Posts Tagged ‘Arnold Bennett’

Three Tales

October 28, 2013

Three Tales by FlaubertHaving been thinking rather a lot last week about the Bennett vs Woolf debate on how to render character in fiction, it was interesting then to happen to pick up Flaubert’s Three Tales, which seems to belong so unapologetically to Bennett’s school of thought. (Incidentally, on Tuesday it was our two year wedding anniversary, and at the lovely grand restaurant where we went for dinner, guess what was on the menu? None other than Omelette Arnold Bennett!)

Flaubert is a great writer of things. My overwhelming feeling on reading Madame Bovary was one of intense claustrophobia. Emma Bovary has so much stuff everywhere and of course it is her love of pretty things that in part causes her downfall, as she gets more and more in debt to the horrid merchant and moneylender Lheureux. The pages of Flaubert’s Three Tales are just as populated with things, and I couldn’t help but think of Woolf’s saying that he was ‘sidling sedately towards’ his characters, rather than letting their voices sing out.

Three Tales is Flaubert’s final completed work and it was written as one entity, rather than being various short stories subsequently collected together. It is a puzzling little book. The first story is ‘A Simple Heart’, which is relatively well-known and very good. It is the story of Félicité, a faithful and naïve maid, who devotes her life to those who are thoroughly undeserving of her saintlike goodness. It is all very sad and pure and worthy (to the point, I’m afraid of almost being a little dull), until good old Félicité develops a completely dotty attachment to a parrot! Talk about a twist in the tale. I adored these pages about her relationship with the parrot, who eventually has his chain removed and is ‘allowed to wander all over the house’:

When he came down the stairs, he would position the curved part of his beak on the step in front of him and then raise first his right foot, followed by his left. Félicité was always worried that these weird acrobatics would make the parrot giddy.

As someone who has become alarmingly obsessed with the ‘weird acrobatics’ of her pet tortoise, I can truly empathise. Then Félicité has a revelation:

When she went to church, she would sit gazing at the picture of the Holy Spirit and it struck her that it looked rather like her parrot.

Religious fervour is given a whole new, rather idiosyncratic, dynamic.

The parrot is a unique addition to the story, giving it a peculiar mixture of humour and pathos. Poor Félicité – so weirdly obsessed with her parrot; Félicité, who has nothing else to live for, no one else to show her any affection … and yet we can’t help but laugh at the eccentricity of it. The parrot must have struck Julian Barnes as the most enjoyable thing in this story too, as he went on to write the Booker-shortlisted Flaubert’s Parrot, which now I feel I must read. It has left me wondering how many parrots squawk through literature’s pages – off the top of my head, I can think of Bombafu, the parrot in Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, who whistles to his own destruction, and of course Long John Silver’s in Treasure Island. Surely there was one in one of the Swallows and Amazons? Any further suggestions curiously received below please!

Enough about parrots… The second story in Three Tales, ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’, has the feel of religion fused with myth that you find in something like ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. Young Julian develops an inexplicable blood lust and goes out hunting, wreaking absolute carnage. Then a great stag comes up to him and ‘uttered this thrice-repeated warning:’

“Beware! Beware! Beware! A curse lies upon you! One day, O savage heart, you will kill your father and your mother!”

Julian is so upset by this, and by a subsequent near miss when he pierces his mother’s bonnet with his javelin, thinking it was a stork, that he flees home and becomes a great warrior. Only one has a feeling that, like in the Greek tragedies, his fate will have an unexpected means of catching up with him…

The third tale is ‘Herodias’, which is a very Flaubertian reworking of the Biblical tale of Salome and John the Baptist. It is full of incidental detail like the oddly practical final line:

Because the head was very heavy, they took it in turns to carry it.

I was left puzzling over what ties the stories together, other than Flaubert’s minute attention to all the objects. What could simple Félicité and her parrot have in common with warrior Julian and manipulative Herodias?

Perhaps Flaubert is making a point that stories lie dormant in every nook and cranny – in the quiet existence of a maid, in the pages of the Bible and in the ‘stained-glass window in a church near to where I was born’, on which the story of Saint Julian is displayed. Perhaps it is a humanising of religion – Félicité seeing the Holy Spirit in her parrot, just as Flaubert sees the human story behind the panes of glass or that of Saint John the Baptist.

Perhaps Flaubert is filling in all the surface details that literally realises these stories – makes them real rather than mythical. And perhaps we Woolfians should give credit where it’s due. I vaguely knew the story of John the Baptist, but I’d never thought of King Herod looking out on the landscape of Palestine and seeing:

The lingering morning mists parted to reveal the outline of the Dead Sea. The sun rose behind Machaerus, spreading a red glow across the landscape and gradually lighting up the sandy sea shore, the hills and the desert and, away in the distance, the rugged grey contours of the mountains of Judaea. In the middle distance, Engedi appeared as a long black line, while further off was the round dome of Mount Hebron. He could see Eshcol with its pomegranates, Sorek with its vines, Karmel with its fields of sesame and the huge square Tower of Antonia rising above the city of Jerusalem.

Setting the story so precisely in a landscape, just as with ‘Saint Julian’, we learn that each of the castle windowsills had ‘a painted earthenware flowerpot planted with either basil or heliotrope’, makes it easy to visualise, and so brings the story to life. Perhaps Flaubert is sidling sedately up to his characters, and perhaps we don’t quite get a feel for who they are and what they think in the way that we do with Woolf, but we do at least see the world they inhabit in exquisite detail, and there is for sure something to be said for that.

