In July 2018 I was given the task of reviewing Cor van den Heuvel’s Selected Haiku. He is regarded as a significant figure in haiku circles. In his Afterword I learned that he was much influenced by Alain Robbe-Grillet’s work which propelled me into re-reading the novels with this in mind starting with Jealousy. This was the third or fourth time of reading it since 1968 and at last, with the help of references in Ghosts in the Mirror, his autobiographical ramble, I think I understand what was going on in it. Previously I had simply been mesmerised by the constant references to the squashed insect on the wallpaper, by the going over the same ground again and again – counting the trees in the banana groves. the chaps mending a bridge, A…’s visit to the town with her neighbour, the obsessive references to rooms in the large isolated colonial residence.
For the first time, I think, I found myself wondering who the narrator was, who the spare place at the dinner table was set for: the narrator certainly wasn’t Robbe-Grillet; he was a masterful absence and so was A…’s husband. I made a provisional decision that A… was the narrator standing outside the action but obsessively focussed on it, going over and over it in her mind, as a result of the neighbour-lover, Franck, having been killed in a car-crash, something only revealed in a stray paragraph, one with no kind of emphasis, towards the end of the narrative the whole of which perhaps turns out to be an evasion of the disaster, an attempt to rethink the whole episode in order to try to make it not happen, to rewrite history, as it were.
The death of the neighbour had been there from the beginning only we don’t know about it when we start out on the reading; the story is finished from the first page; the constant circling round the same things is an evasion of the event, a desire not to have to refer to the horror of it; a catalogue of things that might have been without its awful finality. The neighbour, whose wife is apparently too ill to make an appearance, and A… are frequently together.
They sip their drinks.
Then they change the subject. Now both of them have finished the book they have been reading for some time; their remarks can therefore refer to the book as a whole: that is, both to the outcome and to the earlier episodes (subjects of past conversations) to which this outcome gives a new significance, or to which it adds a complementary meaning.
A nicely self-referential comment on the nature of Jealousy, the book we are reading: outcomes, earlier episodes, new significance or complementary meanings, a thorough mix of things. Any remarks we might make about Jealousy, the novel we might have just finished reading, would be certain to proceed in a similar way. We would not make judgements about it, taking it for exactly what it is, but, presupposing that we are avid open-minded readers intent on coming to the author’s assistance, to help him to clarify what is going on, we would have gone with the flow as though it were a replica of real life.
They have never made the slightest judgement as to the novel’s value, speaking instead of the scenes, events, and characters as if they were real: a place they might remember (located in Africa, moreover), people they might have known, or whose adventures someone might have told them. Their discussions have never touched on the verisimilitude, the coherence, or the quality of the narrative. On the other hand, they frequently blame the heroes for certain acts or characteristics, as they would in the case of mutual friends.
They also sometimes deplore the coincidences of the plot, saying that ‘things don’t happen that way’, and then they construct a different probable outcome starting from a new supposition, ‘if it weren’t for that’. Other possibilities are offered, during the course of the book, which lead to different endings.
They are described, A… and Franck, as though reading the very book you are holding in your hand. Already you have noted the repetitions and the variations in the repetitions.
The variations are extremely numerous; the variations of these, still more so. They seem to enjoy multiplying these choices, exchanging smiles, carried away by their enthusiasm, probably a little intoxicated by this proliferation, “But that’s it, he was just unlucky enough to have come home earlier that day, and no one could have guessed he would.”
Thus Franck sweeps away in a single gesture all the suppositions they had just constructed together. It’s no use making up contrary possibilities, since things are the way they are: reality stays the same.
They sip their drinks.
It’s no use making up alternative outcomes, repeating episodes in an attempt to contrive a different ending; things are just as they are. Franck is already dead. We have been back-tracking. Or have we?
Once again, one of the native farm men is singing. The song he is singing can be interpreted as a comment on the nature of the narrative itself and on the novel you are holding in your hand – difficult to determine where we are in it, what’s going on; we might be starting on something else or it is just another way of talking about something we imagine we already know? Or maybe we can at last rest content with some definite outcome? The song continues…
Because of the peculiar nature of this kind of melody, it is difficult to determine if the song is interrupted for some fortuitous reason – in relation, for instance, to the manual work the singer is performing at the same time – or whether the tune has come to its natural conclusion.
Similarly, when it begins again, it is just as sudden, as abrupt, starting on notes which hardly seem to constitute a beginning, or a reprise.
