Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Arnold Bennett: Anna of the Five Towns

The Potteries (source:

What a waste not to have read Arnold Bennett until now. Whatever ill-informed impression I might have had concerning the writer vanished in reading Anna of the Five Towns (1902), the first of Bennett’s several novels set in his home region of the Potteries, that string of North Midlands towns (six actually, but Bennett thought five a more poetic number) that fill a valley famous as the center of Britain’s ceramics industry.

The story is ostensibly simple. Anna Tellwright, a schoolteacher who shares a home with her young sister Agnes and miserly father Ephraim, is wooed by a fellow teacher, Henry Mynors, at around the same time her father bequeaths to her a surprising fortune built on shrewd investment in and exploitation of the region’s numerous pottery works.  Maintenance of the fortune involves calling a debt on a factory teetering on the abyss, complicating Anna’s moral sentiments as well as those she has for Willie Price, humble son of the factory’s owner. A brief respite from these pressures is provided to Anna by a fortnight’s sojourn on the Isle of Man, in a chapter that is itself an island surrounded by Bennett’s affectionate but critical portrait of life in the Potteries.

Like many novels of its time, Anna of the Five Towns thematically addresses the social, economic and moral disposition of its society and in particular the limited opportunities for women. The novel is unusually attuned to economics, explicitly questioning the mechanics of capitalism, “This mysterious begetting of money by money.” Anna, as the troubled, conscientious daughter of a profiteer, serves as a counterweight to such monetary obsessions: “the arrival of money out of space, unearned, unasked, was a disturbing experience, affecting her as a conjuring trick affects a child.” Though heir to vast wealth, Anna can use it only as dictated by her father, who’s comfortable with her dunning his debtors but parsimonious in allowing her money even for household expenses. Frustration at her status appears in her awareness of Henry Mynors’ relative freedoms: “She envied every man…men were not fettered like women.” A marriage to Mynors promises a partial way out, but at an expense: “Anna would marry into freedom, but Agnes would remain the serf. Anna had noticed that in families the youngest, petted in childhood, was often sacrificed in maturity.”

Though the language used to relate Anna’s efforts to escape her fate is often tranquil, almost ambling, the efforts themselves have a wild, reckless edge. At a religious revival, Anna cannot commit to the “conversion” experience expected by those around her. Rather, in constant doubt as to how she, a teacher, could be “allowed to have charge of a class of immortal souls,” she remains suspended in religious skepticism. The subject of conversion is quietly and deliberately abandoned. Even more audaciously, Anna involves herself in a hazardous deception amounting to fraud. The capacity to shock also appears in the novel’s dark turn at the end, when the narrator, with a fiercely indignant frankness, pillories the human agents within the machinery of economic ruination.

Anna of the Five Towns feels slightly askew in relation to other realist novels of its time. It’s as though Bennett has refused to let go of the dominant form of the late 19th century novel and, where others had begun to abandon the structure for more modern constructions, instead simply moved his modern sensibilities into the novel’s old Victorian home. For this reason, the narrative - and the unspoken thoughts of Anna, straining against the limits of her society - feel slightly wrong-sized, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice grown too big for the house. Something is odd, off, shifted.

This is apparent in the narrative’s complicated relationship with the materiality of Victorian culture, most notably in a remarkable scene when Henry Mynors first accompanies Anna to the Tellwright home, where they find themselves alone in the kitchen. The romantic moment the reader expects is interrupted by the omniscient narrator’s almost comically plopping an old oak dresser into the scene, describing it at length then moving onto other objects (“a catalogue of furniture,” the narrator calls it, just as the reader is thinking the same thing). The dollhouse-like setting inspires Mynors to call the kitchen “the nicest room I know,” and then to add (sly Bennett), “It wants only the mistress in a white apron to make it complete. Do you know, when I came in here the other night, and you were siting at the table there, I thought the place was like a picture.” Pictures and photographs figure throughout Anna of the Five Towns, as though to underscore the novelist’s self-conscious depiction of reality.

Another unusual element of Anna of the Five Towns is Bennett’s off-handed depiction, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, concerning the toxic Potteries environment. The narrator drops hints of wilted flowers, the courage of wearing white amid so much soot, the fires and choking pollution from the factories. As Anna gazes out the window towards “clear stretches of sky” with “thick-studded clusters of stars brightly winking,” below her, across the fields

…long fires of burning ironstone glowed with all the strange colours of decadence. The entire landscape was illuminated and transformed by these unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime, and dull, weird sounds, as of the breathings and sighings of gigantic nocturnal creatures, filled the enchanted air. It was a romantic scene, a romantic summer night, but… 

This is one of the earliest novels I’ve read in which the environmental degradation of industry features prominently, though less as a subject in itself than as noisy background, adding to the novel’s off-kilter quality. The disconnect between setting and tone is apparent in the pleasantries and courtships that go on placidly, almost pastorally, among citizens enveloped in smoke.