No doubt a greater mind than mine will have picked over these Three Tales and pulled out all sorts of fascinating ideas. Please do enlighten me for I have to say, while they were good, I think Madame Bovary wins hands down. Fitting really, given that Emily’s Walking Book Club this coming Sunday will be discussing Someone at a Distance, which is in part Dorothy Whipple’s 1950s reimagining of Madame Bovary.

Felicite sleeping with parrot by Hockney

Marriage Material

October 21, 2013

Arnold Bennett is one of those authors who has long fallen out of fashion. Up till now, I knew him only for two things.

Mr Bennett and Mrs BrownFirstly, his depiction of character came under attack by Virginia Woolf in her brilliant essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. She responds to Bennett’s statement that there are no first-rate young novelists – this was 1924 – because none of them can create characters that are real, true and convincing. You can read the whole thing here, but for those of you who lack time or inclination, essentially Woolf takes issue with the way Bennett describes all the things surrounding a character rather than the actual character. She describes a woman – who she calls Mrs Brown – in a railway carriage and suggests how Mr Bennett would ‘sidle sedately towards’ her and give precise information about every little detail pertaining to her and yet somehow utterly miss her. She goes on to dissect, quite viciously, one of his novels and suggests that the character gets lost in all the detailed description of everything else:

we can only hear Mr Bennett’s voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds and fines.

She compares his writing to a hostess talking about the weather at a party and then says that his novel-writing ‘tools are the wrong ones for us to use’. She says that writers of today, namely Joyce, Forster and Eliot, have to break with this tradition, and this is why there is all ‘the smashing and the crashing’ in Modern Literature. Joyce, she says, is:

a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows.

She concludes by saying that Bennett is to some extent right in that today’s novelists haven’t been able to capture Mrs Brown, but that they are trying and are, in any case, doing rather better than Bennett.

The other thing I know about Arnold Bennett is that I once had a very delicious ‘omelette Arnold Bennett’ at The Wolseley. (Thanks to one of my tremendously spoiling older brothers.) It is a heavenly creamy smoked haddock eggy concoction. Unbelievably rich and indulgent and you can’t quite believe you are eating it for breakfast. The dish was created for Arnold Bennett at the Savoy – where I expect you can still get it – and he loved it so much that he insisted on eating it everywhere. I do hope this nugget is squeezed into a Downton Abbey plotline. Apparently Virginia Woolf is making a cameo in this series, so getting someone to eat omelette Arnold Bennett would be a wonderfully oblique reference to the literary debate above!

I suppose the two stories cancel each other out – after Virginia Woolf’s laying into Arnold Bennett about Mrs Brown, I don’t much fancy reading his novels, but, then again, someone who could be the inspiration for such a delicious omelette does deserve a certain respect.

Marriage Material by Sathnam SangheraWell now I know a third thing. Bennett wrote a novel called The Old Wives’ Tale, which Sathnam Sanghera has reimagined as his wonderful novel Marriage Material. Reading Marriage Material has been a neat side-stepping of the Arnold Bennett dilemma. I have managed to get – more-or-less – the plot and substance of his novel, but by reading something which I suspect is rather better.

Marriage Material is written in two parallel narratives. The main story follows Arjan Banga, who returns to his family’s Wolverhampton corner shop when his father dies. He leaves behind his metropolitan, Guardian-magaziney London life as a graphic designer with white fiancé and smart flat (which features things like a painted blackboard ‘covered in slightly self-conscious messages’) to go back to Sikh provincialism – a run-down high street and local children ‘running into the shop just to shout “Paki” at my mum before running out again, a depressing urban version of Knock Down Ginger’. What initially seems awful, slowly reveals its allure to Arjan, who is caught between worlds – not quite white, not quite Sikh – and his struggle to tread the tightrope between them makes very good, thought-provoking reading. It’s not so very different from Francesca Segal’s The Innocents – another re-imagining of a classic novel, which explores the benefits and drawbacks of a segregated society. (You can read some more thoughts on Segal’s excellent novel here.)

Interspersed with Arjan’s story is our own discovery of his roots: the story of the previous generation who lived in that corner shop. Two Sikh sisters are growing up during the time of Enoch Powell and protests about Wolverhampton bus employees being allowed to wear turbans. One sister, Kamaljit, learns little English and is happy to leave school to settle down and be a good Sikh wife. In contrast, the other sister Surinder does very well at school, is always reading – be that novels or magazines borrowed from the shop – and wants to become a nurse. Needless to say, the two narratives, very satisfyingly, join up.

What’s so clever about the book is that Sanghera embraces all the clichés only to then explode them. Kamaljit doesn’t just marry any old Sikh but one who is from a lower caste, which is almost as outrageous as if she were to marry a white person. This caste issue comes up again and again – with some alarmingly sinister consequences – as Sanghera points out the racism practised between Sikhs as a counterpart to that of Powell’s of the 1960s and to that apparent in Wolverhampton in 2011. Sexism amongst Sikhs is also examined as another form of discrimination, not so different to racism. Perhaps most surprising is when a Sikh woman defends Enoch Powell:

‘His point that many immigrants didn’t want to integrate? Just take a look around.’

Marriage Material is full of subtle and nuanced arguments about racism and integration. It begs the question, just how possible is it to live happily as a mixed-race couple in 1968, or in 2011?

How would Marriage Material stand up to Woolf’s criticism? I suspect rather better than The Old Wives’ Tale, as I certainly felt I got close to Sanghera’s ‘Mrs Brown’. My only problem with the novel was that I felt Surinder was the its real achievement rather than Arjan, and so it was a little frustrating that she was given the backseat in terms of narrative. Surinder was conjured with such skill that I wanted her to walk to centre stage rather than be relegated to the wings – a great measure of success in creating a real and compelling character. I’m sure that even Virginia Woolf would approve.