At other places, however, something seems about to end; everything indicates this: a gradual cadence, tranquillity regained, the feeling that nothing remains to be said; but after the note which should be the last comes another one, without the least break in continuity, with the same ease, then another, and others following, and the hearer supposes himself transported into the heart of the poem, when at that point everything stops without warning.
This is the way the novel goes. A small tome connected with not-knowing, with absence and extreme uncertainty.
A…, in the bedroom, again bends over the letter she is writing. The sheet of pale blue paper in front of her has only a few lines on it at this point; A… adds three or four more words, rather hastily, and holds her pen in the air above the paper. After a moment she raises her head again while the song resumes, from the direction of the sheds.
It is doubtless the same poem continuing. If the themes sometimes blur, they only recur somewhat later, all the more clearly, virtually identical. Yet these repetitions, these tiny variations, halts, regressions, can give rise to modifications – though barely perceptible – eventually moving quite far from the point of departure.
That’s the way things are! Barely perceptible movement, more like ‘real life’ than ‘fiction’. The nature of experience: repetitious, things fusing & overlapping. Life itself is a progression, one thing coming after another, no doubt, historically correct; but the reality is that we continually reconstruct things so that our imaginings fuse with historical flux to have it all jumbled up – the jumble has us recording it in different ways at different times so the issue becomes – who can tell the flux from the reconstruction?
And then, why is the novel called Jealousy? On previous readings, of course, I did ask this question but never in fifty years (!) got round to unpicking the possibilities, being content with regarding the book as a beautiful mystery, more than tolerant of its studied ambiguities. Who is jealous? Not A…, unless she is jealous of Franck’s wife, and not Franck, unless he is jealous of A…’s husband but neither of those possibilities really figured – they felt empty of meaning.
Since I have been for so long content with the mystery of Jealousy, it seems a shame that I should let the cat out of the bag for a possible reader of this essay (unlikely to be more than one or two – it will be far too long…) who may be thinking of going on to read Jealousy for the first time. My previous readings of Jealousy, my whole 50 year experience of Jealousy has been based on the sheer enjoyment of the ‘words on the page’, as the excellent New Criticism used to have it. Perhaps a prospective reader, intent on a Robbe-Grillet Binge, should have that long experience of mystery before the thunderous penny drops, like the stone that constantly falls to the ground in other R-G novels, for him or her – amazing new perspective, all the more so for me because it’s taken fifty years in the dropping gathering speed all the time. Or maybe I’m just thick and a new reader would see the point immediately!
A…’s husband is the narrator: he is jealous of the way his wife and Franck seem to get on rather well to the extent of going away together at least once. The jealous husband, stuck in a colonial conceptual desert ruminates endlessly on what he regards as his wife’s infidelity which he seems incapable of challenging being concerned more with getting things straight
…putting things in order. Once and for all! The old naive obsession resurfaces here & there, ironic, insistent, hopeless throughout, the many-sided ‘hero’ never stops going over his daily routine with its flimsy framework, counts his banana trees over and over again, hoping each time to arrive at a logical, rational conclusion.
Robbe-Grillet’s quotation from Roland Barthes in support of an analysis of the husband’s way of being contains this in the prose which I isolate as a found three-liner:-
tell me how you
classify and I’ll tell you
who you are
The narrator is an absence; writing (or finding) a haiku (senryu) is ideally done by an absent pen pusher; the things of the outside world are what drive the three-liner into existence seemingly without the presence of a writer.
As for the absent narrator in Jealousy, he is himself the blindspot… in a text based on the things that his gaze desperately tries to put in order, to control in order to combat the conspiracy that constantly threatens to upset the tenuous fabric of his ‘colonialism’, the luxurious tropical vegetation, the rapacious sexuality attributed to the Blacks, the fathomless gaze of his own wife [A…] and a whole parallel, indescribable universe made up of the noises surrounding the house…
Though R-G says he has ‘never spoken of anything but myself… from within’, there is no sense of authorial omniscience in Jealousy; like the haiku-writer he may catalogue the intimate details of his experience but remains well in the background. For R-G, authorial omniscience is ‘a particular phase in the class struggle’ – part of the great capitalist plot against humankind: private property, profit, depth of intrigue, conning the reader, when the writer should above all be anonymous. Writing haiku frees you from all this, gives you an Elswhere sensation.