Irony in Bennett takes many forms – one often wonders whether he is playfully pulling the reader’s leg – but it can be withering. When Henry Mynors shows Anna around “the banks,” where the reader learns in granular detail of the various stages of the ceramics manufacturing process, the narrator drops in elements of the social organization and working conditions of the factory:

The paintresses form the noblesse of the banks. Their task is a light one, demanding deftness first of all, they have delicate fingers, and enjoy a general reputation for beauty: the wages they earn may be estimated from their finery on Sundays. They come to business in cloth jackets, carry dinner in little satchels; in the shop they wear white aprons, and look startlingly neat and tidy. Across the benches over which they bend their coquettish heads gossip flies and returns like a shuttle; they are the source of a thousand intrigues, and one or other of them is continually getting married or omitting to get married. On the bank they constitute ‘the sex.’ An infinitesimal proportion of them, from among the branch know as ground-layers, die of lead-poisoning – a fact which adds pathos to their frivolous charm.

That last line might be Evelyn Waugh. Bennett’s subtlety is acute enough that a footnote to this passage in the edition I read appears to miss the laden irony of “infinitesimal” and suggests Bennett is being “a little sanguine” here about a local industry where lead-poisoning deaths exceeded a thousand over a two year period. But Bennett ends many passages with a similarly sarcastic flourish, usually aimed at an economic element in social relations.

These barbs are sharpest in the novel’s attacks on complacency regarding the human toll of capital and industry. Here is Bennett’s narrator describing the beginning of an inquest into the economically-driven suicide that rocks the town:

People were talking in groups on the broad steps in and in the vestibule. All knew of the calamity, and had received from it a new interest in life. The town was aroused as if from a lethargy. Consternation and eager curiosity were on every face. Those who arrived in ignorance of the event were informed of it in impressive tones, and with intense satisfaction to the informer; nothing of equal importance had happened in the society for decades.

There’s little to redeem such matters. The reader’s sympathies, run through the novel’s “good” main character, can’t entirely take hold. Anna, though better than the society around her, is inadequately perspicacious, too entrapped by social demands to escape them, with a timidity that keeps her enmeshed in the smoke and fiduciary concerns of the Five Towns. When even the heroine of the book is unable to surmount  “all the pretences by which society contrives to tolerate itself,” one is left with an almost cynical pessimism. Or rather, one might be, were it not for the charming, modern oddity of this novel, the richness with which it depicts its world, a generous, often piercing humor, and a discernible sense of an astute, playful writer having a great deal of fun without losing sight of what’s important. I’ll be reading more. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Unquiet Grave: Maírtin Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust

There’s a strain of literature that aims to be morally uplifting and instructive, a primer for improvement of self and others. Irish writer Maírtin Ó Cadhain’s blackly funny Cré na Cille, or The Dirty Dust, most assuredly does not belong to it.

Ó Cadhain’s 1949 “novel,” long praised but little read due its having been written in Irish vernacular, has appeared at last in English translation. The wait has been worthwhile. The Dirty Dust is a striking piece of mid-20th century literature, one that can fit comfortably among the great works of the period. All comfort ends there, though, as The Dirty Dust poses several challenges. Even rendered into English its language contains a plethora of vernacular words and neologisms. Furthermore, the work consists entirely of dialogue, with no explicit indication of speaker. And the speakers in The Dirty Dust are legion, because they are also dead. The setting is “The Graveyard.” The time is “For Ever.”

The Dirty Dust is hardly the first work to feature a cast of the dead; one thinks of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, even Dante’s The Divine Comedy. But rather than speaking from beyond the grave, the characters in The Dirty Dust speak from directly within it. For all the buzzing inactivity that goes on in this graveyard of a small Connemara town, there’s little in the way of metaphysics; these dead are dead, in their dead bodies, in their wooden coffins. Their voices speak from the separate cavities into which they’ve been laid, although in a darkly comic turn Ó Cadhain reveals - to his characters’ double mortification - that inept or hasty undertakers have sometimes put bodies in the wrong graves or piled them atop one another to save space. Eternity in Dante’s inferno could hardly be worse than in Ó Cadhain’s cemetery, as here the newly dead, expecting to have passed on to a better world, instead find themselves in a static hell of gossip and chatter among the villagers who’ve gone before them. If one imagines one’s worst-ever holiday family meal stuck on eternal loop, it might be something like this.

