Nthposition review of Pieces for the Left Hand, J Robert Lennon, 2005

Now this would be classed as flash fiction , I am not sure if the term existed in 2005 but it didn’t flash (ho ho) into my mind. Another piece from Nthposition.com – hopefully not completely gone from the world writ on water that is the internet…

 

Pieces for the left hand

by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

There’s a form of literary snobbery that holds that the bigger a book, the better. To be worthwhile, a fiction must be Important; and to be Important, a fiction must be large. We are a long way from Telemachus, who held that ‘a big book is a big evil.’ In this age of literary elephantiasis, where biographies of the most modest literary or historical figures regularly weigh in at well over the 1,000-page mark, where a novel is not a novel unless it approaches the dimensions of the phone book, the nice things Polonius and various others have said about brevity have been forgotten.

Of course, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and in suitably Newtonian fashion some writers turn to the brief, the concise. Last year, the poet Don Paterson brought out The Book of Shadows, a well-received attempt to revive the ultimate mini-literary form – the aphorism.

The small story – by ‘small’ I mean a page or two pages, around 200 or 300 words long at most, rather than a short story as such – has had distinguished practitioners in the past. It is a literary form that has ancient roots. The parables of the New Testament echo in those fragments of Kafka, and those laconic miniatures of Borges that haunt the imagination longer than most deskbusting Important New Novels. The readers of the early days of universal education and widely diffused literacy were rich in small, wonderful stories. Johann Peter Hebel, the German educationalist and journalist, wrote in the early 19th Century a series of ‘house friend’ almanacs that featured tiny stories, one of which, ‘Unexpected Reunion’, Kafka described as “the most wonderful story of all time”. Wittgenstein reportedly carried a small volume of Hebel stories with him at all times, and if you feel like emulating him, Penguin Classics have published a collection called The Treasure Chest which I can heartily recommend.

J Robert Lennon’s Pieces For the Left Hand is subtitled ‘100 Anecdotes’. It consists of exactly that – 100 mini-stories, told in an artless, conversational style. In the Preface, which itself reads a little like one of the stories that follow, we are told about “the author of these stories” – a 47-year-old man, living with his college Professor life in upstate New York, “unemployed, and satisfied to be unemployed”. Rather than working – though in the past he worked what, it is hinted, must have been a tedious job to support his family while his wife began her academic career, “he walks for hours, cutting through fields and forests, hiking along the shoulders of roads”. These walks have begun “to shake things loose in the author’s mind”, and memories accumulate until, sifting through them, he tells himself the stories in his mind. “He is happy with them as they are: ephemeral, protean.”

The stories are grouped in seven sections: ‘Town and Country’, ‘Mystery and Confusion’, ‘Lies and Blame’, ‘Work and Money’, ‘Parents and Children’, ‘Artists and Professors’, and ‘Doom and Madness.’ Some of the anecdotes seem inconsequential, or are burdened with a too-pat irony. But the beauty of a book like this is that the next story is not too far away, and it might be funny or moving or wise or just odd.

It is of course invidious to further compress the already small stories that make up the collection. Some samples: two twins (male and female), turn out years later not even to be related and marry, much to the disgust of the townsfolk who still feel they ‘should’ be brother and sister. A nearby small town the author visits seems deadened, glazed over with grief; his initial sympathy on learning that the inhabitants are mourning the deaths of 11 schoolchildren in a fire is tempered when he discovers that this happened 40 years before. The section ‘Artists and Professors’ contains the most artificial stories, rather too steeped in an over-literary preciosity for my taste, but it also one of the most amusing: ‘Mikeworld’, the story of a 10th planet, the invention of a conceptual artist, which becomes part of the official science of a newly independent South Pacific state.

The stories in this book are not vital or arresting in the way Borges or Kafka’s pieces can be. There is something too much of the bucolic contentment of the narrator’s ambles about them. Also, there is a lack of proper names – we read endlessly about “our Mayor” or “a prominent businessman” or “our local paper’s film critic” – all of which may be intended to convey universality, but means that few of the characters gain more than archetypal identity.

Having said that, it is perhaps the perfect book for someone who has to make a succession of short, frequent bus or Tube journeys (full disclosure: for this review, I read the book on a series of such bus trips). It is always stimulating and never boring. It is a wonderful book for dipping into and reading a few stories at a time; indeed, I suspect that the impact would the lost and the faults enumerated above would be more obvious if one read it all in one sitting.

