. Purdy, nothing if not fearless, led his readers into more forbidding terrain with novels like the farcical “Cabot Wright Begins” (1964), about a Wall Street heir who turns into a rapist after psychoanalysis frees his libido, and “Eustace Chisholm and the Works” (1967), which ends in a grisly sadomasochistic murder.

 

Decades of critical neglect followed, punctuated by brief spurts of interest when devotees like Mr. Vidal made the case for Mr. Purdy as a major artist. Though his plays were praised by Tennessee Williams, only a few were produced, at small theaters like the Theater for the New City in Manhattan. At his death, “James Purdy: Selected Plays” (Ivan R. Dee) was being prepared for publication in June.

 

Mr. Purdy, whose view of American culture was not optimistic, seemed to regard rejection as a badge of honor. “I don’t think I’d like it if people liked me,” he told one interviewer. “I’d think that something had gone wrong.”

 

By and large, reviewers resisted, or neglected, the four dystopian family novels set in the South and Midwest that Mr. Purdy grouped under the running title “Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys.” These were “Jeremy’s Version” (1970), “The House of the Solitary Maggot” (1974), “Mourners Below” (1981) and “On Glory’s Course (1984).

 

Nor did he win converts with two later novels about gay life, one dealing with the AIDS epidemic (“Garments the Living Wear,” 1989), the other set in the New York of the mid-1960s (“Out With the Stars,” 1992).

 

Mr. Purdy might have countered that it was not the critics who spurned him, but he them.

“Reputations are made here, as in Russia, on political respectability, or by commercial acceptability,” he once said. “The worse the author, the more he is known.”

 

—March 14, 2009, The New York Times

 

 

Controversial author James Purdy dies

 

Cult author, poet and playwright James Purdy, whose fans ranged from Dorothy Parker to Gore Vidal but who was little known to the general public, died Friday morning in New Jersey.

 

Reports vary about his age, but according to his literary agency Harold Ober Associates, Purdy was 94 and had been in poor health. He died at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey.

 

In his dark writing, Purdy often explored controversial topics — including sex, race, loss of innocence, corruption, violence, abortion and homosexuality — at the edge of mainstream discussion, hence the shock and outrage he inspired from many critics.

 

‘When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone.’—James Purdy

 

Purdy also garnered high praise from a raft of acclaimed writers, including Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Susan Sontag, Angus Wilson and Edith Sitwell.

 

"When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone," Purdy told the Associated Press in 2005.

 

More recently, praise from authors like Vidal rekindled interest in Purdy’s writing.

Born in Ohio, Purdy said he was "exposed to everything" as a child, when his parents split and he lived alternately with his mother, father and grandmother.

 

A writer from early on, he began submitting short stories to New York magazines, which rejected him. It wasn’t until he was in his 30s when he began to make a name for himself.

After his story collection Don’t Call Me By My Right Name was published privately, he made his official debut with the release of 63: Dream Palace in 1956.

 

Though best known for novels like Malcolm (1959) and The Nephew (1961), Purdy’s credits include Cabot Wright Begins, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, as well as numerous short stories, plays, poems and drawings created over the past half-century.

 

A final volume — James Purdy: Selected Plays — is slated for publication in June.

—Friday, March 13, CBC News

 

 

Author James Purdy dies

By Hillel Italie

 

NEW YORK – Author James Purdy, a shocking realist and surprising romantic who in underground classics such as "Cabot Wright Begins" and "Eustace Chisholm and the Works" inspired censorious outrage and lasting admiration, has died.

 

Spokesman Walter Vatter of Ivan Dee Publishers said Purdy had been in poor health and died Friday morning at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. Reports of his age have differed but, according to his literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, he was 94.

 

Purdy published poetry, drawings, the plays "Children Is All" and "Enduring Zeal," the novels "Mourners Below" and "Narrow Rooms," and the collection "Moe’s Villa and Other Stories." Much of his work fell out of print; several books were reissued in recent years. In the spring, Ivan Dee will issue a collection of his plays.

 

Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and Dorothy Parker were among his fans but Purdy won few awards and was little known to the general public. He spent most of his latter years in a one-room Brooklyn walk-up apartment, bitterly outside what he called "the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy and stagnant New York literary establishment."

 

He was attacked for his "adolescent and distraught mind," accused of writing "fifth-rate, avant-garde soap opera" and left out of the country’s official literary establishment – the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was also called a comic genius worthy of Voltaire and an outlaw, in the best sense, among his compromised peers.

 

Interviewed by The Associated Press in 2005, Purdy recalled being "exposed to everything" as a child, and his books revealed the most detailed awareness of sex, violence, race, class, familial cruelty and romantic longing. His work was labelled "gothic" for its extremes of emotion and physicality, but in his own mind, there was no sensationalism, just the impulse to write what he knew. 

 

"When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone," he said.

 

Purdy was born in Fremont, Ohio. His parents split up when he was young, forcing Purdy to alternate among the homes of his mother, father and grandmother. His formal education was essentially a waste, although Sunday school did impart an appreciation of the King James Bible. An early muse was a landlady to whom he wrote hate letters.

 

"My mother was both horrified and amused that I would write these terrible things about real people," he said, adding with a laugh, "We never showed them to the landlady. She might have had a stroke."

 

He wrote stories from an early age and in his 20s submitted some to what he called "the New York slick magazines," which duly rejected them in "rage." A break came in his early 30s when through a mutual acquaintance he was introduced to Chicago businessman and literary critic, Osborn Andreas, who agreed to privately publish a story collection, "Don’t Call Me by My Right Name."

 

Others soon learned about him, including British writers Dame Edith Sitwell and Angus Wilson, and his official debut, "63: Dream Palace," came out in 1956. He followed with such novels as "The Nephew," "Malcolm" and "Cabot Wright Begins," stories of innocent young men, needy older women and, in the case of "Cabot Wright," literary elitism, sexual violence and indiscreet bodily noises.

