January Reading

Work’s been madly busy, so I’ve had little time for reading, but what I have read, usually at bedtime, has been tremendous. First, I worked my way through Arnold Bennett’s Journals, covering the years from 1896, shortly after his 29th birthday, to September 1929, two years before his premature death. They give periodic insights into his theory of writing but rather more about the practice; he would rise early and knock out a couple of thousand words before spending the rest of the day socialising, letter-writing, napping and socialising again over dinner. He would, it seems, work out a novel’s plot and characters on long walks. What I hadn’t quite realised before was that, like other great writers whose books of specific place have a universal quality to them, he was extraordinarily urbane, the George Sanders of English literature perhaps, and lived and worked in Paris, then, after his late marriage (to a Frenchwoman), Fontainebleau. Fluent in French, he was arguably more steeped in the French canon than the English, more in Zola than Dickens, and kept up with the latest French literature. He knew Gide well, and indeed crops up in Gide’s Journals 1889–1949 far more than Gide does in his. 

He returned to England in 1912, to a large 18th Century house, ‘Comarques’, in Thorpe-le-Soken, a few miles inland from Clacton and Frinton. By then he was famous and his books sold in vast quantities, matched only by those of his close contemporary and friend, H.G. Wells, with whom he stayed on many occasions. Although he knew and dined with many of the best-known writers, artists, politicians and other celebrities of his age – among them Woolf and DH Lawrence (with neither of whom he seemed to get on, whilst acknowledging the individual genius of each), Barrie, Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Sickert, Asquith Churchill, Kitchener, Beaverbrook, who appointed Bennett as Director of Intelligence in France towards the end of the Great War, and many others – he remained true to his roots in Burslem and returned often.

Bennett was well aware that his readership wanted more novels like his most popular – Anna of the Five TownsThe Card, ClayhangerThe Old Wives’ Tale, etc. – but he pursued his own path rather than do as John Galsworthy, another of his close contemporaries, did and churn out a saga, even though Galsworthy went to get the Nobel in the days when the awarding was apparently random.

At the end of each year, Bennett would record the year’s productivity; on New Year’s Eve, 1908, for example:

I have never worked so hard as this year, and I have not earned less for several years. But I have done fewer sillier things than usual.

I wrote Buried Alive, three quarters of The Old Wives’ Tale, What the Public Wants, The Human Machine, Literary Taste: How to Form it; about half a dozen short stories, including ‘A Matador in the Five Towns’; over sixty newspaper articles.

Total words, 423,500.

How he didn’t get RSI, I don’t know. And that was before he decided to start writing plays too, at which he was also phenomenally successful.

In 1907, he turned his mind to another literary form:

Lately I have been thinking more and more of writing verse. And now I seem to be getting hold of ideas as to the sort of verse I am likely to write, something individual and unlike anything else. 

(14 February)

Last night I had the itch to write more verse. I had the itch without the subject. I wanted to do something short. I thought of the effect of gaslamps on the promenade as a subject.

(16 March)

I wrote about ten more lines of my poem, and these took me pretty nearly all day. At this rate I should say it is just about as expensive for me to write poetry as it would be for me to keep a motor-car, or a yacht.

(18 March)

All day I worked at my poem, and I finished it and called it ‘The Lamp’. At the end of thirty-seven days, it has taken me two and a half days, and I probably shan’t make a cent out of it.

(19 March)

What become of his poems, I’m not sure.

It’s high time Bennett was widely read again. His novels are so much more interesting and entertaining and insightful than those of, say, Galsworthy who was given a Nobel in the days when they were allocated randomly

Philip Hoare is another writer whom I admire. His Risingtidefallingstar (2017) is Sebaldian in many ways: its episodic mixture of what appears to be autobiography – though Hoare doesn’t, fictionalise it like Sebald did – and potted accounts of incidents from the lives of literary and other figures of historical importance. Risingtidefallingstar includes chapters on gay and bisexual writers – Wilde and Stephen Tennant (about both of whom he has previously written at length), Wilfred Owen (about whose life I hitherto knew little bar the Craiglockhart interlude and the agonising futility of his death so close to the Armistice) and Virginia Woolf. But Hoare also recounts biographical details from the lives of others intimately connected with water: Melville, Nelson, Thoreau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Shelley and Byron.

I know its details well, but the story of Shelley’s end resounds with me whenever I read it. In June 2017, Lyn and I holidayed in Viareggio, where Edward Trelawney, Byron and co. ceremonially burnt Shelley’s corpse on the beach, fifteen days after the fatal boat trip and five after the body had washed up. A year later, we took the train north from Pisa to La Spezia, and then a taxi, whose driver initially dropped us at the wrong place in Lerici, before dropping us at Casa Magni itself, where Shelley and his family and friends were staying when he died. Hoare’s account, like others I’ve read (including that of Richard Holmes), states that the house is in Lerici, but it’s actually couple of miles along the coast, in San Terenzo, with a lovely beach and bay of its own. When we arrived, we found the house, now a hotel, locked up and there was no answer when we rang the bell. After a while, we were admitted and shown to what was Shelley’s bedroom. For several days we were the only guests, and the staff were absent to the point of invisibility, as if it were our own house. When two other (English) guests appeared at breakfast, it felt like a gross intrusion.

As one would expect from someone who grew up and still lives in the great port city of Southampton, whence the Titanic began its voyage, the book is dominated by the coastline – e.g. the pretext for Barrett Browning’s inclusion is her sojourn in Torquay – and oceans and the peril they bring. In that, it reminded me of Anne-Marie Fyfe’s equally restless mixture of memoir, biography and travelogue, No Far Shore, with which it shares some concerns. Followers of Hoare on Twitter will be well aware of his daily swim in the sea and how it’s an essential part of his life. As the cetacean-obsessed writer of Leviathan, he is, or would love to be, half-man–half-dolphin, meeting jellyfish and a singing whale. At New Networks for Nature a few years ago, Hoare enthralled me and the rest of the audience with his tales of close encounters with sperm whales off the coasts of the Azores. As I read his book, I heard and felt his enthusiasm and learning.

I especially enjoyed the part of the book charting his repeated stays with the artist Pat de Groot in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on a sometimes wild stretch of the Atlantic seaboard, and for a long time a bohemian haunt and LGBT resort, attracting many artists and writers, including Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Stanley Kunitz, John Waters, Tennessee Williams, Hopper, de Kooning, Rothko, Motherwell and Kline.

Alex Preston’s perceptive review in the Guardian notes not only the influence of Sebald but that of Charles Sprawson, author of Haunts of the Black Masseur, which, along with JA Baker’s The Peregrine, is the most poetic English prose I’ve ever read. It also remarks on the influence of David Bowie, whom Hoare draws the reader back to throughout the book, curiously never named, but omnipresent, like a patron saint for this man brought up Catholic, whose paternal antecedents were Irish.

For me, the real beauty of the book lies in how Hoare weaves the details together, and finds strange coincidences and mirrorings, much in the way that Sebald did.

I’ve also been enjoying the latest issues of Under the Radar, Poetry Salzburg Review and The North. On the rare days at work when I’ve snatched a lunch break, Derek Walcott’s The Arkansas Testament, with its poems of St Lucia and the magnificent frigatebird, crossing the sound to Pigeon Island, have been my companion.

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