I’m glad I didn’t get all this to start with back in the late 1960’s; it’s as though the novel worked its obsessional magic on me without my realising how & why it was working, exactly what the purpose & intention of the words on the page were. Now that the thunderous penny has dropped, in just the same way the stone constantly falls to the ground in other R-G novels, gathering speed as calculated by those that know, I go back over all those years and revise the upshot of all my previous readings. That’s exciting! I apologise to any possible reader of this essay for ruining the chances of their having the same experience of half a century’s literary revision which may be important; the systematic rearrangement of the long-established neuronal pattern.
According to my meticulous book-mark card index system, my previous Robbe-Grillet Binge was in 2005/6. I notice that I did read Ghosts in the Mirror then but can’t have picked up the clue as to the narrator of Jealousy. Ah well… I’m rather glad! Many things make me glad!
This time, after re-reading Jealousy, I got very willingly lost in The Labyrinth which I don’t think I’d read before. Then Ghosts in the Mirror where the drift of the passages on novel-writing seem to fit what Baudrillard says about conventional fiction falsifying ‘reality’, ‘Narratives codified once & for all… with no contradictions or gaps in the meaningful plot…’ as compared with a novel made up of ‘…insoluble tensions, divisions, narrative aporia [point of undecidability, where the text most obviously undermines itself…], fractures, voids [and so on] as practised by anybody who knows ‘that reality begins at the precise moment when meaning becomes uncertain…’
Even apparent certainty collapses under the burden of alternative truths.
You may be moved by, even wedded to, ‘the comforting familiarity of the world’; you may ‘act as if everything [bears] the face of Man and Reason with capital letters, as most people do in spite of having a slight sensation that everything lacks rationality – something that it’s comforting still to shut your mind to, ‘or else… shocked by the startling strangeness of the world, however anguished…’ you can choose to go along with the idea that here’s a writer who recognises that ‘…the only details making up the reality of the world in which [he’s] living are nothing but the gaps in the continuity of… ready-made meanings, all other details being by definition ideological…’ By this I take it that Robbe-Grillet means that the conventional way of writing subscribes to conventional beliefs as touted by the bourgeoisie, meanings deriving from ‘ready-made ideas’ established by common or garden society – viz, the middle-class belief that the novel tells a story akin to the one told by the idiot political establishment determined to develop a coherent narrative in support of its severely corrupt agenda.
The unsubtle truth is that things as they are and have been – coherent narrative, neat story-telling, political dialogue – are based on a gormless desire that life be ordered; the terrible reality is that we simply bumble along from gap to gap, from one hole in our being to another some distance away.
Models of reality that appear to be complete, political ideology that is proclaimed to be the only right (mostly Right) way to do things, watertight schemes, are ‘closed systems, leaving no space, no area of uncertainty, no doubt as to meaning, no question without an answer… a totalitarian frame of mind…’
There is profound emptiness at the centre of all life, of all ideas & understandings, of music and the sound of words, of all makings, of concepts & theories & ideologies. In Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy, the false starts, repetitive versions of the description of the squashed insect on a wall, of dinner settings with a place for an apparently absent character, exist on their own, in parenthesis, in between brackets in the emptiness of the colonial void. We keep on returning to the mysterious characters, building a bridge, visiting town after a void or two. We must fill the void in whatever way we choose, the central cavity, the silence at the heart of things, the darkness.
Just like life, with many holes in it, a much more accurate fiction than any book contains…
In Recollections of the Golden Triangle, Robbe-Grillet refers to the attempt to solve the ‘…enigmatic character of the whole composition…’ by drafting ‘the laws of an imaginary organising principle…’ as doomed. A simple example of an ‘organising principle’ is one that says a novel should make consecutive sense from page 1 to page n, beginning, middle & end. It’s an invented principle – things don’t have to be like that; when you read a Robbe-Grillet novel your expectations might well be flummoxed.
Tirelessly, as now, one may seek to join up the ‘broken threads of a tapestry that at the same time unravels itself so that the pattern can hardly be discerned. As for the pattern, I have always known that the real writer has nothing to say…’
Similarly the real, authentic, composer, poet, artist have nothing, every one of them, to say – when they imagine they do have something important to communicate it turns out to be just a self-conscious parody of self.
