Thursday, June 18, 2009

Independent on Sunday 14-06-09

The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and The Imagists by Helen Carr (Jonathan Cape, £30)

It’s significant that Helen Carr opens her account of the Imagist movement with a personal detail: the moment in 1912 in the British Museum tearoom, when Ezra Pound read his one-time fiancée, Hilda Doolittle’s completed poem, ‘Hermes of the ways’, and, on the strength of it, pronounced her, ‘H.D. Imagiste’. Whether or not this really marks the beginning of the Imagist movement, literary history hasn’t been too concerned to investigate – the romance and the drama of it have been more than adequate an explanation.
But recounting this moment is significant for Carr’s magnum opus (and at just under 900 pages, her study is just that) because it’s an emphasis on the personal, and that emphasis throughout gives her work depth as well as breadth. Many of the now-forgotten figures of Imagism, like Desmond Fitzgerald and Frank Stock Flint, are resurrected here and given more than quick, potted biographies: they are placed at the heart of an artistic theory that leant on Pater and Nietzsche, that was influenced by Maupassant and Stravinsky, and they are shown as real, living, breathing intellectuals.
Above them all, though, towers Ezra Pound: the dandyish poet who wore billiard-green trousers and blue capes, who carried a cane and sported an ear-ring; the provincial American who found his home among London literary circles; the ‘ladies’ man’, of whom H.D. was to recall, “one would dance with him for what he might say” – and Pound was a terrible dancer. Carr’s sympathy for Pound here, before the fascist ravings in Italy during the war and his subsequent incarceration in an American asylum, is clear from the outset, but she admirably refuses to take sides on many of the central quarrels and tragedies that emerge.
There are two crucial personal interactions during the birth of Imagism and they both involve Pound - his relationship with Margaret Craven, who was, unbeknownst to many, his benefactor, and who killed herself, possibly when it became clear he was involved with Dorothy Shakespear and would likely marry her (which he eventually did); and his battle with Amy Lowell, the wealthy American poet and patron who eventually wrestled the Imagism movement from Pound’s grasp, leaving him to turn to Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists, in frustration and disappointment with those he had considered his friends.
Carr doesn’t blame Pound for Craven’s suicide, although without her financial support, it’s possible Pound would have had to return home and Imagism wouldn’t have been born at all, so her investment in him is certainly significant enough to compound feelings of rejection. She is also fair to Lowell, often viewed as a figure of fun because of her size and manliness, who proved herself more than capable of carrying on the Imagist movement without Pound.
But like so many movements, there was a temporariness to Imagism. Carr cites its three ‘stages’, the final one being without Pound, and does an excellent job convincing us of its importance and place in literary history, in spite of its brevity. It may well be that other players like T.E. Hulme and Richard Aldington are no longer read but their break from traditional poetic forms and embracing of French symbolism paved the way for modern poets like T.S. Eliot, and it’s doubtful the kind of contemporary poetry we have today would have happened without them.
Such large claims aside, it is, of course, the relationship between Pound and his fellow expatriate in London, H.D., that controls the narrative flow of Carr’s book. The dynamism that existed between them was a complex one – Pound the more assertive, bombastic presence who would score through H.D.’s poems, as patriarchal an act as initialising and labelling her in the British Museum tearoom had been, was also sensitive and generous, offering to type up her poems for her (in literary partnerships of the twentieth century, it’s nearly always the women typing up the words of their men). H.D., considered by many now to be an even greater poet than Pound, was not a clubbable woman but she needed her literary influences. Her appeal for Pound is clear here, as is his for her.
Some may find the personal overwhelmed here by the sheer weight of detail and the huge cast of characters, and that’s a risk Carr has taken by trying to be as expansive as possible, wanting to give her Imagists the epic structure she clearly feels their story deserves. I think she’s pulled it off, managing to be both particular as well as wide-ranging. For me, this is the non-fiction book of the year. I don’t see how it can be bettered

Read My Heart: Dorothy Osborne and William Temple A Love Story in the Age of Revolution by Jane Dunn (Harper Press, £10.99) ****
Jane Dunn has excellent biographies to her credit, and is especially good on women and power, having written on Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, Antonia White, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. For the first time, she has chosen to profile a male as well as a female subject, although I think this biography of a couple is slightly more weighted in the woman’s favour. Dunn is still very mindful of women and their relationship with power, as she charts the well-educated, serious and literary personality that was Dorothy Osborne, the daughter of ardent Royalists, and her attempts both to marry the man she wants and to consider a writing career. Her husband, William Temple, his family on the opposite side of the Civil War, was a good literary foil for her talents.
Their families, needless to say, were against the match that began due to a chance encounter whilst Dorothy and William were, separately, heading over to France. They nevertheless continued writing to each other over the next seven years, staying loyal through politically threatening times, as well as personally troubling ones, and only once considering ending the relationship. When Dorothy’s father died, they announced their engagement (much to the consternation of Dorothy’s strangely possessive brother), but marriage brought a mixture of fortunes: they loved the country, especially in Ireland, and William’s career as a diplomat for the Restoration court brought fame and fortune. But five of their children died as babies, and three who reached adulthood had tragic ends, the eldest, John, committing suicide at 34.
What makes their relationship remarkable is the epistolary aspect of it, the clearness and honesty of Dorothy’s voice in particular, her strength and her sensitivity. The times weren’t amenable to professional women writers but Dorothy’s literary abilities make one wonder just what she might have achieved.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman (Atlantic, £12.99) **
The riches and immortality awaiting whoever discovers the cure for cancer is taken up by Goodman in this novel which sold out across the Atlantic. Cliff is an all-American guy who also happens to be a brilliant post-doc student, working in a cancer research lab run by two ambitious scientists, Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn. He’s about to be sacked from the lab because of his disappointing results, however, when, suddenly, a seemingly miraculous breakthrough in his research occurs. One-time girlfriend and lab partner, Robin, gets suspicious and sets out to investigate. Goodman’s research is spotless, and she doesn’t let it hold up the narrative which relies on us finding out whether Cliff has been faking it or not. There’s something flat though, about her writing style, which ranges over the personal lives and ambitions of the various characters, without ever really allowing us to invest in any of them enough, and this is a problem. Her own sympathies veer between the characters, probably in an attempt to make them as rounded as possible, but it means the reader is never sure quite who to root for, and as a result, quite who to care about.

