Saturday, 30 July 2011

The Weather in the Streets

A book creates its own reality.  Rosamond Lehmann had a vision when she was young; and her interest in the paranormal became almost an obsession after the sudden death of her daughter Sally.  This belief in spiritualism and parapsychology gives a curious atmosphere to her autobiography; the second half dominated by the spirit of the dead.   It is a world most of us cannot inhabit.  Too strange and odd; it is like having tea with a woman who believes herself the Queen.  At the beginning we experience an awkward curiosity; by the end we are mostly weary.  The one desire the kettle to be boiled, the tea drunk; the goodbye kiss on the doorstep to come quickly.  If our imaginations are good we dream up drugs to dethrone her.


The moment she opened the door, the new smell met her; not the familiar one of Simon’s house – penetrating, exciting somehow, earthy, like ferns or mushrooms – something different – damp, sour, pervasive; something that had taken possession; a threatening smell…  She threw back the shutters in the sitting-room, opened the windows.  Standing behind her shoulder, Rollo was silent.  They looked out at the stretch of lawn, the elms, dry looking, shrivelling up, the pear-tree already shedding pale brown and grey leaves…

“It looked awfully different last time,” he said.  “That was fun that evening, wasn’t it, darling?”…

“This Simon’s a myth to me.  You all talk about him, and I’m told this is his house, but I don’t really believe he exists.”…

She leaned her elbows on the window sill and looked out.  Anything rather than see this different room with the different person standing in it, dejected, unresponsive; where we stood, burning in the rosemary.  She lowered her eyes to the straggling grey bushes growing under the sitting-room windows.  Two blue-tits were threading noiselessly in and out of them, pecking and flitting…

“It’s got a funny sort of feeling I wouldn’t like to be alone in it.  I suppose its all bunk, but one does get like that sometimes about places.  I’m sorry, darling, it’s a disappointment.  Let’s go somewhere not gloomy.  D’you mind?…

They got in, backed and drove away down the rutty track.  She looked back.  It was a small white house with green shutters and a leaded roof, set in a piece of neglected lawn: dismal, unwelcoming.  Nothing special about it except the ragged thorn hedge all around.  The shrine was broken, the genius had departed.

The house has died.  It is a corpse slowly decomposing.  This is an extraordinary passage, made more so by later events.  She discovers that Simon died at exactly the same time they visited his house.  It is autumn.  Nature is dying.  Her friend his ill and her relationship to Rollo has been fatally wounded.  They enter his house and its genius departs.  Later they leave, and she looks back: the sickly coffin is lowered slowly into the horizon.

They’d had so much fun here, that summer at the start of their affair.  But memories cannot be resurrected into real life, though they come to you with easy smiles.  No longer do you feel that old kiss on your parted lips, his soft stroke on your soft hair, his lingering touch across your expectant cheek; nor does he hold you tightly, embracing you in a spring freshness.  Memories cannot pull the dead from out of their graves; the sober atmosphere overwhelms them; like a damp house without the heat of human life.  Later that same day Olivia tells Rollo that she has had an abortion.  He tells her of his renewed love for his wife; she will have a baby soon.  Olivia says she knew this; she could feel it, somehow.

The house is a multiple metaphor, and a concrete reality; we experience the discomfort and awkwardness of two people separating, reluctantly.  The house is the relationship in all its fine detail – it is unresponsive, sour, neglected (they hadn’t seen each other for a year), and unwelcoming.  There is a hint of nostalgia, overwhelmed by gloom and disappointment.  The energy has gone; there is no will to turn it on again.  They are like marionettes with slack strings; the puppet master lifeless backstage.  Their past life is closed off, and shuttered up, just a façade that disappears down the road, as you turn back for one last, longing, look.  It is a mood that has been caught before.  Thomas Hardy did it well:

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
         – They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
         On which lost the more by our love.

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
         Like an ominous bird a-wing….

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God curst sun, and a tree,
         And a pond edged with grayish leaves.
 (Neutral Tones)

The relationship has been given a tangible quality: a house whose life has departed.  But even death is alive – the feelings it creates in others.  So the multiple resonances, like tintinnabulation: the death of her child; the death of Simon, the dead leaves of autumn; mingled with cross currents of life: a vivid memory, two blue tits amongst the grey bushes, the promise of new beginnings in a child she doesn’t know…  Though these are not strong enough to push through the inertia that has grown around her.  We feel her tiredness as she thinks about them.