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

I would not necessarily expected to have found an article on what will happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies as gripping as I did, but Sam Knight’s piece in the Guardian is a fascinating, and in ways disturbing read.

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While Knight reveals some of the hitherto secret details – such as “London Bridge is down” as the code phrase to mark Elizabeth’s death – and discusses the immediate issues of Charles’ succession – the real interest of the piece is the psychological impact that the Queen’s death will have:

More overwhelming than any of this, though, there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness – the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard – which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”

Knight links this to Brexit, to the possibility (again) of Scottish independence. Elizabeth’s coronation, in ways, marked the beginning of television age in Britain, and her death and burial will no doubt be over-interpreted in ways, but Knight’s piece is compelling in its evocation of an inevitable event that will mark a more than symbolic watershed.

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The most arresting line is at the end of this paragraph (though I do wonder how Brian Masters could possibly have come up with his estimate):

People will be touchy either way. After the death of George VI, in a society much more Christian and deferential than this one, a Mass Observation survey showed that people objected to the endless maudlin music, the forelock-tugging coverage. “Don’t they think of old folk, sick people, invalids?” one 60-year old woman asked. “It’s been terrible for them, all this gloom.” In a bar in Notting Hill, one drinker said, “He’s only shit and soil now like anyone else,” which started a fight. Social media will be a tinderbox. In 1972, the writer Brian Masters estimated that around a third of us have dreamed about the Queen – she stands for authority and our mothers. People who are not expecting to cry will cry.

No matter what one thinks of monarchy – or The Monarchy – this is one of those instances where I can only urge Read The Whole Thing. Knight writes that the life expectancy for a 91 year old is four and half years – but of course Elizabeth has very good maternal genes for longevity, and London Bridge is likely to have some years yet before falling.

“Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.” Ash Wednesday

“Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.” Ash Wednesday

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An Ash Wednesday I’ll Never Forget:

Chesterton did not actually say that those of us who don’t believe in God will believe in anything, but he ought to have because it’s true. Between the ages of 12 and 20, before I began my return to the Church on February 17, 2010, I believed in, among other things, Buddhism, vegetarianism, pacifism, gay marriage, Marxism, libertarianism, literary criticism and – most shamefully, I think – the literary merits of Finnegans Wake.

Priests looking for youth evangelisation strategies should note that was only the penultimate item on this list that did me any good, for had I not one day found myself writing a rather dull and pointless essay on Yeats and TS Eliot, I might never have returned to the faith. Perhaps the Catholic Truth Society should do up a neat little pamphlet on FR Leavis. But let me back up.

I was a very pious child who grew up fearing hell with an almost physical intensity. Even the sight of shoulder devils in cartoons could fill me with dread. Yet I also struggled from an early age with very grave doubts. I distinctly remember lying in bed aged seven and thinking to myself: “When you die, there is nothing.”

Fast forward half a decade and I had become one of those obnoxious 12-year-olds who should not be allowed to read books. When my catechism teacher told us that skipping Mass was a mortal sin, I decided that there probably wasn’t a hell or a heaven, much less a God who cared what any of us did with his time on Sundays or any other day of the week.

At some point towards the end of my teenage years I ceased to be a thoroughgoing materialist. (How I unclasped myself from Feuerbach’s dank tendrils and came to believe in Something rather than nothing is difficult to say, but I chalk it up to falling seriously in love for the first time and listening to Van Morrison.)

I then became, or so I like fondly to think, America’s last earnest pagan. I do not mean that I worshipped Zeus or Diana – the closest I ever came was burning lavender-scented incense while reciting from Keats, a practice I would heartily recommend to all students reading English. But I did pay homage, almost literally, to things like grey waves, thunderstorms, autumnal leaves, the faces of beautiful women, the smell of lilacs and the first snow. Whatever was out there, the quaint little story about a Nazarene seemed to me too small for it.

Is it strange to say that I cannot remember anything else about that day in February? I have no idea what I ate for breakfast or how cold it was or whether that afternoon was one of those rare occasions on which I did anything at my Gogolian make-work job in the Office of Financial Aid. All I know is that at some point in the course of working on a literary essay I consulted Eliot’s Collected Poems and happened upon “Ash Wednesday”, which I had never much cared for.