If it’s to be new, not cluttered up with the past, what happens must come out of a void – pure impressions as Gurdjieff would say – creating itself and its rules & conventions for itself alone. Writing, composing, making poems, doing pictures is a capturing of the emerging properties of momentary experience.
maze dance doppelganger blood
water door forest roadway intensity
confession conspiracy avoidance
high-heeled shoe with broken heel
We are constantly obliged to make something of all the incoming stimuli that impinge on the senses – it’s being alive to receiving them that counts; it’s being in the right frame of mind that’s able & willing to make something of them, to capture them on the wing and not keep questioning the contradictions & varying repetitions.
When you call this ‘inspiration’, notable meaningless abstraction, you’re shinning up the wrong gum tree.
Having finished reading it, I stuck little markers in the pages of Ghosts in the Mirror and read it again backwards to scoop up significant bits so marked, which offered me a determination to finish the collage novel I’ve been putting together for a few years now…
All this is real, that is fragmentary, useless, so random and so specific that any incident at any moment appears gratuitous and any life seems, after all, devoid of the slightest unifying significance… reality is discontinuous, composed of elements juxtaposed in a random fashion, each unique and all the more difficult to grasp in that they emerge in a constantly unforeseen, irrelevant, haphazard way…
It is a wasted effort to attempt to squeeze things into boxes that might give the invented appearance of universal significance, masterful patterns when everything is particular, of itself alone. One just can’t/mustn’t attempt to ‘slot it all into categories of meaning… [except] at the cost of serious reductive distortion…’
What’s needed is the diligent accumulation of ‘…fragments related with meticulous simplicity even if this is to undermine [as it will] the possibility of constructing an image of unity or any totality whatsoever…’ Much to the conventional reader’s chagrin ‘…the coherence of the world begins to collapse…’ But the author’s authority increases since the world becomes his to describe, ‘sticking to small immediate things…’
I’ve always enjoyed learning… a longing to possess the world [to have in order to be] like collecting stamps, plants or different objects, the obsession with [putting things in order], the impossibility of throwing things away…
Hoarding! Enneagram 5! How well I recognise this. A will to power, says R-G, the instinct of self-preservation: ‘the things you’ve accumulated are on the side of death…’
But still there’s the drive for learning, making sense, ‘still a lifetime of learning ahead’… And so pass it on to others. To
…rehabilitate intellectual pleasure, the primacy of the mind… elitist pride… I passionately condemn the mindless evenings spent in front of the telly, herd-like consumption of the latest pulp best-seller…
R-G prefers to make the intellectual effort ‘to fill in gaps, reread closely taking notes…’ in spite of constant disappointment, the kind that can be lodged in the neurons as recounted in R-G’s account of his father’s distress when he was…
…scarcely more than five or six years old. It’s in the Haut Jura. The gang of friends, boys and girls, have decided to make a cake and each one has to bring some implement or ingredient. My dear father in his school smock goes off happily to meet the others, carefully holding the precious lump of butter that his mother has given him for this important occasion. But once they’ve met up again the novice pastry cooks quarrel. They won’t make anything after all. And the little child returns all alone, toddling along in the sun on the same winding path between the meadows, stumbling blindly, sniffling, desperately disappointed, his heart suddenly bursting with all the misery in the world, the clumsily wrapped, useless lump of butter gradually melting in his hands… Why was he so excessively distressed that he still remembers the whole episode forty years later?
In spite of all, builder, classifier, the labelling of things for future reference, notebooks! Keeping tabs on things.
They often told me this story: one year when my parents asked me what toy I wanted to find on the twenty-fifth of December in front of the black marble fireplace where we excitedly hung up our stockings the night before, I had solemnly asked Father Christmas to bring me ‘spent matchsticks’. Our gifts were simple, certainly, but things weren’t that bad! This time they gave me a whole assortment of thin sticks and slats in poplar wood (one or two millimetres thick) as well as a child’s set of joinery tools, just like an adult’s: saw, hammer, rasps and files, square, etc. with various drills.
R-G had a need to feed off the external world, ‘devour it day by day, digest it and in the end become the world itself, leaving nothing outside…’ In 4th Way terms, this could be described as the creation of the soul by External Considering alone.
The importance of things – thin aromatic sausages or electric lights hidden in the foliage – obviously doesn’t lie in their intrinsic significance but in the way they stick in our memory. And clearly, the strongest ties between people who are close to each other are above all made out of small insignificant things. So, I’m sure that throughout my childhood and long after I kept alive a dense network of tastes shared with my mother that probably came from her, but also a solid though more intangible fabric of tiny events and minute sensations that we both experienced in the same way from day to day.