 

Rarely were reviewers so divided. Orville Prescott, book critic for The New York Times, labelled "Cabot Wright" the "sick outpouring of a confused, adolescent and distraught mind" and complained of Purdy’s "obsessive concentration on perverted and criminal sexual activities."

 

But Susan Sontag, writing in the Times six days later, likened "Cabot Wright" to Voltaire’s "Candide" and praised it as a "fluid, immensely readable, personal and strong work by a writer from whom everyone who cares about literature has expected, and will continue to expect, a great deal."

 

His most influential novel, "Eustace Chisholm and the Works," was published in 1967 to knee-jerk repulsion and eventual acclaim as a landmark of gay fiction. Set in Depression-era Chicago, "Chisholm" is a 20th-century "Satyricon," an explicit, matter-of-fact portrait of abortion, disembowelment and "diurnal coitus." But it’s also, through the passion of two men, a quest for "that rare thing: the authentic, naked, unconcealed voice of love."

 

Reviewing the book in 1967 for The New York Times, Wilfrid Sheed called "Eustace Chisholm" a "form of charade or peepshow" and placed it in "that line of homosexual fiction which announces itself not by subject matter but by tone." By 2005, the novel was respected, and respectable enough to receive the Clifton Fadiman Medal for Excellence in Fiction, presented to an ailing Purdy by "The Corrections" novelist Jonathan Franzen.

 

"The extreme margins of the stable, familiar world of Saul Bellow – and of most novelists, including me – are at the extreme normal end of Mr. Purdy’s world," Franzen said during a formal ceremony in Manhattan. "He takes up where the rest of us leave off."

 

—March 13, 2009, The Associated Press

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“his nerves vibrating to a new kind of rhythm”—the prose of francis stuart’s black list, section h

 

In Black List, Section H, Stuart’s protagonist, known only as H, experiences much, and suffers much: his is a life that includes a disastrous marriage to Iseult Gonne, the Irish Civil War and internment, a bohemian period in 1930s London, and an ill-fated arrival in Hitler’s Germany in 1940. Arrested after the war, H is “alone and free, passionately involved in my own living fiction.” Indeed, it seems H’s experiencee closely track those of Stuart’s own life, undoubtedly one of the reasons why Stuart’s writing is imbued with a sense of absolute truth and painful honesty.

After several rejections by British and Irish publishers, this masterpiece was first published in the United States in 1971 by Southern Illinois University Press, which described the novel in the following terms: 

 

Black List, Section H is Francis Stuart’s twentieth novel, the con­summation of a lifetime devoted to writing, and perhaps the keystone through which all of his other works must be viewed. Almost totally autobiographical, described by the novelist himself as “an imaginative fic­tion in which only real people appear, and under their actual names where possible,” the novel encompasses the period from 1919, when H, the hero, comes to Dublin and meets Maud Gonne and marries her adopted daughter, Iseult, through the period of the Second World War, when in 1939, bur­dened by marital and financial difficulties he accepts a position as lecturer at Berlin University. Stuart’s depiction of wartime Berlin, the Allied bomb­ings, and the endless shuffling between refugee and prison camps after the war is one of the few accounts of these experiences in English. More than a mere record of one man’s life, the book is an experience deeply lived and set down in fine prose with an intensity that is contagious. 

Francis Stuart, BLACK LIST, Section H

1

His window looked onto a derelict mill half-hidden by a small wood above the three ponds, each on a slightly lower level. A last patch of vivid sunshine, coming in intense, isolated gleams in this northern county, caught the slope of grass close to where dusk was already gathering under the ruined wall, the wet ivy glinted against the black stone, and short, intense intervals of silence formed between the cawing of the rooks.

H started scribbling, scrawling through the lines and substituting others, his nerves vibrating to a new kind of rhythm. It was not another shy love note to one of his girl cousins that he was feverishly writing, but his first poem.

The sun is dropped and shadows grow
As swords for the world’s overthrow
And through the depths the lightnings crawl
Each like a wounded nightingale.
The flashing dreams of coming years
Dance upon the heart like spears,
Of burnings breaking into swans,
Of sun-enchanted golden lemons,
Of Ninevehs and Babylons,
Whose stones are dark with future tears,
Or of more homely, simple sights
In gardens at the dim of nights
When the white petal of the moon
Throws every flower in a swoon . . .

After he’d finished it, he took a sheet of notepaper, went downstairs, embossed it in the little machine on his aunt’s desk with the address, and wrote a letter to a Dublin newspaper on the subject of Home Rule. He guessed that, coming from the heart of the Unionist North, the letter would have a good chance of being published in spite of the not very original arguments for independence expressed in it. It was not for the sake of seeing his name in print for the first time that he had composed it. Not because in his heart of hearts -though what really went on there it would still take him years to grasp-he had any great interest in Irish, or any other kind of nationalism. What was behind it was an instinct, far from conscious, to cut himself off from the world of his cousins once for all. And the resolution to act on this impulse came directly from having just written his first poem, and, indirectly, from a kind of faith in himself and his confused instincts that the news of the Russian Revolution that he’d heard during his last term at an English public school, had given him.

A few days later H went to stay with his mother and stepfather who’d rather unexpectedly taken a house at the seaside. Henry still made intermittent attempts at family life and acting the father.

One morning in his ground floor room that looked out, beyond the small yard, on to the branch line from Coleraine, H opened the paper and there was his letter. H was surprised and somewhat shamed at the satisfaction that seeing his name gave him, all the more as he knew that his poem, or another that he’d written since, had no chance of appearing in print, and it was only the political banalities, coupled with the family name, that had got him the publicity.