In a previous post I commented on Lehmann’s ability to capture the shifting, unstable nuances of the emotions; that deeply felt are impossible of precise articulation.  Turn them into ideas and the continuous flux of mute forces is fixed into all too clear and falsifying particularity; it is chopped up into discrete bits in a language foreign to what it describes.  It is to understand a house by looking at a photograph of each individual brick and wood panel.  To capture these feelings equivalents have to be found, images that call up resonances, and touch the emotions, recreating them within us.  You cannot describe them by labeling each moment, like shards in a museum case; you must evoke it, by creating a different flux and flow; you must create something analogous in the novel itself.

The failure of psychoanalysis is its intellectualization of what we feel: all that incoherent stuff inside us must have a meaning, it believes, which is made explicit; a rather undemanding intellectual formula.  Lehmann demolishes such simple-mindedness; with her ability to find dense analogies to our rich emotional life.  Her wonderful technique to create those multiple layers on which our emotions operate; and their connection with the intellect – the characters will often comment on their own dispositions; distant it with irony.  The house is dead.  A tangible reality they recognize when they open the front door.  But it is also a symbol of the time of year, the end of a relationship, a departed friend, and her aborted child.  Each is called up and revisited, each lives in the house, and leaves, leaving it broken.  The house is never just a metaphor.  It is itself a corpse, and it is a place where the dead and dying meet.  Its symbolism does not stand outside the reality, but flows through each lived moment.  It is broken up and refracted in the present unhappiness and those lost memories, which in turn penetrate it; each giving body to the spirit, concrete detail to the simple metaphor.  Everything shifts and moves, floating through her psyche the dismal bulk of a sad lover, replaced by a memory, by a sad feeling over the loss of a child; the bushes are straggling, and two birds suggest something vaguely familiar.  Nothing sits still, yet all is captured in a single image; of a shrine broken, its genius gone.

One could speculate that the author’s belief in psychic phenomena stems from her acute sensitivity; and a penchant for the meaningful symbol.  The love affair begins in the first book, An Invitation to the Waltz, when during a party Olivia meets Rollo on the steps of the terrace in a moonlit night.  She loves him immediately.  She has never forgotten this scene, and it is to forefront of her memory when she meets Rollo many years later, on a train home to a sick father; who she believes may die any day soon.  She wonders if he remembers that scene; dismissing the thought, believing that he has forgotten it, just another trivial encounter, that meant nothing at all to him.  Her surprise that he remembers, when later she is invited to a dinner party at his parent’s mansion, is the beginning of their relationship.

A book does create its own reality.  Shortly after I read these thoughts of Olivia’s I was talking with a friend.  He was speaking of that disappointment we feel when an event we believe important, and which we therefore remember, is forgotten by someone we thought close to us.  It is a sign they do not share the same sensibility.  I wondered if Rosamond Lehmann had entered the room.  Well of course she had! The Weather in the Streets was in my bag under the table.  But I thought, thinking of her autobiography, a little more than this: in what way, I wondered, had she created this conversation, the ideas we were now discussing.

These things of course he wouldn’t remember, but I do.  They had retained their meaningless meaning; were frozen unalterably in their own element, like flowers in ice…  Even then there had seemed a confusion in the images – a feeling of seeing more than was there to see: the shadow of the shape of things to come.  Or was that nonsense?

Olivia’s view is the complete opposite, of course, more realistic and modest: she expects others to forget; recognising her innate difference.  A feeling of seeing more than was there to seeor was that nonsense?  The genius of the great artist is the ability to capture the atmosphere inside their consciousness, so acutely caught here, and to transfer it onto the page.  The danger is that the atmosphere can overwhelm them, that mixed up world of imagination and feeling, and vague forms, replacing the streets and parks in the world outside their senses; which they reduce to raw material for mystical speculation; in all its various forms.  This passage is an example of Lehmann’s rare talent, capturing the atmosphere and bringing in the intellect at the end, that last doubtful reflection; it all seems far too evanescent to the too calculating rational faculty.  Did she lose this distance, this critical intelligence, after The Echoing Grove?

An Invitation to the Waltz was easier to think about.  It has a clearer structure and its main theme seemed obvious.  This novel has less of an overt message (though the seasons give it symbolic form) concerned, as it is, with the rendering of the texture of a love affair; from those first tentative, all expectant, fearful steps up the garden path, where we hear the inviting, but indistinct and somewhat threatening noises in the house ahead; to the final despondent car drive from the domestic mausoleum.  This novel is more diffuse, and more powerful, a huge garden of striking flora; beautiful flowers that she shows off to us again and again:

I suppose Simon’s a happy person; not from trying to be – he never tries to be or do anything…. An inherent quality – a kind of unconscious living at the centre, a magnetism without aim or intellectual pretension…. Simon seems to cause an extremely delicate electric current to flow between people when he’s there; they’re all drawn in, but he’s just one degree removed from it all, he doesn’t need anything from anybody…. He’s like Radox bath salts, diffusing oxygen, stimulating and refreshing…. Dear Simon.