The importance of thinginess, Istigkeit, in the writing of haiku.
R-G refers to Roquentin in Nausea:-
…it’s the aggressive viscous contingency of the things that make up the external world, the moment you tear away the thin layer of ‘utility’, or merely of sense, protecting us and hiding them that is at once the source of his metaphysical unease, the object of his passionate fascination and the initial incitement to keep a diary of ‘events’ (his relationship with the world) and so produce a narrative…
In the same way, Boris in The Regicide has the ‘all-pervading feeling of dislocation, of a division between him and the world – things and people – which prevents him from really being involved in what’s around him, what happens to him and even his own actions… no reason to exist, superfluous, here by accident…’
As if to confirm the feeling of the accidental, ‘the scenes that stick in our memory are usually the most insignificant, pointless ones: they stay in your head forever but you don’t know what to do with them…’ They leap out on you when you’re least expecting them and once there they are fixed forever like stamps in a child’s album – those old Abyssinian stamps bought in Woolworths in the 1940’s – they are surrounded by a great void.
Those poppies in that field on the right as I cycled towards the south coast sometime in the mid-fifties; that drop of snow from which, having been rolled around the back lawn, my mum’s mum made a snowman; the caterpillar my father’s mum brought in through the front window one rainy afternoon thinking (I imagine) that it would be happy to crawl on a wood brick structure I was building on the floor; on another occasion, her careful pushing of watercolour paint in a child’s colouring book which so impressed me with its meticulous momentum. Bright moments in an otherwise empty void. I could sift out many others: my father blowing cigarette smoke rings under the oak tree by the side of the allotment at the end of Kinross Avenue – pre-war, so I must have been 3 or 4.
The attempt to collect all these bright things makes you so aware of the huge surrounding void, great miles of the nondescript. Most of life consists of the nondescript, the things that habitually pass you by on the other side of the road.
R-G writes of his father:-
…he was a good father because he was mad. Mother quite seriously maintained that father was slightly deranged, even suffering from recognisable mental disorders. She used to say that if I were intelligent it came from her side but if I were genius (and of course she thought I was), it could only come from my father…
I had the notion of ‘passing exams’ from my mother but most of what I have become came from my father: he had that India of the Mind, the far distant place where he had spent the War, where all (for me) is perfect and mysterious, about which my mother would never permit him to talk at the dinner table so that it remained for me the something quite unobtainable which you had to strive above all to attain. The infinite details of his experience, ‘swarming in the midst of an infinite number of other details, the interwoven threads forming a living web’, were, by her jealousy, completely denied to me. Not that I would have gone very far beyond my India fantasy if he had been given the space to talk about his experience because as I know now
…all reality is indescribable… consciousness is structured like our language… Literature is… the pursuit of an impossible representation – …all I can do is organise stories as working constructs. Then the ideology which governs our common consciousness & language structures will no longer be a constraint, source of failure…
web of sunken lanes bewitched objects
omens & signs lost souls
rattling the shutters of your room
My father is now for sure a phantom just as he was in those Burma days and after. Robbe-Grillet points out that ‘characters in novels or films are… phantoms: you can see or hear them, you can never grasp them, if you try you pass right through them…’ just like in real life, so he rejects the ‘impossible representation’ in the conventional novel as reducing complexity to the banal simplicity of one plus two = three.
The entire system of the novel in the last century with its cumbersome machinery of continuity, linear chronology, causal sequences, non-contradiction was actually a last ditch attempt to forget the disintegrated state we were left in when God withdrew from our souls; an attempt at least to keep up appearances by replacing the incomprehensible explosion of atoms, black holes and impasses with a reassuring, clear, unequivocal constellation, woven so closely together that in the midst of the broken threads hurriedly knotted again we’d no longer hear death howling between the stitches. No objection to this grandiose, unnatural project… No objection, really?
And as for my mother… Theoretically, she was the intelligent one having ‘matriculated’. She was probably a good example of somebody who took their education such as it was so far and no further; the concept of ‘life-long learning’ would have meant nothing to her. In the years when she read a novel she skipped the long prose passages and went for the conversation – presupposing she survived the absence of clear plot and frequent eroticisms often involving young naked girls which she might not have understood, she’d have had to skip 99.9% of a Robbe-Grillet novel!