Later he met his stepfather walking back to the villa across the links from the golf club. "Hello, Harry; I see you’ve a contribution in the paper."

H realized by Henry’s tone and the amused, quizzical glance he gave him, that Henry, unlike his own blood relations, was too much a man-of-the-world and a cynic (though this was a concept H couldn’t have found the word for) to feel much real disapproval.

H said that yes, he had; and it was left at that as they walked together towards the row of houses overlooking the links. Next day he got a seat in the hired car taking his stepfather to Belfast as far as the crossroads in the wooded hollow of the Ballyboggy mill ponds (his mother was staying on at the villa).

The letter was mentioned, H thought rather grudgingly by Aunt Jenny, though for years he was to notice it, from time to time, put away, with newspaper clippings about her prizeheifers, in the empty half of her silver cigarette case.

H had chosen to return to his aunt’s house rather than wait with his mother till the end of the month at Rockport partly to avoid a chance meeting with his cousins and partly because of the books there. His first choice was of one at the farthest, darkest end of the top row in the case by the wall between the doors. Why he took out this one rather than another was partly because of its position on the shelf, partly because of the title, and had also something to do with the dark blue shade of the binding. Once open, the name of the author which he hadn’t been able to read through the glass, Count Leo Tolstoy, and also the decorations on the fly leaf, seemed a confirmation of his instinct in taking it out.

For days H was absorbed in Resurrection. A great deal was obscure. He read on through pages that enclosed him in a solid, tangible kind of boredom that he didn’t dream of escaping from by skipping. There was a dense, stuffy air about it, especially in the Russian courtroom between whose whitewashed walls he spent some days.

His participation became acute when the girl was being questioned. He was listening, listening, the rough wood of the bench under him, breathing the smell of warm iron from the stove, hearing the scratch of pens.

H had only a hazy idea of what the case was about. The girl whom the dead merchant had sent for to spend the night with him in a room at the inn was saying, "He’d been drinking heavily, your Honor."

But it was the mention of the size of the ring that it seemed she was accused of having stolen (H couldn’t be sure of the charge, there was too much to take in) that bowled him over.

"Why, the fellow must have been the size of a bull."

"He was a big, heavy man, your Honor."

The girl in her shabby thick jacket and head scarf and the huge, gold ring, passed from hand to hand in court, and whose weight he could feel in his own, were what H couldn’t get over.

The early winter was very wet, there was rain all day; the old wooden sluices of the upper of the three mill ponds had to be fully drawn up to let the extra water through, and H was able to stay indoors and read or brood.

One dark afternoon, in a kind of trance, he took the mattress from his bed and dragged it up the narrow, uncarpeted stairway that led from just outside his bedroom door to a small attic where the zinc water tank was. Doubling it over he lay on the floor and hugged it to him. He was trying to make the mystery incarnate in calico stuffed with horsehair around which his arms just met. But the old What? How? and Where? were more insistent than ever. All he sensed was that the answer lay in the fold between the two halves of the unwieldy bundle that he could only keep from springing apart by a tight squeeze.

With difficulty keeping the mattress pressed together with one arm, he thrust his free hand into this cavity. But the touch of the coarse material through which wiry ends of hair pricked his fingers was not the revelation he was seeking.

One autumn morning, while no future plans for him had yet been mentioned, his aunt gave him a letter to take to her brother at Benvarden. Short and stocky like her, Major Geoffrey Quintillan was a favorite of his sister’s. She had kept house for him until what she looked on as his ill-advised marriage. And it was largely to be near him when he was becoming more and more estranged from his wife that she had moved back to the North. And now she kept sending him notes which, H surmised, contained veiled criticisms of her sisterin-law.

As H rounded a corner near the gate of his uncle’s estate the road dipped and disappeared into a shining level expanse that stretched far across the bogland in front of him. The water was shallow enough to ride his bicycle through as far as the entrance to the long drive that, bordered by laurels and raised above the excavated bog, was not flooded. Halfway along it the black plain of peat and heather emerged from the water, and, a little further on, where this gave way to cornfields, H ceased pedaling and came to a stop.

Still in the saddle, feet touching the ground, he was overcome by a sleepy lassitude in which he sensed that what he’d been seeking was going to be revealed. He was lifted on heavy strong wings off his bike and carried into the seclusion of the laurels that edged the avenue.

H bent forward, supporting himself with his forehead against a tree trunk, his back to the golden fields where, in the distance, women in colored bonnets were gathering the reaped corn into stoops.

His hands, cool from the handlebars, had hold of the warm apparition from which, as in the story of Jacob and the angel that had haunted him in his Bible-reading days at school, he was wresting the secret.

O woman . . . woman . . . woman! Here she was at last in her shameful glory, his cousin Maida, the girl in Resurrection and, above all, the one who was to come. Amen! Alleluja!

By the time he seemed to himself to limp into his uncle’s study (had the angel maimed him in a sinew as in the biblical story?) he realized that nothing had been finally resolved, that the answer had been postponed and the question sidetracked.

2

The arrangements for continuing his education were made rather suddenly. His mother took lodgings in a Dublin suburb for H and herself from where he went by tram daily to be prepared for the university entrance exam by a young tutor called Grimble.

H hadn’t been in Dublin since the County Meath days when, sniffing up its impact through the smells of fresh horse dung from the waiting sidecars, the tang from the river or the brewery, he had stepped across the deep but narrow steamy chasm on to the Amiens Street station platform with a tight grip on his nurse’s gloved hand.

Now it was the big yellow tramcars passing the windows of the lodging house that flashed and screeched the message that this was Dublin. Yet when he first made the trip in one of them, getting out at the corner of Grafton Street, he did no more than stand on the crowded pavement watching the tram disappear under a series of violet sparks around a big stone building and then, crossing the street, took the next one back in time for high tea served in their small sitting room.

