Posts Tagged ‘the novel’

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

(A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf – page 259):

A Blast from the Past

When I was writing the closing post of the last sequence on Virginia Woolf, a name rose up from the depths of my memory store, a name I had not consciously been aware of since I took my borrowed copy of A Glastonbury Romance back to the library more than 40 years ago. That in itself would not be particularly remarkable. I assumed he’d just popped into my head, as these things do, in response to my need at the time for the name of a reasonably well-regarded novelist who didn’t stick strictly to the materialistic script.

I checked with Wikipedia that my memory was basically accurate in that respect. But the name did not go away. I fuzzy fragment of half-remembered pleasure lingered on in connection with his work. Maybe more than that, as I discovered when I began to read the copy of Wolf Solent I had brought back from Cardiff.

Cardiff’s Castle Arcade hides a gem of a bookshop – Troutmark Books. Readers may remember this was where I found a replacement copy of Robert Browning’s The Ring & the Book, a treasure I had lost decades before. We were in Cardiff on other business on this occasion, but I had time to sneak off down one of my favourite rabbit holes into a bookaholic’s Wonderland.

It didn’t take me more than a minute to locate a couple of books by John Cowper Powys. One I didn’t recognise: the other I did – Wolf Solent. One of his handful of best works that I had never read. I’d wanted to find Weymouth Sands or A Glastonbury Romance in order to pick up the thread where I had left it off and to confirm my own vague memory of his mix of mysticism, humour, deft plot twists and weird characters.

But Wolf Solent it was meant to be and I bought it. I checked with the bookseller before I left, but she couldn’t find any other of his novels.

I’m glad I made the purchase.

Maybe my subconscious knew that it would be the perfect novel against which to test the ideas that brewed as I read Virginia Woolf. I needed a novel that captured consciousness but in a more balanced way than The Waves or To the Lighthouse. I wanted to pick up from her tentative formulation as expressed in my diagram at the time.

Somehow ‘Not I’ and ‘Outer’ were so much the same in my mind I couldn’t find a way of using them to test a narrative. I had to find an alternative set of co-ordinates for my quadrants, not completely different, but making the distinction she apparently does not.

Critical Quadrants

As a result I tweaked her wording and came up with the diagram a few paragraphs below.

As a way of explaining fairly simply what kind of narrative might fit into each quadrant, I’ve decided to pick some early passages from Wolf Solent. This will also flag up just how perfect a match this novel is to my needs of the moment.

I need to add here that I am aware that Powys’s narrative technique is far more conventional than Woolf’s, and does not rise to the levels of transliminal intensity that her novels achieve. Even so he makes a good enough fist of it for my purposes, especially given his tolerance for the eccentric, even mystical, in consciousness.

Right from the very first lines of the novel we are in Quadrant A (Penguin 1978 Edition -page 13):

From Waterloo Station to the small country town of Ramsgard in Dorset is a journey of not more than three or four hours, but having by good luck found a compartment to himself, Wolf Solent was able to indulge in such an orgy of concentrated thought, that these three or four hours lengthened themselves out into something beyond all human measurement.

Much of the text occupies this quadrant, but not at the expense of both what bubbles up in Quadrant D and impinges on his consciousness from Quadrant B.

Page 15 touches on Quadrant D:

One of the suppressed emotions they had burst forth on that January afternoon had had to do with the appalling misery of so many of his fellow Londoners. He recalled the figure of a man he had seen on the steps outside Waterloo Station. The inert despair upon the face that this figure had turned towards him came between him now and a hillside covered with budding beeches. The face was repeated many times among these great curving masses of emerald-clear foliage.

One more example of Quadrant A will hopefully convey something of the intensity Powys manages to achieve at times (pages 16-17):

As he stared through the open window and watched each span of telegraph-wires sink slowly down till the next telegraph-post pulled them  upward with a jerk, he indulged himself in a sensation which always gave him a peculiar pleasure, the sensation of imagining himself to be a prehistoric giant who, with an effortless ease, ran along by the side of the train, leaping over hedges, ditches, lanes, and ponds, and easily rivalled, in natural-born silent speed, the noisy mechanism of all those pistons and cog-wheeels!

He felt himself watching this other self, this leaping giant, with the positive satisfaction of a hooded snake, thrusting out a flickering forked tongue from coils that shimmered in the sun. And as the train rushed forward, it seemed to him is if his real self were neither giant nor snake; but rather that black-budded ash tree, still in the rearward of its leafy companions, whose hushed grey branches threw so contorted a shadow on the railway bank.