She had a brother who died when he was eight. Since she seemed to have a kind of over-zealous (or jealous) protectiveness towards me, I wonder if she thought I might go the same way. But we did ‘go round the library’ and she did take me to ‘the pictures’: A Night in Casablanca (how we did laugh!), The Story of Doctor Wassell, Hatter’s Castle, all sowed something in my soul.
I have no idea whether she was proud of my ‘achievements’, my zest for life-long pondering but whenever I said something outrageous in company she would put her index finger to the side of her head and twist her hand with a sort of laugh to indicate to the assembled multitude that she had a son who had a screw that needed tightening. I suppose this might have been a roundabout way of saying that, though she was baffled, she was quite impressed by my (let’s say) ‘intelligence’.
What of my ‘achievements’? They all just happened as things will… I have ambled through life.
My father stopped writing his diary in September 1959, the day before I left home to get married. This fact, above all, haunts me.
Labyrinthine paths, marking time, scenes that are repeated over and over again (even death can no longer be final), changeless bodies, timelessness, multiple spatial dislocations…
…that’s all that’s left of someone after such a short time – and that goes for me too soon doubtless: odds & ends, frozen gestures, disconnected objects, questions on the empty air, a jumble of random snapshots with no real (logical) sequence. That’s death… constructing a narrative would be a more or less conscious bid to outwit death…
nocturnal sounds empty house
dark window swaying in the wind
bare tree tops crowning the beeches
rustle of branches against the window panes
calls of owl & weasel thuds muffled
in the bowels of the building
granite walls flagstoned room
I have led a totally uneventful life externally; done very few things, haven’t traipsed about the globe on my own two feet; apart from four years in Yorkshire, have lived South of The Wash (now only a few hundred yards away from it) and east of Birmingham.
Ramblings, wondering where to next… I completely understand R-G’s notion of ‘…a form of writing in search of itself… a narrative in search of its own coherence…’ because it strikes me that the kind of music I most admire is in search of itself, consists of sequences of notes determined to find a more or less coherent way forward, seeking a contrapuntal life-form.
In Recollections of the Golden Triangle R-G has a scheme for a piece of music which I could make into a few shapes on a score; there would be
…repeated sounds that seemed to come from a metronome or a piano, or from drops of some liquid echoing in the silence. It is in fact pearls dropping and one after another hitting the exact centre of an oval mirror laid flat on the floor along the axis of the glazed embrasure. There is nothing else visible in the room but the mirror and the succession of silver pearls falling from an invisible ceiling to strike their own image at the .same time as the immaterial surface of reflection with a clear, musical sound that is scarcely deadened by the transparent partition, then bouncing up again very high but following trajectories that incline at a greater or lesser angle from the vertical, depending on infinitesimal variations in impact between the two little glistening spheres, which soon disappear together from the view of the spectators immediately on leaving the zone of light emanating from the consulting room, audition room, observation room,showroom, or interrogation room, etc.
The concert continues in a contemplative atmosphere. The note given out varies from pearl to pearl, as does the spacing between consecutive pearls; but it must be possible to identify, amid this apparent confusion, a relatively restricted number of spaces and notes. The question will then re-arise: is one dealing with a problem of choice, as in the previous scene, or is this on the contrary a study in structural organization?
In Ghosts in the Mirror, Robbe-Grillet describes relationships and education and how he came by various cultural learnings. His musical experience gave him parallels with his mode of writing:-
…I discovered Wagner & Debussy. The indefinite series of vague chords never coming to rest in a set tonality – never gaining a foothold – was like the tide rising wave after wave despite its deceptive ebb… instantly uplifted by the insidious surge of the sea, soon to be sucked reluctantly into the heart of an unknown, unstable, irrational liquid universe ready to engulf…
Unstable! I wonder how on earth I drifted through formal education; I really had no grasp of what I was doing. The first year I took the examination called the 11-plus which was to determine where you went next for a slightly higher kind of learning I passed with only enough marks to go to the lowest grade senior school in Wimbledon but William Wrettie was also going there so my parents opted for me to have another year in Miss Burridge’s class 1947/48. William Wrettie lived down the bottom of our road which they classed as its rough end – I didn’t ought to mix with such low life; William Wrettie would have been a bad influence. I quite liked him, if only for his name.