It was the first time H had lived alone with his mother. He disliked many of her ways, especially her power of evasion, which among other things, had resulted in her delivering him over to Henry at a crucial and vulnerable period of his boyhood. Several other characteristics were hateful to him in her. Her lack, for instance, of a sense of decent privacy. She would sit and snatch the inside of her leg through her much-darned, gray cotton stockings in front of him with what he felt was a desire to bring him down to her own narrow strip of earth. There was also her lying, mostly to extricate her from awkward situations brought about by her incapacity to disagree with anyone, and that meant practically everyone more selfconfident than she. He resented the weakness that was the cause of the lies, rather than their untruth, partly because he had to struggle against the same weakness in himself. He took pains to show his disbelief in many of her accounts of daily events, among them some which he knew were strictly factual. At the same time he was touched by the humility that made her in awe of the rest of the world, including himself. Above all he appreciated her store of patience, which communicated itself to him in her most instinctive gestures and movements, reflecting contentment with her lot. She was never nervy or waiting for a change for the better, as many people were. Sitting by the fire reading, knitting with her long awkward fingers, or merely keeping it up, she emanated a tranquility that H was grateful for. He could share too in some of her delight in minute tasks (others were beyond her) as in the preparation of the evening cocoa for which there was a kettle on the hob of the coal fire watched over by her long before it came to the boil with quiet, if exaggerated, attention. The measuring out and mixing of the drinks was left to H, and one night he noticed that it was a different brand that she took from the cupboard. He spooned the paler powder into the cups as she stooped over the kettle with a piece of cloth in her long hand, waiting while the steam had been lifting the lid for several moments before she dared take it from the fire.

After H took the first sip he knew that had he said that the flavor was too sweet or rich, she’d have agreed at once,

making a face, and been vehement in her disgust, but when he commented favorably on the change, he sensed that her evident pleasure was because in this coinciding of taste was another proof of their kinship.

Taller than even H himself, and with a pallor that H related to scholarship, G. O. Grimble, whose initials were to H as much a part of his tutor as the pince-nez he wore, or his receding hair, taught him in a room with three beds in it in lodgings even more drab than those of H and his mother.

Unknown to H, his aunt had sent Grimble a few of the poems H had copied out for her some time ago. H, perceptive about what concerned him vitally, had noted the arrival of the long envelope with the university crest on the back and had later taken it from her desk and, extracting the accompanying letter, read that Grimble considered the poems showed neither talent nor the promise of any to come.

The verdict caused H one of the first violent sinkings of the heart that were to become so familiar. But he saw that the defeat was already causing a retreat not just from some hope of admiration but back into himself to force him in secret patience to perfect his gift for its own sake; it was pain that then, and later, made him discipline and temper his unruly and often capricious kind of imagination. Not that his use of this setback prevented H from scorning Grimble as somebody whose old-maidish precision was incapable of appreciating what he had written. Grimble’s distinction, for H, was that he knew W. B. Yeats and other legendary figures such as Maud Gonne, to whom Yeats had written his love poems.

On an end-of-winter evening H and his mother met Aunt Jenny at the little suburban station down by the shore. She was coming to spend a week with them, and after her onto the platform stepped Grimble, his high forehead and pince-nez reflecting the platform gas lamps. He had met her at Amiens Street station and, besides her suitcase, was carrying a book whose title H’s (at such times quick) eye read before they passed into the dusk of the street: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It turned out that Aunt Jenny had bought it at the Amiens Street bookstall on Grimble’s advice while they’d waited for the suburban train.

At supper Grimble spoke of taking him and his aunt to one of George Russell’s Sunday evenings.

The awaited moment came, and they climbed the steps to the front door that stood ajar, in spite of which Grimble knocked, not caring, H supposed, to walk in with two strangers in tow.

H waited nervously till a bulky figure with a pale, fleshy face, more than half-hidden by tousled hair and beard and steel-rimmed glasses, beamed at them and shepherded them into a room where several people were already gathered.

H’s first contact was with the paintings on the walls. Unlike the pictures he was used to, framed and glazed and hung two or three to a wall with plenty of space between, these naked canvases crowded together side by side. At first H was aware of the profusion of misty blues and luminous shades of gray, depicting a dream landscape with hushed figures with faces lit by the glow of a cottage hearth or stooped over an oar on a mist-wreathed lake. In some, towering unseen over these bent forms was a being fringed by an aureole of lambent flames or plumes in yellow or violet brushstrokes, that struck H as false and invented.

When their host was introducing him, H heard him say, "And this is Mr. St. George." Sensitive to first impressions and tending at such moments to see omens everywhere, H concluded that, after all, such gatherings were not for him.

But a greater letdown was in store. Russell took a heavy book, the size and shape of an atlas, but bound in black, from the table where he’d evidently put it down before going to the front door to answer Grimble’s knock. He was reading excerpts from it, pausing now and then to raise his shaggy head, in which the smallish eyes twinkled, and explain something to one of his guests.

At first H wasn’t sure what the book contained. Only when Russell handed it, open at a page, to a fair young man, an English writer who had been living in Dublin to avoid the call-up, Grimble whispered to him, that H realized it was full of newspaper cuttings of reports of a lecture tour Russell had made to America.

Although Russell laughed, his lips pink and full against the surrounding hair, and might have been making light of the laudatory passages to amuse the company, H noted how he opened the big book at photographs of the large crowds assembled outside halls in Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities where he had appeared, and handed it around.

Could Russell really delight in being acclaimed by crowds in America? Where was the proud and lonely spirit H imagined all writers and painters as possessing?

Mrs. Russell, her face seeming diminished by her husband’s shaggy head whose skin, where exposed through the tangle of hair, was glistening, brought in a pot of tea. As cups and plates were handed round, a tall girl arrived all alone and Russell introduced her as Miss Gonne.

