Actually, RT hasn’t finished the book, but is far enough into it to have fallen under the novel’s spell. Certainly the world its author presents captivates a world-weary heart; here we find a fresh, untrammeled beauty, a poet’s tribute to nature and man…and woman.
Let any doubts about the book’s style be settled by this sample from chapter 2:
“To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness, or by the better outlook upon space that a hill affords, or by the wind, or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin, the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilised mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoitre it is hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame.”
Visionary, massive, gorgeous–and it helps to remember that Hardy’s father was a stone mason.
The plot couldn’t be more attractive. It’s a love story, thank heavens, filled with all the twists and turns you would expect, driven by human foible and heartbreak, illuminated with satirical sketches, and yet deeply aware of tradition, dignity, and the possibilities for happiness.
Then we have the story’s lovers–the shepherd Gabriel Oak, an old-fashioned hero, more than equal to the difficulties set before him, and Bathsheba Everdene, a lady alluring, intelligent, and prone to impulse. She enters the story a milk-maid, rises far in her fortunes, and then encounters a gentleman well-suited to be her husband. But Hardy writes in such a way that it isn’t clear which of the suitors will win Bathsheba’s hand–what is clear to the artist might for others be obscured by the world’s commotions.
As lovely and shrewd as all of this is, the novel’s setting and worldview have made the deepest impression on RT. Did a way of life as simple, communal, and breathtaking as this ever really exist? Hardy’s Wessex may not be the southern England of actual fact, but RT has enjoyed spending some time there. We need more handcraft, more confidence, and more romance. RT
Painting: Thomas Hardy (1893); Thomas Strang. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Recently RT was inspired to do a little more research on his grandfather the actor. He didn’t turn up any new information, but he did manage to compose this brief bit for his tentative biography/novel, The Nitrate Angel. (And here is more on Coxey’s Army.)
Panic and poverty—those early memories stayed with him. His father had joined Coxey’s Army, that assemblage of the ill-used, tramping and wending, surging and weaving its way down to Washington. He was too young, even by the standards of the time, to go himself, but the listless eyes and growling stomachs of the other boys, those things he remembered. Later, much later, when his friends, appalled by his grueling schedule, urged him to have some fun, he told them the truth: there is never enough work.
Never enough. He turned his eyes from the Mirror, folded the newspaper under his arm and shoved his hands deep in his pockets, and continued on his way. The day was bitter under a raw December sky, and still the avenue bustled. The terror of war and flu had gone.
“Edward!” someone called out, followed by a clap on the shoulder. It was Hanum.
Photo: Madison Square, New York City, 1908. LOC Prints & Photos Online Catalog. WikiCmns. Public Domain.
Who was Nancy Blair? RT can tell you from his genealogy research, finding information on women before WWII is the veritable search for a needle in a haystack. The fine image of NB above, along with its accompanying information, gives the question a certain urgency: Nancy Blair was the state supervisor of South Carolina’s WPA Library Project. As such, she was involved in literacy efforts (aimed at improving one of those perennially underperforming statistics in the United States).
Photo: Nancy Blair, state supervisor of the South Carolina WPA Library Project, inspecting a model of a bookmobile. Author: WPA, South Carolina. Source: South Carolina State Library, South Carolina Public Library History, 1930 – 1945 collection. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
A local friend turned RT onto Charles De Lint several years ago; he read De Lint’s short story collection Dreams Underfoot, and after finishing that book, bought a second-hand copy of another De Lint collection, Moonlight and Vines. He has been making his way through M&V at a leisurely pace.
RT, on a tight schedule with his domestic and literary obligations, doesn’t keep too many fiction works on his nightstand. Why has he made an exception for the writing of De Lint, whose work falls into the “urban fantasy” genre?
Part of the answer lies in the world that De Lint has created: the imaginary city of Newford, which lies, presumably, in the Great Lakes/southern Canada region. Newford, as far as RT has been able to ascertain, is not a mapped-out region, along the lines of Middle Earth, for instance. It is a modern city that offers layers of mythological history and a rather long list of mythological and fantastical creatures. On its human surface, it sounds rather like any other metropolis of the 199o’s, with businesses, nightlife, newspapers, bookstores, mental institutions, universities, and the like. If the population tend to be on the young side and have a bohemian feel, blame the 90’s. If various fictive creatures show up at least once in a story, well, they at least serve the story’s purposes (and are interesting as characters). After all, what is really important in De Lint’s world is the way that all Newford’s inhabitants help each other. If you want a less-than-50-word description of Newford’s atmosphere, imagine the opposite of an H.P. Lovecraft story, where everything, the people and their surroundings, is not just going to hell, but went there centuries ago without anyone realizing it. (And RT is not saying that HPL is anything less than a great fantasy writer.)