The following year I took the 11-plus again and passed sufficiently highly to be admitted to Kingston Grammar School, minor public school which now charges over £6000 a term tuition fees. I didn’t know then what prestigious education I was enjoying. I didn’t feel special, out of the ordinary. I was a mere scholarship boy. I suppose now that Simblett & Rhodes, the Atherton twins, 3 & 4, Edwards, Gidney (whom I always expected to hear of as playing cricket for England), Hayes (always top of the class who I thought would be Prime Monster some time) – I suppose they might have been fee-payers, including Henderson, the class clown – I envied his facility for larking about! I might have acquired it at long last.
The result of spending an extra year in Junior School was that being a year older than everybody else I came to be called ‘Grandad’, the name stuck for five years!
How did I get to exist among such individuals? How did I have the luck to be under the tutelage of such eccentric teachers? I do thank whatever lucky stars there might be for letting me into this ancient foundation. What are they all doing now, denizens of dark corridors & computerless classrooms? The teachers all dead, no doubt. One of my comrades I know to be dead, Peter Charles – we were very close; I hear that he ‘went odd’… Have they written poetry, composed music, followed ‘Quiffy’, the art teacher with his marvellous craziness, read Iris Murdoch whose first novel came out the year I left school with just a very average set of passes at O Level?
I realise now that I ploughed my own furrow at KGS, learned to be myself in spite of the teachers; I bet nobody else read George Bourne, Richard Jefferies, Chesterton & Belloc or got excited by Alois Haba; I had fantasies about learning that were not consciously implanted by the teachers whose lessons were pretty hopeless, to judge them gently in the way that I assessed teaching methods later on.
It wasn’t till ten years later (so short a time!), one dark evening in November, that I found out what learning was really about: taking hold of something and transforming it into something that belonged absolutely to you alone, flaws & voids included – especially the voids, the gaps, the emptiness that clamoured somehow to be filled – essential to the learning drive. This great mélange
…an impossible ordering of disparate fragments whose blurred outlines don’t fit together. And once more there’s the desperate temptation to create a fabric as solid as bronze… Yes, but what happens in this fabric, the text, is that it has itself become battlefield and stake. Instead of advancing like some blind justice obeying a divine law, deliberately ignoring all the problems that the traditional novel disguises and denies (the present moment for instance), the text is determined on the contrary to expose publicly and stage accurately the multiple impossibilities with which it is contending and of which it is constructed. So that this internal conflict will soon become (from the Sixties onwards) the very subject of the book. Hence the complicated sequences, digressions, cuts and repetitions, aporia, blind alleys, shifts in perspective, various permutations, dislocations or inversions etc…
And now that I am truly a Grandad, Robbe-Grillet’s grandfather’s yearning at the end of time is so familiar to me:-
Faced with the world which was changing too fast for him Grandfather would say: “It’s good to grow old.” And yet as he was dying he murmured, sighing: “I still had so many things left to do!” Today the echo of that ‘still’ brings a lump to my throat. He must have been worrying about the scraps of paper in his drawers, the small windfalls, the delicate pinky-orange skin peeling off the shallots. We never ever finish putting things in order.
I have so many things still to do; I am conscious that I’ll never finish putting things in order, the dream of order & perfection. Just a dream.
I am driven to wonder if there really is a more real world hidden behind appearances as all the great systems imagine that there is: Plato, Xtianity, Hegel, the images of an Elsewhere in Iris Murdoch – her point that this is a desirable conceptual vision that can influence how one constructs the world. The India of the mind, for example. I think about visiting India to see the things my father saw but realise that I wouldn’t; his uncompleted story is about as complete as anything can be.
Behind all the street hauntings in The Labyrinth there is an elsewhere world of menace and uncertainty. The thing to avoid is the acceptance of Elsewhere as a necessarily desirable Other Place – Heaven, for example – that makes you a permanent stranger to Hereness where the Elsewhere genuinely exists. Complex.
Actually I am hounded on all sides: why don’t you say things more simply, why aren’t you more accessible to the public, why don’t you make the effort to be more comprehensible, etc? Anyway, these are absurd ways of formulating the problem. I write first of all against myself, we’ve already seen this, therefore against the public too. Make what more comprehensible? If I’m pursuing an enigma which appears to me to be a lack in my own meaningful continuity, how could I possibly give a full, unbroken account of it? How could I express such a paradoxical relation to the world and to my own being ‘simply’; a relation in which everything is ambiguous, contradictory, fleeting?
Good question! Some questions are so good that they ought not to be answered at all.