Was this the woman whom Yeats had loved and longed for hopelessly and for whom he had written the many lines that H knew by heart?

Until the axle breaks
That keeps the stars in their rounds,
My breast shall not lie by the breast
Of my beloved in sleep?

Having no firm grasp of time, H was ready to see Maud Gonne as still as young and beautiful as in the poems. He took the girl in as she sat talking to Russell’s son, a youth whose hair fell in a fringe, like H’s own, over his forehead. The young man had drawn up his chair toward her and was sitting just in front of her, his parted knees enclosing hers. Russell was telling her something, bending over her in his baggy suit with a plate of cakes, and she was smiling, the pronounced curve of her upper lip giving her an air of slight disdain.

Grimble accompanied H and Jenny to the center of the city to see them on to the No. 7 tram that took them home. While they waited for it, H, standing behind the other two with his back to some area railings, heard them discussing the evening. His aunt was saying how struck she had been by Russell’s lucid exposition of some political situation ( Lloyd George was mentioned) of which H was ignorant. Then came what he’d been waiting to hear about since leaving the party.

"Yes, Maud Gonne’s adopted daughter," Grimble was saying, "I believe the relationship is actually a little closer than that, though it wouldn’t do for Madame to admit it in the nationalist circles in which she moves."

3

H’s mother gave up the lodgings and went to live with her sister in the North. And an arrangement was made through Grimble for H to lodge in the house of an acquaintance of his, a widow called Mrs. Dennis.

Though H slept at the top of the tall, Georgian house, he was given a room in what once had been stables and coach house at the end of the back garden. Long and narrow, with a horseshoe-shaped window high up at one end, it was at last a place of his own. Added to this partial freedom was the relief that he need go no more for tutoring to Grimble.

What Grimble had told his aunt H could guess. As for Henry, since his heart attack, that H’s mother had mentioned casually one evening at supper, he had broken his last links with wife and stepson and was living in a London hotel.

The books in the cream-painted bookcases in the big, pale first-floor sitting room, that Mrs. Dennis called a salon, had brighter bindings than those of his aunt. The room itself with a grand piano and the formalized crucifixions and annunciations didn’t appeal to him. He was homesick for the other, low-ceilinged drawing room even at noon full of dusk and the glint of polished wood and small diamond-shaped panes of glass.

Here it was assumed because he wrote poetry he’d be glad to find himself in the bookish and musical swim. Leaving music out of it, for he thought he was tone-deaf, this wasn’t his concern at all; it soon struck him that though he was obsessed by a few books, he didn’t care for the literary milieu. The writers that Mrs. Dennis spoke to him of Zola, Stendhal, Henry James, he found it hard to read. Most of her friends, after a few attempts to engage him in conversation, ignored him.

But one young man, Dugdale, a dandyish medical student from South Africa with a small, alertly poised head, managed to penetrate H’s slow-wittedness. Instead of talking esoterically of books and pictures, he spoke of dress and hygiene, suggesting in his quick, nervous manner that H couldn’t resent, that he take more care over these, and bringing H a cure for the acne from which he was suffering. This Dugdale himself applied one evening in the stable room to H’s face, after removing his jacket and carefully turning back the cuffs of his silk shirt.

H was touched by this attentiveness and not very taken aback when Dugdale suggested, having invited him to tea at his flat, that H let him bathe him in the bathtub.

"Well no, I don’t feel like a bath. Thanks all the same."

"I’d like to show you the way to wash yourself properly which they don’t teach you at an English public school."

But though he liked Dugdale more than Mrs. Dennis’s other friends, H wasn’t going to be pestered into becoming a daily bather and immaculate dresser any more than into joining a cultural clique.

H’s lassitude increased; he gave up reading and lived for days and weeks at a time in his stable in idleness, lighting the gas ring in the winter afternoons and sitting for hours on end bent over the glowing crown which, when turned low, was set with ultrablue jewels in the dusk.

Lunch he ate with Mrs. Dennis and her daughter; but he sucked his supper out of a tin of Nestle’s milk, punctured in two places, and afterward washed his sticky mouth at the tap in the cobbled passageway between the stalls and dried it on a dirty handkerchief.

It was on one such evening that Dugdale called to take him to one of Maud Gonne’s Tuesday at-homes. At first H declined, feeling no inclination to leave the seclusion of his retreat in spite of the haunting memory of the girl who had turned out to be Iseult. But in the end, not to disappoint Dugdale rather than with any feelingof enthusiasm, he said he would come, and went to spruce himself up at the tap in the dark stable, sluicing his semitranced face, wetting his hair, and brushing it out of his sleepy eyes.

The door of the house in St. Stephen’s Green was opened by a short stocky figure with whom Dugdale exchanged some words in French.

She wasn’t what H had been expecting. Yet in his present state it was much the same to him whether this French cook with her broad sallow peasant face and hair caught in a scant knot at the back of her head, or Yeat’s pearl-pale queen, had appeared. It was a state which was to overcome him through the years, which he defined to himself variously as one of passivity, idleness, acidity, or the spirit’s sleep. At such times he spent most of the days on his bed, eating what came to hand, seldom shaving or even washing.

He followed Dugdale up the stairs and into the first floor room where, instead of the gathering Dugdale had mentioned, there was only Iseult Gonne.

After H had been introduced, she told them that she and her mother, whom she called Moura, had only just returned from spending a few days in a remote Wicklow glen and, not having expected to be home in time for their Tuesday reception, had sent previous word to their usual guests.

H hoped Dugdale would say something about returning next week and depart. The tall girl in a sky-blue dress with a tasseled shawl had less impact on him than she had the evening at Russell’s. He felt that nothing could burst the cocoon of disinterest and would have preferred to be back in his stall with Mrs. Dennis’s sleeping cat and the glow of the gas ring.