Ó Cadhain’s graveyard denizens are a carping crowd: gossipy, cutting, resentful, insular:

There isn’t any chance to get away here, or to talk about culture…they are always talking about small stupid insignificant stuff here…cards, horses, booze, violence…Nobody has a snowball’s chance in hell of developing their intellect here…

Their voices overlap and interrupt. They emerge suddenly and, just as suddenly, fall quiet. At times they seem far off, at times nearby. Plot scarcely exists. Much of the sense of the story lies between the lines, unspoken. Gradually patterns and persons begin to emerge from this cacophony, usually recognizable through fixed, monotonous obsessions with particular subjects - not infrequently astonishment at having died: at failed kidneys, a heart having given out, a knife thrust through the ribs. But there are also conflicts over football, money, property, betrayals of word and of love. The same class and power differences, recriminations and enmities that existed above ground have migrated below it.

Caitriona Paudeen, the unpleasant central “character” of the novel, speaks first. Just buried, she wonders whether she’s been put in the Pound graveyard or only the Ten Shilling. Her self-interrogation has barely begun when she begins to hear, with a shock, nearby voices, then suddenly a chaotic chorus.

- Christ’s cross protect me! - Am I alive of dead? Are the people here alive or dead? They are all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they were above the ground! I thought that when I died that I could rest in peace, that I wouldn’t have to work, or worry about the house, or the weather, that I would be able to relax…But why all this racket in the dirty dust?

The small ambit of Caitriona’s ruminations and her graveyard companions’ reactions to them reveal her bitter family situation. A despised sister Nell still lives in the village. Another sister, Baba, has long been away in America, holding a will that Caitrionia, whose death has done nothing to halt her avarice, obsessively hopes will accrue entirely to her son Patrick, a ne’er do well pulling a string of bad marriages. Bitter and vituperative towards all, Caitriona gets as bad as she gives, as her fellow dead voice their own resentments and grievances against her. Part of the comedy of The Dirty Dust comes from Caitriona’s discovery at nearly every turn that her view of herself is not shared by those around her, each new revelation making her so sputteringly incensed that she wants to “burst.”

Caitriona’s neighbors, her mother-in-law, Nell’s husband, the postman, the pub owner, a shopkeeper, the town thief, a murderer and his victim whose conflicting political views continue on into death now that they’ve found themselves buried side-by-side – these are but a few of the cemetery’s dead, their ranks swelling with each new arrival. There’s the town’s former schoolmaster, who entertains his fellow corpses once a week by reading a romantic novelette (Two Men and a Powder Puff, among other tawdry titles). A former student exploits the opportunity of an eternal captive audience to recite her multiplication tables to her teacher to show that she’s finally mastered them (she has not). A French voice inscrutably inserts itself among the Irish until we learn that it’s a pilot who, having crashed into the sea and been buried among the villagers, mutters continually in French about the uncomprehending Irish: “Ils m’ennuient.” Standing out from the others, a disembodied, intermittent “Trumpet of the Graveyard,” begins most of the novel’s ten chapters by making lyrical pronouncements concerning the inevitability and universality of death, providing momentary relief from the relentless prattle. And of course, to ramp down The Dirty Dust into deeper depths, there is an unnamed writer, deceased “suddenly from an attack of writer’s cramp.” He picks impatiently at the “hackneyed” phrases of his neighbor in the tomb, an illiterate traditional storyteller, urging him to blow the “dirty froth” off his stories and get to the pint beneath, and occasionally offering dubious pronouncements about writing:

It’s the duty of every Irish speaker to find out if he has the gift of writing, especially the gift of the short story, plays, poetry…These last two are far commoner than the gift of the short story, even. Take poetry, for example. All you have to do is to start at the bottom of the page and to work your way up to the top…either that, or scribble from right to left, leave a huge margin, but that ain’t half as poetic as the other way.