This is an excellent character description.  It has a sharp and amusing metaphor at the end; with Dear Simon making it concrete – we imagine her in the bath sighing those last two words.  It describes that strange atmosphere that surrounds charismatic personalities; overly alive yet semi detached; so close to us and overpowering, but always opaque and far away.  It also describes something else: the elusive qualities of a love affair; the climate of expectation and energy that connects two people: it binds them like glue; although it is a strange glue lacking corporeal substance.  Unearthly, both can make us uncomfortable.

Everything is broken up; everything is brought together again…

“Lucky you weren’t with me darling,” said Rollo lightly, dismissing Podge as we drove away.  But I couldn’t.  I remember his awful patronizing laugh and bulging opaque eye… hearing him say to Etty, “That little cousin of yours is quite sweet, but she needs teaching…”  Needs teaching… Why should he crop up again to blight me?  I felt almost nausea to think he’d been there last night with a very hot bit indeed.  I couldn’t bear Rollo saying that.  It turned love, passion to derision and lust and squalor.  I thought: I will remember him saying that more than I remember our night, so after an hour of moroseness which he didn’t notice, I told him the trouble, and he was astonished, but he made it all right, and we came cheerfully to Weymouth.

This weekend is the peak of their affair, yet already it is beginning to slacken.  The intellect popping its head above the waves sees a familiar coastline; those unresponsive rocks and stones of earlier holidays; but still there are some new coves to see, new patterns to fascinate; and she swims towards them, with hope and happiness.  It will not last long.  Her body is separating from her mind; the emotions are settling down; two people are returning to their safe exteriors; two individuals in all their bulk and immobility.  And so we begin to feel a heaviness.  From now on each little disappointment an additional weight that the affair must carry, until one day they will be too heavy to hold.

[His wife away Olivia is in Rollo’s house]  I sat up on the sofa with my feet tucked under me and saw Rollo walking about in his drawing-room, looking for a cigarette.  Something was changed – far down, below all conscious layers.  Yes, something began to change then…. It was that I began to lose my feeling of security…  Rollo had a nice house and life of his own in it, and dependents, responsibilities….  I knew it after that.  It’s hard to face facts when they go against you.

Another house, this one alive with the wife’s presence.  The weight of the world intrudes, and one must struggle against it.  A little obstacle, that becomes a collection of obstacles, which Olivia must dance around if she is to enjoy herself.  And dance she does!  But it involves some work now.  The affair has become subtly more difficult to maintain; she must strain just a little if she is to keep its vitality.

Another weekend, but this time the car breaks down; they spend the night in a mediocre pub…

The bed was remarkable – appalling, the sheets made of thick cottony stuff – is it twill? – faintly hairy and with a special smell.  They were a bit damp.  Outside in the black night the rain went on raining….

Later she begins to cry, for no reason; it is the first time Rollo realizes she is unhappy.  It is an unpleasant shock for everyone.  A bed should be for making love in, not covered in tears and arguments.  Here is another hard fact for them to face…  The structural flaw in the relationship is at last exposed; both are now conscious of it.  And all the time she is thinking of the thin walls,

of that horrible couple awake perhaps, listening, nudging each other, whispering: “Something funny up…. I told you so…”

Ugliness has invaded the relationship.  Of course they fight and overcome it; but traces remain, something more to ponder on, to muse about.   The big bright house of those early days reducing now to

[a room] just small and stuffy with a cottage smell, a mountainous iron bedstead and a tiny window looking out over fields.

All that freedom and space of the first few months has gone.  Now it is crowded with memories, pains, the ongoing struggle to remain chipper, to keep up the façade of the faithful, beautiful, so accommodating lover; she is a woman turned into a plaything, each time they meet she must make herself anew.  What work this has become!  A short sprint has turned into a marathon.

It is too conscious now; and the naturalness has gone.  One has to hold oneself in, pretend and be strong.  How tiresome!  One is watching all the time, looking for signs, and recognizing patterns; some of which you’ve seen all too often before.  There is no rest as you chart the changes.