"Oh no, you mustn’t go," Iseult Gonne was saying, looking at H rather than Dugdale, "Moura will be delighted to see you; she was regretting just now that we’d have no visitors."

But H wondered whether Maud Gonne, if the news of their arrival that her daughter had gone to tell her really came as a pleasant surprise, wasn’t in for a disappointment. Could Dugdale, for all his charm, which might not, H sensed, be quite the sort to go down here, keep up their end of the talk single-handedly? For he himself would be tongue-tied.

But when she sailed into the room in a long black dress whose line had an uninterrupted flow from widow’s veil to foot, he saw that he needn’t have worried. Her complete unself-consciousness as, after shaking hands with them, she plunged straight into what she had on her mind: the planting of young apple trees in the plot that went with the Wicklow cottage she had just acquired, ruled out any awkward hiatus. She was praising Iseult for the help she’d been (surely not in the actual digging?), impulsively taking her daughter’s hand and calling her belle animale.

From Maud Gonne, her single-minded obliviousness, and especially her effusiveness, H recoiled even further into himself. He felt his hair dry out and fall back over his brows, his toes turned awkwardly inward, and he knew that, if he wasn’t careful, he’d drop a pieceof cake or knock over a coffee cup.

Iseult’s large brown eyes seemed to rove around the room, across the ceiling and back, before coming to rest on him, as if, for all her cosmopolitan upbringing, he was something strange to her.

As they were leaving, Maud Gonne (Madame MacBride was how Dugdale addressed her) looked right into H’s eyes without, he thought, seeing him and invited, almost implored, them to come back one evening when the rest of the circle would be there.

Back in his stall H smelt the palm of his hand as he punctured a tin of milk and sniffed in the scent of powder left there by Iseult Gonne’s as she’d said good-bye to him. It was a kind of contact between himself and the girl, the only sort which could then affect him: nonverbal, sensuous.

This tenuous link was still there the next day as he had purposely not washed his hands, and caused the girl to loom up between his stable walls, apparitionlike in a kind of fulllength tasseled halo of ultrablue.

Yet he wasn’t anxious to present himself again, alone or with Dugdale, at the house on a Tuesday evening when she’d be in the midst of her mother’s political friends.

It could wait; he felt patient and assured in spite of all that was unpropitious; his age, seventeen; his prospects, nil. He was emerging from the long bout of lassitude with, he imagined, new energies, and began attending Mrs. Dennis’s parties again. At one of these "salons," H was attracted to a corner of the room by the gleam of red tabs on the shoulder of a khaki jacket. British uniforms weren’t common in Dublin drawing rooms and an English staff officer was a rare bird indeed. Going over, with the excuse of handing around a tray, H found himself addressed by the young captain.

"Sit down a moment, if you don’t mind being seen talking to me," he said. "I’ve no idea what your politics are, but you don’t look as if you worried about what others thought."

H smiled and took a seat beside him.

"I wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for being a relative of our hostess. You’re probably wondering why I came in uniform. Well, I’m not ashamed of it and I’m not going to try to find friends in Dublin, which is what I hope to do, by hiding what I am. But of course I feel rather out of it."

H too had this instinct only to make friends with those from whom he hadn’t to hide any part of himself, though by now he guessed how difficult this was going to be. It was the same obscure urge that had made him write the "nationalist" letter to the paper.

Captain Richard Purcell, shortly to be demobilized, was spending his leave by getting to know the sort of peoplewriters, musicians, painters-that he planned to live among. Hearing from Polly Dennis that H was a poet (H imagined her mouth, dimpled at each corner, smiling its I’m-onlytelling-you-what-he-told-me smile) had probably thought that here he might find a younger brother. He told H that, though not in uniform, he’d attended a couple of Madame MacBride’s soirées, as he called them.

Dick heard that the Gonnes had gone to stay in Wicklow and suggested that H and he made a walking trip through some of the glens ending up at their cottage, and, after studying maps and organizing the expedition with military precision, called for him one spring morning.

H had never before made a trip of this sort anywhere. It was the first in a widely spaced series of memorable trudges, pilgrimages, flights, and forced marches.

They took the road to the hills, Dick having exchanged his uniform for a tweed suit with a rucksack strapped on his back. H wore his one suit of navy serge and carried an old attaché case of Henry’s, imprinted with his stepfather’s initials. All it contained was a packet of ginger biscuits and a volume of Yeats poems with a gilded pattern of leaves, scales, or hearts, embossed on the night-blue cover, with a long, tapering finger parting the golden thicket. No pajamas, not even a toothbrush.

Windy roads up mountainsides festooned in coppery bracken and weighted with granite boulders. H accepted the discomfort as part of the hardships attendant on the quest, but he did not care for the scenery which his companion kept admiring. He was glad when midway through the day they dropped down into a sunny valley that Dick told him was Glendalough. They had another range to cross, climbing above the dark, forbidding lake, and through an endlessseeming expanse of wiry tufts of heather on the mountain ridge.

They descended into the sudden twilight of a narrow glen where a black silhouette of thorn tree beside a track whose white gravel gleamed ghostly, and Dick mentioned lead mines, lifted twisted arms out of the shoulder-high mist.

As they approached the farmhouse where the Gonnes were staying, the mountainsides drew closer together and the roar of waterfalls intensified the eeriness.

They were shown into a room lit by an oil lamp on a large table deep in litter among which H’s embarrassed eye sheered off from a roll of toilet paper. A friend of the Gonnes, a small, plain woman, cleared a couple of chairs, saying, "Pray sit down, Mr. Ruark," the old-fashioned turn of phrase coming helpfully into what H felt was the tense atmosphere produced by the arrival of Dick. And, indeed, quite soon Madame MacBride was denouncing, with agonized fervor, the British Empire.