Topics of conversation in The Dirty Dust, infused with a near constant and often acridly funny mediation on death, possess a strong Irish flavor, with references to the IRA’s struggles, political leaders such as Éamon de Valera, and unmistakably Irish aspects of life such as wakes and pubs. With less overt Irishness, Ó Cadhain’s work might resemble a play by Samuel Beckett: characters gabbing in the dark, isolated in their tombs like Nell and Nagg in their dustbins in Endgame, discovering things that happened when they were alive to which they weren’t privy and anticipating the next new burial to learn about their own funerals, the dispensation of wills and other matters that have continued on without them.

The language in Alan Titley’s translation burns along the pages. Anyone looking for a catalog of insults need look no further, as the opprobrium bandied about among the dead surpasses anything Mère and Père Ubu might have hurled at one another: “clap of crap,” “fly’s fart;” “poxy shitmonkey,” “pouncy microphallus,” “perfect pustule of the plebian pricks.” “I’m screaming at you for the last hour and you take no notice of me no more than if I was a slobber of frog spawn,” complains one.  What the ungrateful dead wish upon one another and upon the living is equally scathing: “May he get the death rattle of Slimwaist Big Bum! The decrepit diseases of the Hag of Beare!...His knees explode! His rump redden with rubenescence! Be lanced by lice!”

Ó Cadhain’s linguistic versatility and humor manage to keep 300 pages of this from seeming as eternal as it is for the dead. Beneath the dirt, few demonstrate much self-awareness, nor - despite underground efforts to hold an election and organize a rotary club - any more movement and change than during the largely self-absorbed, egoistic lives they apparently led prior to interment. One constantly yearns for the dead to surmount their petty concerns, discover something meaningful to talk about, shut up and realize that they’re dead. But their concerns rarely go beyond wanting to know if a cross of Connemara marble has been erected over their tombs.

Just beyond the dusty halo of grumbling graveyard conversation, though, is a hint of greater events. Despite the explicit “For Ever” indicated as temporal setting, a discernible timeframe emerges around all the talk. Through the graveyard’s self-proclaimed first arrival, a young soldier lost to the First World War, one ascertains that Caitriona’s burial takes place approximately 1939. Other references suggest a scope for the conversation paralleling World War II. The voices refer frequently to the “new” conflict up above; recent arrivals argue over Hitler; the young solider must repeatedly be corrected that “The War Between the Two Powers” hasn’t simply continued.

Curiously, much of the war news filtering into the dirt and dust seems distilled through the writer, who in addition to fixedly trying to formulate a short story - “The Sun Set,” “Another Sunset,” “Sundown,” “The Setting Sun” or a like variation - is proud of having written a collection of poetry entitled, provocatively, “The Yellow Stars.”  He serves as a target for reactionary outrage at the “disgusting lowdown mind” that could write such “Joycean gunge” and at having insulted Irish saint Colm Cille (several voices urge wretched tortures upon him). But the complexity of his role is deepened during idle gossip about the washing of a corpse covered in tattoos of swastikas, which seems to belong to the writer. Is his the voice that’s been interjecting praise of Hitler? Regardless, small-mindedness as regards the monstrousness of the war is conveyed in Caitriona’s assertion that the graveyard has become “worse than those places the Frenchie was yacking on about the other day: Belsen, Buchenwald, and Dachau.”

In this palpable presence of the war’s horror – and most evidently in the novel’s coastal small town setting, narrative style, and voices from the dead – The Dirty Dust may claim as a close literary cousin Dylan Thomas’ “play for voices,” Under Milk Wood, which, though it appeared in print after The Dirty Dust, originated as a radio play broadcast in 1945 (Cré na Cille itself has been performed as a radio play, as well as turned into stage and film versions). But little of the intensely magical lyricism of Thomas’ play or of his rapturous affection for the beauty of his small town can be found among Ó Cadhain’s noisy, bickering dead. If Thomas’ intention in Under Milk Wood was to reveal, despite the war’s enormity, the evanescent beauty and preciousness of life, Ó Cadhain’s novel feels like a searing riposte, a portrayal of death as providing no respite, redemption or absolution. It’s as though O Cadhain has taken Under Milk Wood’s little village of Llareggub and, refusing the subtlety of Thomas’ joke, turned the town’s letters backwards to proclaim openly: “Bugger all!”  

And when, towards the end of The Dirty Dust, a neighbor gently admonishes Caitriona regarding her endlessly vicious and petty fixations, the words resonate like a condemnation of all that is mean, small and insular. “God will not forgive us,” warns Caitriona’s neighbor, perhaps a bit belatedly seeing where they find themselves. But given the interminable dirt dished among Ó Cadhain’s jabbering dead, no less mired in trivialities in death than in life, one would be hard put to argue.