RT could take out his technical toolbox and give a scene-by-scene account of De Lint’s writing chops, which are plain impressive. But he will only note that CDL’s nuts and bolts are solid, thoughtfully crafted, and remain scrupulously behind the scenes, where technical underpinnings belong.
These stories are accessible, comfortable, and, on a regular basis, brilliant. In particular, RT will single out “The Big Sky,” which takes the reader over the great divide and into the land of the dead. The afterlife in this story is as dusty as it is often reputed to be, but there is hope arising from, of all sources, Buddhist teaching. RT will also point out that the story’s setting is an excellent description of the horrors of Major Melancholy, a demon by no means to be dismissed in our own waking world. And if you want sheer talent, in “Passing” CDL takes us into the world of Gracie Street’s girlbars to experience the difficulties and satisfactions of love seen in the Goddess’s mirror (and through the story of Excalibur).
In a literary culture that often focuses on the horrors of history (and the last century’s in particular), CDL gives his readers healing: happy endings, but maybe not of the old-fashioned sort. There are benign spirits at work here, God, gods, mermaids, nameless sweet fates, and the subtler therapies of music and poetry. It’s not that Newford never heard of the Atom Bomb, not that there is no pain or darkness, but rather that the city’s denizens are resolutely and convincingly working to put the Bomb and other, vaguer, terrors back in the Nameless Box they came from. De Lint has sifted the debris of contemporary despair to find a tender, surprising, and romantic world. RT
Painting: View of the Colesseum by Night (c. 1830). Carl Gustav Carus. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
All the research that RT is doing on his acting granddad may have to do with more than family genealogy. Broadway before the Depression was an amazing place. Take, for instance, this picture of Minnie Maddern Fiske, famous actress and wife of one of the more important men on Broadway at the turn of the century, Harrison Grey Fiske. And what about the photographer? He was Fred Holland Day, a significant, if not very well known, photographer on Broadway. The connections go on and on…what a world! RT
top: Actress Minnie Maddern Fiske (between 1895 and 1912). LOC. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
bottom: Fred Holland Day (1911). From the Louise Imogen Guiney Collection (Library of Congress). WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Out of the organic soup of his mind, RT has recently retrieved a powerful memory: of spending an afternoon at the Arlington County Library, engrossed in browsing through the Cambridge Ancient History. He was entranced by the fine writing and descriptions. Here is a passage from volume 1:
“Still more than the contract tablets the private letters give us the daily life of the people…Even a love letter from Sippar is extant, dating back to the First Dynasty. ‘To Bibiya say: thus, Gibil-Marduk. May Shamash and Marduk give thee health for ever for my sake. I have sent (to ask) after thy health; let me know how thou art. I have arrived in Babylon and see thee not; I am very sad. Send news of thy coming that I may be cheered; in the month of Markheswan thou shalt come. May thou livest for ever for my sake.'”
Perhaps this isn’t the sweetest love letter ever penned, but at least it’s honest (and quite ancient): Gibil-Marduk’s health (and perhaps even his life) depends on Bibiya’s attentions. Whether this is true or not, Bibiya must decide. Nothing much has changed.
We live for such encounters with other people’s spirit and lives, and a powerful fascination is added when the information comes from our past, however distant. In addition, this sample from the CAH offers the beautiful prose of its authors and the careful attention to detail invested in its preparation and printing. We are dealing with a rare book, informative, entertaining, and plainly (and elegantly) written. The authors never allow their erudition to cloud their meaning.
RT is working his way through Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, another marvelous history, this time the work of an independent scholar. Comparing these books gives the reader some idea of how individual an author’s approach to history can be.
The writing of history is a much maligned art: history books are supposed to be pedantic and filled with trivialities. Nothing could be farther from the truth: the great historians never lose sight of style and entertainment as they present intricate tapestries of humanity’s past. Since writing was invented, human nature hasn’t changed. We study the past to learn ourselves. RT
Map: Spruner Map of the World Under the Assyrian Empire (1865). Karl Spruner von Merz. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Molli’s back story; enjoy!! RT
(reposted from Unbound Boxes Limping Gods)