He was in such good spirits all that time, so sweet to me, I couldn’t bear to let him see I wasn’t in form myself.  I’d promised I’d never complain or make a scene again; I never have.  The Other Woman mustn’t make too many demands:  Rule the first….  Sometimes I thought – I still think – he was loving in a different way during that time….  What was it now?  More spoiling, more attentive….  As if he was apologizing, wanting to make up to me….  I suppose because he wasn’t seeing me as often as I hoped…

It feels forced.  While these shifting, changing moods are no longer under her control.  What is happening?  Why must they change in this way, and at this time?  Yet more time spent thinking than doing, speculating than enjoying herself.  Even the lovely bits, new and appealing in their own way, become a weight you must carry, as you think about them more and more.  How worn out they make you!  If only he was here…  But he is not, and so you fill the time with thoughts about him.  She is changing him slowly; creating a memory and a series of fixed images; that soon will impede her easy movements, her quick responsiveness to his irregular calls and short visits.

Then there is a break.  After many months they see each other again.  At first there is the inevitable awkwardness.  But the green shuttered house and its occupants revive them: it becomes a wild weekend.  A return to the naturalness of those first meetings, all the old energy and excitement; that interest in each other:

The house delighted him, specially inside – the light bright mixtures of colour, the decorations on the walls and doors, the whole flavour of the house that is so strong and individual I can almost taste it in my mouth; every object, every bit of stuff chosen with an unfailing idiosyncratic eye – even to the water-jug, the salt-cellar – yet all quite valueless in terms of money; mostly faded, chipped, worn….

Old things can be made fresh once again.  That long break storing up new reserves of liveliness; it falls around them like a hot shower on a sunny morning!  But separation brings fresh insight; with greater distance you see how he interacts with others; and how different he actually is; so unlike one’s own self:

For the first time I realized it’s no use telling him really what people are like.  He doesn’t care to inquire….  If I weren’t in love with him, would this matter rather?  Might I get irritated?  Bored?…

She passes it off; just one more insight to add to the pile growing beside her.  The good times return, and for a while their love is young again.  Although now it is has a certain fragility; the wild excess, a certain dangerousness, that loss of conscious control, has been lost for ever.  Rollo tries to recreate it:

“Listen,” he said, “let’s not go back.  Why should we ever to back?  I don’t want anybody any more but you.  Let’s just go on being together – anywhere – round the world if you like.  There’ll never be anything so good as this again and why should we miss it? – break it off?  Let’s not go to Salzburg tomorrow for our letters….”  His voice, different from any voice of his I’d ever heard….

“We must,” I said.

“Listen,” he said, “you can do anything with me.  Only say.  You choose. You say.”  Urgent, insisting almost harshly, throwing the onus on me, like in the beginning.

He is desperate.  He wants to run away with her, whereas earlier just to be together was enough for him.  It is the weight of the world; and he is struggling against it.  Yet before it was all so easy; there was nothing he found too heavy to carry.  They were together, and that was enough, everything else ceased to exist; it was as easy as walking down the road.  Now he wants to run away; from the overcrowded rooms his life has become.  This affair is no longer a holiday from the onerous routines of family life.  It is another family, though weaker, perhaps more irritating.  He has two families now, and it overburdens him.  Olivia, as ever, is much more articulate:

Extraordinary, depressing, how the old relationship re-established itself at once pat and neat, without a moment’s embarrassment or uncertainty: oneself aloof, caustic, and cool, pricking every balloon as fast as he blew it up: a sadistic, conscientious governess; he resentful, aggressive, feebly jaunty, making a stand against yet wishing to collapse, to receive protection.

She is speaking about an older relationship – to Colin.  Cursing the habits that form around us to trap ourselves in unerring rituals.  No longer an individual we have become a couple, carrying the weight of the other’s weaknesses.  How to free oneself from all that!  Does this explain the harshness of Rollo’s Austrian demands?  No longer does the affair have the brilliance and motion to effortlessly overcome the pull of family life.  It is custom and ritual too.  Instead he tries to wrench their relationship into new forms.  A desperate act by a man made weak by circumstance.  Of course he talks about running away with Olivia.  Olivia knows the truth; she has lived with the fragility of the relationship for years; she knew sometime it had to end.  When it became too comfortable, when they had too much to carry around, could not get past the furniture piled up in every room; when they were too weak to resist the call of old habits; the easy and far too respectable life.

They got in, backed and drove away down the rutty track.  She looked back.  It was a small white house with green shutters and a leaded roof, set in a piece of neglected lawn: dismal, unwelcoming.  Nothing special about it except the ragged thorn hedge all around.  The shrine was broken, the genius had departed.

Time has turned off the switch.  Rollo and Olivia, their relationship aged and arthritic, collapses under its heavy load.

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