But that day in the library I found myself utterly transfixed by this desperate plea for the intercession of our Mother written by an agnostic. (One of my fondest discoveries of recent years has been to learn how much of the poem is a pastiche of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.) I was especially by these lines from the third stanza:

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain

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Section 1 of Ash Wednesday:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Stained Glass from Church of the Visitation, Cloneen, Tipperary

Stained Glass from Church of the Visitation, Cloneen, Tipperary

Cloneen has a Sports and Social Hall and a National School, but not a Wikipedia page. It also has a small, externally fairly ordinary-looking church with some wonderful stained glass. Of all the Tipperary stained glass I have looked at in my occasional postings, this was the nicest surprise. The images seem to focus on the Holy Family with particularly impressive ones of the finding of Jesus in the Temple.


Betty Corrigall

From First Known When Lost

Betty Corrigall lived on the island of Hoy in Orkney in the 18th century. When she was in her late twenties, she was abandoned by her lover after becoming pregnant.  She committed suicide.  Given the circumstances of her death, a kirkyard burial was not permitted.  She was buried in an unmarked grave out on the moor.  In the early 1930s, her coffin was discovered by peat diggers.  In 1949, a visiting American minister performed a burial service for her.  A white marker was placed on her grave in 1976.  It reads:  “Here Lies Betty Corrigall.”

George Mackay Brown wrote a short story about her, an imaginative rendering of the final months of her life.  The story begins with an introductory paragraph:

“In the moorland of the island of Hoy in Orkney, right on the boundary that separates the two parishes of Voes (Walls) and North Hoy, a gravestone and fence have recently been erected by some islanders.  Underneath lay, peat-preserved for well over a century, the body of a young woman who had obviously committed suicide.  Only her name survives:  Betty Corrigall.”

George Mackay Brown, “Betty Corrigall”, in Northern Lights: A Poet’s Sources (edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray) (John Murray 1999), page 225.

Brown also wrote a poem about her.

Betty Corrigall

The girl buried in the moor

Child
in the blue scarf of wind
begin to dance

Girl
in the yellow coat of sun
ripeness is here

Woman
in the gray sheet of water
steep your griefs

Queen
lie robed from looms of earth
Persephone

George Mackay Brown, Ibid, page 231.

It is said that Betty Corrigall’s body, having been interred in peat, was well-preserved when it was discovered.  “And while that generation of islanders withered slowly into death, one after another, and after death rotted more urgently until they achieved the cleanness of skeletons, the deep peat moss kept the body of Betty Corrigall uncorrupted; though stained and darkened with the essences that had preserved it.”  George Mackay Brown, “Betty Corrigall,” Ibid, page 230.  Persephone in Orkney:  queen of the underworld and goddess of spring.

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From http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/historicalfigures/bettycorrigall/

Matthews Oates on butterfly watching, from “In Pursuit of Butterflies”

Butterflying, and Emperoring in particular, does not entail hours of walking, but eternities of standing about, watching and waiting. Patience is everything, and those of us who have spent our youths fishing will have mastered this essential skill. Sitting down is no good, as it narrows the field of vision too much, as any hunter will appreciated. So, butterflying is more akin to game angling than coarse fishing. One of my favourite standing places was in a young conifer plantation, where I would loiter for hours, gazing up at the adjoining oak edge in wait of Purple Emperors and their attendant knight, the Purple Hairstreak. Early in July I found a rusty milk churn in another wood, and laboured it on my shoulder to where it was needed. … I stood on that milk churn for hours and hours, gazing up at the oak edge. No one ever saw me. It was an excellent vantage point. The churn stands there still, a forgotten monument to times gone by, but woods are strewn with the features of personal memories. They collect them.

I loved this passage, from what is proving a hugely enjoyable book, for two reasons. One is the invocation of the value of being one of those who “only stand and wait”, a necessary admonition to our restless age. The power of still observation, of waiting, is profoundly countercultural. Secondly, I love the invocation of forests as repositories of human memories. Analogous to the urban concept of the Tomason (or Thomason) but without the overtones of civilisational decay and more richly personal, I wonder could there be a word coined for these “features of personal memories” that populate the landscape.