Dick was not discomforted. He was admitting mistakes and injustices-in India, in Ireland, anywhere she liked to name-while all the time preserving an air of being on the enlightened side, the side of reason and decency. Madame MacBride was roused to an even intenser diatribe, but with what H began to grasp was a fury that had nothing personal in it.

He sensed in that moment, exhausted, sore-footed, disturbed by the presence of Iseult, that there were those who fastened on causes as an outlet for passions which weren’t fulfilled through their senses and that they had a puritan lack of complexity in them that to him was alien.

Adroitly extricating himself from the one-way discussion, Dick suggested to Iseult that they take a walk before darkness fell. Left alone with the other two, H turned to Miss Molony, but Madame MacBride treated him gently and told him slightly ridiculous stories about Willie Yeats, as she called the poet.

When Dick returned with Iseult, he and H set off down the glen to the inn at the other end where they were to spend the night. The others came with them to a ford through the stream that flowed down the valley. Dick took off his shoes and socks before wading across but H, too tired and occupied by his thoughts, kept his on. As he squelched along beside his companion through the blackness, following the gleam of the gritty road, Dick told him of his walk with Iseult. They had sat down on a slab of rock. "When I tried to kiss her she turned away her face."

There was no guile in Dick. Nor was H sufficiently versed in the ways of love to feel the dangers that beset him. He was conscious neither of fear nor jealousy. Later, he told Iseult that all the way to the inn he’d felt a hand on his shoulder; a boyish romanticization.

Next morning they found the three women planting apple trees in a plot of stony ground beside the Gonnes’s cottage. It was the last habitation in the glen and behind it boulders from the steep slopes on either side met in a drift that all but walled off the ascent to the pass beyond.

Shyly, but never doubting that she’d agree, he asked Iseult to come for a walk with him. They followed the track between the boulders toward the top of the pass, stopping halfway up at a rock against which they could rest and where H gave her the blue and gold book he’d brought and asked her to read out a poem. Iseult was only too ready to play the part he’d assigned her; he’d made a false move right at the start. He had placed his beloved in an unreal, Yeatsian world, instead of trying to take her into his which, however immature, was a very different one.

4

H made an exciting discovery. He could open the heavy old gates that led from the weed-grown yard at the back of the stables to the lane. By easing loose the rusty iron fastenings they creaked apart a couple of feet.

Almost as tall as he was, an astrakan cap on her head and her hands in a muff, Iseult slipped through them one winter evening. As H turned up the gas ring, a black Persian cat crawled out of the hardly distinguishable muff in which she’d brought it; she told him that this was Minou about which Uncle Willie had written the poem. Again the magic of Yeats’s shadowy world enclosing them before he had the strength to make her aware of his own.

Iseult talked more than H did, because she had more to tell him, having lived several years longer and in places like Paris and London, and because in the latter, while her mother (arrested in Ireland in the last year of the war) was in Holloway jail, she’d associated, as well as with Yeats, with writers about whom H was fascinated to hear.

"Moura’s right about Uncle Willie, Luke" (she’d asked him what the initials on the brief case that weren’t his stood for and had chosen to call him by his second name), "being mean and a snob. He was actually ready to accept a knighthood till we talked him out of it.

"He took the house in St. Stephen’s Green while Moura was in jail, getting it for a very small rent and then letting his pet rabbits eat up the plants in the back garden. Having just married a rich wife it wasn’t as if he couldn’t have paid her properly."

But H, still thinking over the story of the knighthood, told her that there was a more vital reason for Yeats not accepting it than the nationalist one given by her mother.

"Dishonor is what becomes a poet, not titles or acclaim."

She looked startled, not perhaps so much at what he’d said as at his expressing an opinion at all.

"What makes you say that, Luke?"

What indeed! Feelings and instincts were stirring to become thoughts so that he could express what was bursting to be said.

"A poet must be a countercurrent to the flow around him. That’s what poetry is: the other way of feeling and looking at the world. There’s the world as it is, I mean everything that keeps most people content and busy, becoming whatever they can-doctors, lawyers, politicians, priests, tradesmen, and so on, and as well, of course, husbands and wives with families. And however much they may disagree over things like politics or religion, they’re all intent in keeping the whole thing intact and functioning."

Was her proud upper lip curled in a smile? He didn’t dare look at her but plunged on: "If society honors the poet, he’s tempted to say what those in authority expect from him. They wouldn’t have honored him otherwise, would they? But the poet will only come out with the sort of truth that it’s his task to express when he lacks all honor and acclaim. Oh no, no honors, no prizes, or he’s lost!"

"And you, Luke? If a delegation were to arrive here in the stable with some honor to confer on you, what would you do?"

H laughed; what, give him a prize for the poems that Grimble had returned to Aunt Jenny with the remark in his disagreeable cerebral script, thin as his receding hair and particularly revolting to H in the initials by which he signed the letter, that they were totally without talent!

"I’d be afraid to leave them alone while I filled the kettle at the tap to make them tea in case they changed their choice of candidate while I was out of the room."

Was this true? He thought he’d given himself, with his extreme attitudes that she might think naïve and callow, away too naïvely just now and wanted to make a joke of it.

They went for walks in the hills, taking a tram to its southern terminus and walking out through dingy streets in one of which Iseult would leave him to slip into a huckster’s and emerge with a small flat bottle of whiskey that took him by surprise. It kept out the cold, she told him, preventing her fingers turning yellowish blue as he’d seen them do on their first winter walk into the hills.

Coming back late one night into the city in a gale that was setting the shop signs wildly swinging and the branches creaking above the canal, she started to run, face raised to the stars and the small, torn clouds, and hair streaming.