His only companion in the carriage is a bluebottle. Quadrant B pops up. He is not oblivious to its antics as it crawls across the adverts of seaside resorts (Page 21):

The bluebottle fly moved slowly and cautiously across Weymouth Bay, apparently seeking some invisible atom of sustenance, seeking it now off Redcliff, now off Ringstead, now off White Nore.

I’ll come back to Quadrant C in a moment.

Basically then, Quadrant A captures the unexpressed workings of a character’s mind. Quadrant B takes in the external world as it impinges consciously on the senses of a character.

Quadrant D most probably focuses most of the time as here upon leaks from the unconscious as they surface, and is therefore technically speaking no longer the unconscious from that point on.

However, it might theoretically be possible for the actions or emotions of a character to indicate that (s)he had been affected subliminally by some form of trigger although I am almost certainly going to treat such moments as belonging more appropriately in Quadrant C.

Jung gives a perfect example of this when he describes walking with friends and being overtaken by a sudden inexplicable feeling of sadness. It was so strong he felt compelled to leave the group to walk on ahead while he backtracked to see if he could find what had triggered this feeling. It did not take him long to walk past a hedge through which the scent of a particular flower was wafting in the breeze. Its associations brought back a painful memory. When he first walked past he had not consciously registered the scent but it had affected him subliminally and powerfully nonetheless.

Quadrant C could also contain neutral descriptions of the inanimate world, the material conditions surrounding the character at the time, by which the character is probably neither consciously nor unconsciously affected. It might even include the appearance of the character himself, as with Wolf Solent at the start of the book (page 13):

He was tall and lean; and as he stretched out his legs and clasped his hands in front of him and bowed his head over his bony wrists, it would have been difficult to tell whether the goblinish grimaces that occasionally wrinkled his physiognomy were fits of sardonic chuckling or spasms of reckless desperation.

It is hard to read this as Wolf Solent’s own view of himself. Occasionally then in this book we are going to find the ghost of the narrator stepping out of Wolf Solent’s mind.

There is a residual problem.

I am not yet sure where I should place mystical or transcendent experiences. Should they be in Quadrant A or Quadrant B? Perhaps this will depend upon what I conclude John Cowper Powys believes. If he clearly writes as though the transcendent world is real for him, descriptions of it could belong in Quadrant B: if not, they would belong in Quadrant A. The presumption then would be that they could not be shared with other characters, only experienced by one.

I am really looking forward to seeing whether this approach succeeds in teasing out how well John Cowper Powys captures consciousness in a broader context than Woolf was attempting to do in the novels I explored in the previous sequence, and whether that makes for a more satisfactory experience for me as a reader who is fascinated by the idea of learning more about this elusive yet all-pervading experience.

John Cowper Powys (For source of image see link)

Possible Plot Spoiler

I am now more than 100 hundred pages into this 600 page narrative, and can already detect that, for the right balance to be struck between consciousness and context, not only has the rendering of consciousness to be credible and engaging, which it has been so far for the most part, but the context also has to feel the same. Both have to be credible enough at least not to undermine my willingness to suspend my disbelief. I’m not so sure on that last point yet.

An example might help to illustrate what I mean.

What follows contains a plot spoiler so if you plan to find the novel and read it you may prefer to stop reading this post right now.

Wolf Solent has gone back to his roots and to the place where his father planted more than a few wild oats. Unexpectedly one day he learns that his mother is arriving that evening and planning to stay. He has to find her a place to sleep that night, prior to her moving with him to a cottage on the estate whose owner he is working for. He drops in on an old family friend, Selena Gault, and finds she has a child with her, Olwen Smith. Olwen almost immediately remarks upon the fact that his nose is the same as her Aunt Mattie’s.

On the very first page of the book I had learned that Solent has a hooked nose.

When the child twigs his mother needs somewhere to stay, she insists that it be with her aunt and her granddad, the hatter his father knew.

When he takes his mother to the hatter’s house he meets Mattie for the first time. His Quadrant A reactions to Quadrant B data are significant (page 140):

Mattie turned out to be a girl with a fine figure, but an unappealing face. She looked about twenty-five. She was not pretty in any sense at all, in spite of what [his mother] had said. Her thick, prominent nose was out of all proportion to the rest of her face. Her chin, her forehead, her eyes, were all rendered insignificant by the size of this dominant and uncomely feature.

This must be what Solent notices about Mattie as it is described as the result of his study of her. This, as we will see, is a Quadrant D trigger for some Quadrant C subliminally leaked reactions (page 142): ‘What was this queer attraction which he felt for her, so different from the interest excited in him by her father and by the little girl?’

This example is a good one as it contains material from all four quadrants and therefore illustrates the way in which Wolf Solent as a novel balances internal and external more completely than Woolf’s The Waves.

So what is the credibility problem here?

Given that the novel up to this point has conveyed a picture of Solent as both observant, perceptive and very tuned in to his own mind and its reactions, I find it hard to believe, given his understanding of his father’s waywardness, that it did not occur to him almost straightaway that there might be a family resemblance here resulting from a closer than socially acceptable connection between his father and her mother. The need to tease me as reader, which is quite amusing I agree, has trumped the need for consistency in Solent’s character, or so it seems at this point.

Admittedly we might adduce a degree of resistance in Solent to an unpalatable truth, so I am probably rushing to judgement a bit here. It seemed worth including it, even so, as a possible early example of how the capturing of consciousness can be compromised by the demands of a plot – not a problem that Woolf allows to happen given her abandonment of plot in any meaningfully accepted sense in the two novels I have examined so far.

Subsequent twists and turns of plot in Wolf Solent may cause me to revise my current estimate.

More of this later maybe!


Read Full Post »

Despite your illness you have never before done such well-balanced work, without sacrificing any feeling or any of the inner warmth demanded by a work of art, . . . .

Gauguin to van Gogh in 1890, quoted in the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 494

Having inched my way to this point through art to illustrate what I was talking about, Woolf’s depression and possible transliminality, and whether she intended to convey our inscape or not, I can finally come to the crunch question.

Did Woolf succeed in capturing consciousness?

At this stage I can only base a carefully considered answer to that question on a complete reading of To the Lighthouse. I’m only halfway through The Waves.

This is where my own diary entries might come in useful, at least to explain the initial impact of To the Lighthouse.

Within the first 30 pages I was writing ‘there are already intriguing hints about Virginia Woolf‘s experience of consciousness, eg (page 28) ‘to follow her thought was like following your voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil… all of this danced up and down like a company of gnats… in Lilly’s mind.’

When I was halfway through, though I felt it was uneven, there were ‘many places where she achieves the almost impossible. She transitions from inscape to inscape.’ I think I need a fairly long example to illustrate this. Pages 97-98 provide a good one.

We begin in Mrs Ramsay‘s head, pitying Mr William Bankes:

. . . she concluded, addressing herself by bending silently in his direction to William Bankes—poor man! who had no wife, and no children and dined alone in lodgings except for tonight; and in pity for him, life being now strong enough to bear her on again, she began all this business, as a sailor not without weariness sees the wind fill his sail and yet hardly wants to be off again and thinks how, had the ship sunk, he would have whirled round and round and found rest on the floor of the sea.

“Did you find your letters? I told them to put them in the hall for you,” she said to William Bankes.

And suddenly we are in Lilly Briscoe’s mind which has a very different take on things:

Lily Briscoe watched her drifting into that strange no-man’s land where to follow people is impossible and yet their going inflicts such a chill on those who watch them that they always try at least to follow them with their eyes as one follows a fading ship until the sails have sunk beneath the horizon.

How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought, and how remote. Then when she turned to William Bankes, smiling, it was as if the ship had turned and the sun had struck its sails again, and Lily thought with some amusement because she was relieved, Why does she pity him? For that was the impression she gave, when she told him that his letters were in the hall. Poor William Bankes, she seemed to be saying, as if her own weariness had been partly pitying people, and the life in her, her resolve to live again, had been stirred by pity. And it was not true, Lily thought; it was one of those misjudgments of hers that seemed to be instinctive and to arise from some need of her own rather than of other people’s. He is not in the least pitiable. He has his work, Lily said to herself.

This leads Lily to recall her own true focus: painting.

She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she had her work. In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower pattern in the tablecloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree.

I found that last moment an astute observation on Woolf’s part.

It seems to me that Woolf picks up skilfully on how one character sees another in a different way from that in which the person sees themselves. Where the truth lies is for the reader to decide.

I was getting completely carried away by this stage and wrote: ‘She is so astonishingly good at creating a convincing simulation of consciousness in To the Lighthouse. It’s as though I can experience some of her characters more clearly and completely then I experience aspects of myself.’

Conveying Consciousness

Reading Woolf was making me realise that having my primary focus on the nature of consciousness and the means to enhance it does not entail my turning my back, as I have over the last few years, on the novel. It simply provides me with the criterion by which to judge whether a novel really interests me. If it sheds no light on consciousness and is only concerned with plot and personality, then it is of no interest to me. Character and consciousness are key for me.

It raised a wider question. Is what I am after in a novel, poem or any written art form, the conveying of a state of mind? My reaction to Woolf suggests it is. At first I had thought that I shifted from studying literature to studying psychology because I was more interested in people in general than I was in the words that describe them. And that was true up to a point. Now I realise that I am not just interested in understanding people in ‘objective’ terms: I am also interested as much, if not more than anything else, in inner experience – something that psychological science and brain imaging cannot directly access, even if they can shed some light on how brain activity relates to inner experience and external action.

This goes beyond simply capturing routine streams of consciousness. I also believe there are aspects of reality that lie along a spectrum beyond our usual sensory settings. These can break through from the brain and its workings below ordinary consciousness, or break through from beyond the brain, from what I term a transcendent reality, whose exact nature tends to be defined in primarily metaphorical terms.

This raises a further question. Should the novel, drama and poetry be concerned with those, and to what extent? It even includes the question ‘Should a work of art, could a work of art, express some kind of world consciousness, a sense of our global interconnectedness at some level beyond the purely material?

How far does Woolf take it?

For now I will examine just how far Woolf goes with this in To the Lighthouse and to a lesser extent in The Waves.

At various points in the novel Woolf offers glimpses into how a character experiences their mind. I think it’s worth sharing some of these to indicate how broad her understanding is of these patterns.

Even the same character at different points has different experiences. Take Lilly, for example. At one time (page 168) ‘… a question like Nancy’s— opened doors in one’s mind that went banging and swinging to and fro and made one keep asking, in a stupefied gape, What does one send? What does one do?’

At another (page 184):

Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.

And shortly after is something about as close as she comes to the mystical most of the time (page 186):

And, resting, looking from one to the other vaguely, the old question which traversed the sky of the soul perpetually, the vast, the general question which was apt to particularise itself at such moments as these, when she released faculties that had been on the strain, stood over her, paused over her, darkened over her. What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come.

And there is one moment captured that must reflect Woolf’s own struggles as a writer (page 206):

Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind.

James, Mr Ramsay’s son, has another kind of experience (page 195):

He began to search among the infinite series of impressions which time had laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain…

And his combing of memory continues (page 214):

Turning back among the many leaves which the past had folded in him, peering into the heart of that forest where light and shade so chequer each other that all shape is distorted, and one blunders, now with the sun in one’s eyes, now with a dark shadow, he sought an image to cool and detach and round off his feeling in a concrete shape.

Whether one of Lilly’s later thoughts is meant to capture a more final view is hard to say (page 224):

It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.

Maybe, maybe not, but there is something heroic about Woolf’s battle with herself and her material.

In any case, the clear balance in To the Lighthouse is tilted heavily in favour of the inner life as against external events, of which latter there are very few.

Even though I have still some way to go with The Waves, I can share one impression that is beginning to take shape in my mind.

This novel seems to be exploring in part at least the nature of the self. Whether there even is a self perhaps: Rhoda clearly doesn’t think so (page 47). ‘Identity failed me. We are nothing,’ she declares. Bernard is at something of an opposite extreme (pages 49-50): ‘I do not believe in separation. We are not single. . . . . we are one.’ He even sees his own self as multiple (page 56): ‘I am not one and simple, but complex and many.’ Neville feels connected but doesn’t like it (page 61): ‘How useful an office one’s friends perform when they recall us. Yet how painful to be recalled, to be mitigated, to have one’s self adulterated, mixed up, become part of another.’

Bernard, of course, sees it differently (page 66): ‘For I am more selves than Neville thinks, We are not simple as our friends would have us to meet their needs. Yet love is simple.’

Louis is more of an outsider but people still bug him (page 69): ‘ People go on passing; they go on passing against the spires of the church and the plates of ham sandwiches. The streamers of my consciousness waver out and are perpetually torn and distressed by their disorder.’ Susan on the other hand can feel more connected with nature (page 73): ‘I think sometimes . . . I am not a woman, but the light that falls on this gate, on this ground. I am the seasons, I think sometimes, January, May, November; the mud, the mist, the dawn.’ Jinny, which incidentally was Woolf’s pet name, has a different take again. After dancing at a party her fancy takes off (pages 78): ‘I fill my glass again. I drink. The veils drop between us. I am admitted to the warmth and privacy of another soul. We are together on some high Alpine pass . . . There! That is my moment of ecstasy. Now it is over.’

