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September 2017

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This eternal virus1 and the world virus of authoritarianism have made me irritable. In this state (and next door to that one) it's difficult to focus and it's difficult to like things and people.

What better time to review some books?

During my illness, I made very few ventures out, but one was to Sorenson's Books, recently and beautifully rehoused with fellow bookseller Chronicles of Crime in a wonderfully arcane warren more like a dream of seeking than a retail space.

I went to hunt up a copy of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia because they were reading it on Backlisted. I ought to have been looking for Howards End, because that is the next book for book club, but in my fog I could hold only one book in mind at a time. They did not have Venetia. I eventually found it as an abridged audiobook through my local library’s Hoopla subscription, which met my needs perfectly well.

The book I walked out of Sorenson’s with was Loving * Living * Party Going, a Picador omnibus of three of Henry Green’s novels. I was somehow under the impression that they were a series, but Green it seems just loved a gerund.

I’ve been hearing about Green as an under-rated novelist for a good long time, maybe most recently in The New Yorker. He was in my headfiles under to be read (sometime), and this seemed to be bookstore serendipity's signal that it was time.

Henry Green’s Loving

What a slippery, strange, evasive book. Identities, time frames, the referents of characters' speech – all half-glimpsed, missing, or ambiguous.

As various summaries explain, this brief novel concerns a group of English servants stuck on an Anglo-Irish estate2 during the Second World War, in which Ireland was neutral. So long as they stay in Ireland, these people are safe from the draft, but cut off from home and family. They are also nervous about the IRA (a nervousness encouraged by both the butler and the cook, for their own purposes.)

While the setting and events are perfectly mundane, which should impart a sense of stability, events and utterances are always sliding towards some unknown precipice, encoded by the strange empty net of the narrative.

Speech is plentiful yet unproductive. Raunce, the self-elevated butler and protagonist of sorts, is constantly exaggerating and obfuscating (in his feverish confabulation, an insurance investigator becomes an IRA scout).

The only Irish character, Paddy, has no voice at all. We’re told he speaks and that no one can understand him except Kate, a housemaid, who interprets for him. This choice seems both deliberate, an illustration of the barrier between the staff imported from London and the surrounding community, and disturbing.

Loving is an interesting title, since it's also unclear who loves whom and what they're going to do about it. A funny turn hinges on confusion about who has just become engaged and what their wedding gift ought to be, as interpreted by the children of the house.

I liked the small glimpses of the castle – the absurdity of its immense stony grandeur behind all the mundane and often nearly purposeless coming and going.

I found the late Emma Tennant's comments on Green helpful – it turns out she was Green's daughter-in-law.

I don’t know yet if I liked Loving, but I admired its craft and its uncompromising reflection of the incoherence underlying the appearance of daily order. I've gone on to Party Going.

Mad Shepherds and Other Studies by L.P. Jacks3

This is another Backlisted connection. It was John Mitchinson's current reading on the Venetia episode. It sounded like just my sort of oddity. I found it as an ebook and downloaded it immediately. I’d done this with another out-of-print recommendation, David Seabrook’s All the Devils are Here, which was exactly my sort of oddity.

In structure, Mad Shepherds seems to comprise a series of shorter pieces grouped around the central shepherd, Snarley Bob. Other characters appear primarily to trigger Snarley Bob's rants and theories about how to be properly spiritual (shut up about it, mostly).

When asked whether Mad Shepherds is fiction or nonfiction, Mitchinson said: “I think it’s nonfiction, but I think it’s fictionalized nonfiction.”

The author was a Unitarian minister, which I suggest is probably the key to this particular mystery. I think Mad Shepherds is a fiction, or rather a parable.

As myself a sort of awkward atheist/pagan alloy, I'm peculiarly fond of parables, or stories that, via their elegant construction or gift of metaphor, attempt to echo a larger order (or you know terrifying absence) underneath experience.

This sort of form is hard to do well, though, and for me Mad Shepherds is too insistent to be successful: a lesson rather than a revelation. If you imagine Mister God, This is Anna, but with a grumpy old shepherd instead of a precocious little girl, you’ve about got it. I haven’t read Anna in a long time, but when I did (20 years ago? 25?) I was charmed. This less so (but see under viral influences).

There is a real attempt in the book at a very Unitarian pan-spirituality, not badly executed for 1910. Chandrapal, a visiting Indian mystic, is far more insightful than the British thinkers he meets, though again, and a bit disappointingly, his spiritual achievement is mostly a setup for more Snarley Bobism. Also, I don't think Chandrapal would be quite as charmed by a child's casual racism as the author seems to think.

There are some enjoyable set pieces, and a few beautiful passages. This was my favorite:

“Suppose, now,” I said, “that Snarley had been able to express himself after the manner of superlative people like you and me, what would have come of it?” “Art,” said Mrs. Abel, “and most probably poetry. He’s just a mass of intuitions!” [….] “Then the poems ought to be in existence,” said I. “So they are,” was the answer, “they exist in the shape of Farmer Perryman’s big rams. The rams are the direct creation of genius working upon appropriate material.”

This I love. It is one of my favorite ideas, that any activity can be transmuted into an art form (and thus something sacred) if it is approached with commitment and attention.

Other messages were less congenial to me, and it's perfectly possible that this is the real reason I didn't get on with Mad Shepherds. One of Snarley Bob's insistent themes is that a true mystical experience cannot be contained in words and therefore should not be discussed at all. The facile question arises: then why write a book about it, Larry?

But we all know the answer. While you can't capture such an experience in language, you can point at the moon. It's a bit annoying of Jacks to point so vigorously whilst disavowing everyone else's attempts.

Also, ecstatic trance states (which seem to be a large part of what he's describing) are not so obscure and unattainable as all that. But I speak from a century's advantage.



1. Which is to say, this cold I’ve had since Dec 22
2. The wealthy family are named the Tennants. Get it?
3. L.P. stands for "Lawrence Pearsall".

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