Coda by Simon Gray (Faber, £7.99) ****
Gray’s last book, before he died of lung cancer in 2008, is an irresistible, utterly contradictory mixture of honesty, cowardice, generosity, intolerance and bravery. It begins with Gray’s prognosis of a year to live, after doctors find a tumour in his neck. He has no truck with those who refuse to be straight with him, but equally acknowledges he was warned to stop smoking many times and didn’t. Now he has time to assess his career as a playwright, think about how his wife will manage after he has gone, how to break the news to his grown-up children. Confessional literature has had something of a bad press lately, with its ubiquity being questioned and its focus on death considered less enlightening, more providing voyeuristic reading for some. But Gray’s accounts of his terminal illness to this last in his series of Smoking Diaries are among the best of that confessional genre and are a great postscript to his writing career. The trips to Crete, always spoilt by British holidaymakers, are the only thing keeping him going, but this mixture of light and dark is what marks him out as a writer who knows exactly what matters, and exactly what doesn’t.

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge (Penguin, £7.99) ***
This tale of retired academic Desmond Bates who is gradually going deaf is full of the kind of minute detail about the condition that lets you know the author has had some experience of it: nobody could be quite so pernickety about the process of inserting a hearing aid unless they’d actually repeatedly had to do it themselves. As Lodge’s character, a linguistic professor, points out, “deafness is comic as blindness is tragic”, so there’s little apparent sympathy for his plight, either from his wife or from his colleagues. As he struggles on in a world that increasingly makes less sense, quite literally, to him, a mature student called Alex approaches him about supervising his thesis. He can certainly hear the alarm bells ringing, though: he might be able to appreciate her good looks but he also knows a potential nutcase when he meets one. The danger of the predatory female student might pale in real life alongside the predatory male professor, and have a lot more comic potential, rather like the deaf as opposed to the blind, but Lodge is good on Bates’s embarrassed sidestepping of a tricky situation. His relationship with his father, even more deaf and inept than his son, is a touching one.

Stonehenge by Rosemary Hill (Profile, £8.99) ****
This is a fascinating account of how Stonehenge has been written up over the years, from James I’s star architect, Inigo Jones, who swore blind it was a Roman structure in spite of twelfth-century stories that claimed it was a post-Roman building, the burial place of Arthur Pendragon, to the 1833 ground-breaking (no pun intended) tome, Principles of Geology, which looked at early earth formations and which “broke the time barrier” by extending prehistory beyond the 4000-year limit imposed by theologians. Hill describes how most of the structure seems to have grown up at different times, with stones added and taken away, all of which has made attempts to explain its original purpose ever more difficult, but she also shows how each age interprets Stonehenge in its own light. The link with the Druids and satanic rituals, for instance, unsurprisingly came out during the late seventeenth century, a time when women were still being burned as witches, and nowadays it seems to be perpetually embroiled in red tape (if not barbed wire as it was a couple of decades ago). This is a thoroughly researched history that’s both authoritative and entertaining, and shows that sometimes no matter how much we try to get to the bottom of a story, part of us never wants the mystery completely solved.

1 comment:

  1. Lesley, having read Sue Hubbard's, Girl in White, I felt compelled to respond to your review in the Independent on Sunday.

    How ironic that someone who writes such a poor review, should have the audacity to comment on a superior writer’s work and derogate it without qualification. Furthermore, your views are in wild contrast to that of both Fay Weldon and John Berger who summarise this as an outstanding novel and contradict your point about the structure of the book and quality of the prose entirely. This book completely brings to life the story of the artist and her life and interweaves fact with fiction seamlessly – I can’t believe you read the same book as I did. Your review is almost absurd in its attempted reasoning; if not a little suspect to be so damming of such a good novel!? Whoever you are, you should stick to your day job and if that is reviewing books then perhaps it is time for a career change. Poor form, very poor form. This is simply lazy journalism – if you could even begin to call it that.
    I will now review your review: An unjustified, ill-informed, unqualified and unequivocal piece of nonsense.
    To everyone else, read this book it is well worth the read and you can draw your own conclusions. I defy anyone to agree.