I’m not sure yet where all this is going to lead in The Waves. What I see so far is an exploration of the poles of interconnectedness, an almost mystical concept, and isolation. This is a key aspect of consciousness for me and I am intrigued to see where she will take this theme. What I am still delighted by is her fusion of the poetic with the person, how she lifts language to a level where it almost becomes capable of doing justice to inner experience in a stable and consistent way. She can’t quite sustain it though and not all passages are equally convincing. Even so it is a rare and fine achievement.[1]

Where now?

There is another set of questions that I plan to explore next time: is success in the capturing of consciousness a valid standard by which to evaluate a work of art? Would it even be possible in such a diverse and global village as we live in now for a novelist to bring all shades and styles of consciousness together between the pages of one book? And when they failed how could that be seen as a defect? We are clearly only able to capture a small part of the spectrum. How much would we have to capture to be seen as a success?

I think there are ways of resolving the possibly specious problem raised by those questions.

More of that next time.


[1] I have now almost finished The Waves. Sadly I have to say that I do not find it as satisfying as To the Lighthouse. The forward to the Penguin Modern Classics edition expresses the problem with it clearly (page xxxiii): ‘Of all Woolf’s novels, The Waves is the one which most readily lays itself open to the charge of esoteric remoteness from the ordinary world.’ Even so it is a brave attempt to dramatise (page xi) ‘how identities themselves do not stand, ultimately, clear and distinct, but flow and merge into each other.’ Though her theme of ‘interconnectedness’ (page xii) strongly appeals to me I have to admit she does not satisfactorily achieve her aim in conveying it here for reasons which I hope to address in more detail in the last post of this sequence.

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (the link for source of image no longer works)

Read Full Post »

Mountains near Membegan, West Papua. Photograph: Jane Sweeney/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

Mountains near Membegan, West Papua. Photograph: Jane Sweeney/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

There was an intriguing piece by  in last weekend’s Guardian. It strongly suggests how far our machine model of nature and of ourselves is missing the real point and dangerously distorting the truth. It also raises the question of whether our art, in this case the novel, could do more to redress this imbalance. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Climate change and mass extinctions suggest that we have been telling the wrong stories. Writers need to reconnect with the natural world.

We had climbed, slowly, to a high mountain ridge. We were two young Englishmen who were not supposed to be here – journalism was forbidden – and four local guides, members of the Lani tribe. Our guides were moving us around the highlands of West Papua, taking us to meet people who could tell us about their suffering at the hands of the occupying Indonesian army.

The mountain ridge was covered in deep, old rainforest, as was the rest of the area we had walked through. This forest, to the Lani, was home. In the forest they hunted, gathered food, built their homes, lived. It was not a recreation or a resource: there was nothing romantic about it, nothing to debate. It was just life.

Now, as we reached the top of the ridge, a break in the trees opened up and we saw miles of unbroken green mountains rolling away before us to the horizon. It was a breathtaking sight. As I watched, our four guides lined up along the ridge and, facing the mountains, they sang. They sang a song to the forest whose words I didn’t understand, but whose meaning was clear enough. It was a song of thanks; of belonging.

To the Lani, I learned later, the forest lived. This was no metaphor. The place itself, in which their people had lived for millennia, was not an inanimate “environment”, a mere backdrop for human activity. It was part of that activity. It was a great being, and to live as part of it was to be in a constant exchange with it. And so they sang to it; sometimes, it sang back.

When European minds experience this kind of thing, they are never quite sure what to do with it. It’s been so long since we had a sense that we dwelled in a living landscape that we don’t have the words to frame what we see. Too often, we go in one of two directions, either sentimentalising the experience or dismissing it as superstition.

To us, the wild places around us (if there are any left) are “resources” to be utilised. We argue constantly about how best to use them – should we log this forest, or turn it into a national park? – but only the bravest or the most foolish would suggest that this might not be our decision to make. To modern people, the world we walk through is not an animal, a being, a living presence; it is a machine, and our task is to learn how it works, the better to use it for our own ends.

The notion that the non-human world is largely inanimate is often represented as scientific or rational, but it is really more like a modern superstition. “It is just like Man’s vanity and impertinence,” wrote Mark Twain, “to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.” We might say the same about a forest; and science, interestingly, might turn out to be on our side.

In recent years, several studies have demonstrated that plants, for example, communicate with each other in ways that seem to point towards some degree of self-awareness. They release pheromones to warn of insect attacks, and other plants respond. They signal to each other using a series of electrical impulses not dissimilar to an animal’s nervous system. They send out airborne distress signals to insect predators that feed on the plant-eaters threatening them.

Read Full Post »