He kept hold of her hand, drawn after her, afraid of her being blown away across the canal, or into it, though it was obvious that he was the less adroit one.

He didn’t like the wind and couldn’t exult in it. He liked best to have stillness around him with nothing moving and the shadows motionless, and her delight in the storm took her from him.

As they parted outside her mother’s house she told him, "Did you think I was running away from you, Luke? But it won’t be me who’ll do that. I’m the willow rooted on the river bank and you’re the black swan gliding past."

Another night in a clearing of pine forest above the city whose distant lights swarmed among the trees like shining bees, they sat on a felled trunk and talked. When it became too cold to stay there longer and they did not want to return to Dublin and part, they knocked at the door of the forester’s cottage.

The son of the house offered Iseult the spare room (his parents had retired) but she preferred to stay with H in the kitchen by the log fire which the young man told them they could keep burning all night.

When they were settled on a rug on the stone hearth, she gave him what was left in the small whiskey bottle to finish, and although already too hot from the fire, he gulped it down and laid his head on her thigh. He felt her move her leg as if she didn’t want it there, but she said she’d undo her suspender which must be hurting his cheek.

Undoing stockings was the start of things he didn’t dare think of, at least in connection with her. How could he try to leap across the gulf between his body and hers without fatal disaster?

Her face reflected the magic twilight of Yeats’s poems, proud, pure, and, he thought, contemptuous of the flesh with its concrete and detailed functions and urges. That might come from his having enshrined her from the first in the kind of poetry which, though it charmed and beguiled, had nothing vital to say to him.

To make the decisive move was impossible. Not only didn’t he know how she’d takeit, but he lacked the incentive of previous experience or any reliable knowledge of the kind of sensation he was seeking. He didn’t even know the exact location of the goal, the thought of which when he tried to define it appalled rather than roused him.

The moment passed and, after some desultory talk, H gave her a peck of a good-night kiss.

Mrs. Dennis came out to his stall, midway through the morning to tell him that Madame MacBride had been around inquiring for her "niece." She pronounced the word with distaste, for, as H knew, the Gonnes and everything to do with them were hateful to her.

After this the gates of the stable yard were padlocked and H had to visit Iseult at her mother’s house (though Mrs. Dennis had told him he was welcome to entertain his friends in her dining room). They were alone together most of the time as Madame was constantly out attending some meeting or other, with only Josephine coming shuffling in in her long skirt with the tea tray and in her Normand patois seeming to tease Iseult about having so callow a boy as a lover.

Her mother would sail in in her black robes from some political committee meeting or other and stoop down to put her arms around Iseult and call her belle animale and, oblivious of H, enthuse over her in a manner he’d never seen anyone adopt before. Was it an act? Trapped in his own shy reserves he couldn’t make it out.

Then she would start telling them about the rise of national sentiment throughout the country or of the amount of American help coming in, in dollars and also in parcels of clothing for the refugees from the North. H was equally ill at ease whether Madame was caressing Iseult or talking in her impassioned way about Ireland.

He didn’t like her easy assumption of the absolute rightness and moral purity of the nationalist cause. His own feelings were confused. He honored the 1916 men, as he did the Russians, particularly the poets Essenin and Mayakovsky (of whom he’d heard but hadn’t yet read) as revolutionaries and, above all, as having suffered calumny and derision.

What really attracted him were not the doings of patriots but the reports of certain crimes he read in the papers. He delighted in hearing of riots, no matter where, in civil disturbances, even in bank robberies; also in assassinations and anything that diminished or threw doubt on authority. He hardly distinguished revolutionary acts from those committed by criminals as long as the result was like that of a stone dropped into a mill pond. He imagined the ripples of unease that must disturb the complacency, which was what he distrusted most, that stagnated in the minds of many people, especially those held in high esteem in their own closed circles.

"Iseult hasn’t a father; you know that, don’t you, Luke?" her mother told him one day.

H nodded, thinking of his own father, whose death shortly after H’s birth, was shrouded in shame and mystery. This confiding in him he took as a sign that she had come to accept his and her daughter’s relationship. Not that he and Iseult had yet spoken of marriage. He wasn’t yet eighteen and had only the erratic allowance that his mother sent him, a pound or two at a time, in her letters. Of course, as well as that, there was whatever she payed Mrs. Dennis for his rooms and midday meal.

As marriage appeared, a first small cloud on their horizon, heralding change, she mentioned some past indiscretion of hers in London which didn’t register with him because he still hadn’t become sensually aware of her and also because the sort of delinquencies that occupied his thoughts were of a different kind.

London kept coming up in their talk until it became clear that it was to be the place to which they would go to start living together.

In the end the arrangements were made with surprising ease and even a kind of casualness. H told his mother he was going to England for a time and asked her to send him while there the equivalent of what she was paying Mrs. Dennis plus his indefinite allowance. And one day Iseult said, "Moura will be out all afternoon tomorrow, so come for my suitcases and later I’ll slip out and you can meet me with them at the boat." She added that he could follow her the following night.

H didn’t ask why. He left it all to her, though if she was pretending to go to London on her own, why the secrecy of departure? Was it a trip from which they’d return in a week or two? He wasn’t quite sure and he didn’t inquire. She had said "suitcases" in the plural, but perhaps she didn’t want to have it all cut-and-dried until she saw how it was going to work.

we are all patients in the cancer ward & now we’ve lost another person who could show us the way out

aleksandr solzhenitsyn, 1918 – 2008

I first heard of Solzhenitsyn’s death on the radio, sandwiched between stories on Britney Spears’ latest antics and the weekend box office of the latest Batman movie.

'Cancer Ward' - Alexander Solzhenitsyn by letslookupandsmile.

 

At least our facilities have proven to be much, 
much more comfortable than those afforded to 
Homo Sovieticus: