“A Ghostly Message of Comfort”

himbeergeist

Another nice bit from A Time of Gifts:

“In cold weather like this,” said the innkeeper of a Gastwirtschaft further down, “I recommend Himbeergeist.” I obeyed and it was a lightning conversion. Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost–this crystalline  distillation, twinkling and ice-cold in its misty goblet, looked as though it were homeopathically in league with the weather. Sipped or swallowed, it went shuddering through its new home and branched out in patterns–or so it seemed after a second glass–like the ice-ferns that covered the window panes, but radiating warmth and happiness instead of cold, and carrying a ghostly message of comfort to the uttermost fimbria. Fierce winters give birth to their antidotes: Kümmel, Vodka, Aquavit, Danziger Goldwasser. Oh for a thimble full of the cold north! Fiery-frosty potions, sequin-flashers, rife with spangles to spark fuses in the bloodstream, revive fainting limbs, and send travellers rocketing on through snow and ice. White fire, red cheek, heat me and speed me. This discovery cast a glow over the approach of Linz.

I’m not enthralled by A Time of Gifts overall: maybe I was wrong that vicarious voyages are the right antidote for this strange immobile moment, or maybe it’s just that right now, stalled as I otherwise am, I need the forward momentum of plot to keep my attention reliably engaged. He’s also traveling through landscapes that have never been part of my own imaginative life the way other places (England or Greece or Egypt, for instance) have been: I’ve never had any urge to go to Germany myself, never dreamed of wandering the streets of its cities the way I dreamed of visiting London or York and still dream of one day seeing the Valley of the Kings. Even so, there are many passages that I’m pausing over with pleasure and admiration at Fermor’s descriptions. There are so many odd and striking details here, including his reference to fimbria, which I had to look up and which still seem an odd choice in context. I’m not much of a drinker but I think if I ever saw a bottle of Himbeergeist at the NSLC I might now be tempted by the thought of those “ice ferns” doing their comforting work.

There’s also an underlying story that (so far) lurks mostly in the margins: it’s the 1930s, after all, and he’s traveling through Germany:  he sees plenty of swastikas and Nazi salutes and bars full of SS men happily quaffing beer and singing. A Time of Gifts feels strikingly apolitical compared to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (no, I’ve never finished it!), which of course is a very different kind of book in purpose as well as in style. I don’t know if Fermor stays focused primarily on his personal experiences (including his reflections on landscape, art, and literature) or if the building political pressures of the time make that boundary between private and public life impossible for him to sustain.

“All These Things Tell You Something”

devices2From P. D. James’s Devices and Desires:

He followed her down the hall to the kitchen at the back of the house. It was, he judged, almost twenty feet long and obviously served the triple purpose of sitting room, working place and office. The right-hand half of the room was a well-equipped kitchen with a large gas stove and an Aga, a butcher’s chopping block, a dresser to the right of the door holding an assortment of gleaming pots, and a long working surface with a wooden triangle sheathing her assortment of knives. In the centre of the room was a large wooden table holding a stoneware jar of dried flowers. On the left-hand wall was a working fireplace, the two recesses fitted with wall-to-ceiling bookshelves. To each side of the hearth was a high-backed wicker armchair in an intricate closely woven design fitted with patchwork cushions. There was an open roll-top desk facing one of the wide windows and, to its right, a stable door, the top half open, gave a view of the paved courtyard. Dalgliesh could glimpse what was obviously her herb garden planted in elegant terracotta pots carefully disposed to catch the sun. The room, which contained nothing superfluous, nothing pretentious, was both pleasing and extraordinarily comforting and, for a moment, he wondered why. Was it the faint smell of herbs and newly baked dough, the soft ticking of the wall-mounted clock which seemed both to mark the passing seconds and yet to hold time in thrall, the rhythmic moaning of the sea through the half-open door, the sense of well-fed ease conveyed by the two cushioned armchairs, the open hearth? Or was it that the kitchen reminded Dalgliesh of that rectory kitchen where the lonely only child had found warmth and undemanding, uncensorious companionship, been given hot dripping toast and small forbidden treats?

In interviews and in her own writing about her crime novels, P. D. James often remarks on the importance of setting, especially interiors. In an 1986 New York Times Magazine story, Julian Symons quotes her as saying “I believe you can describe people, and understand them, through the houses or apartments they live in,”

the furniture they choose to buy, the way they decorate the rooms. However humble or ordinary the place may be, there are still distinctions between what people do. Do they put wallpaper or emulsion paint on the walls? What’s the design on the paper or the color of the paint? What sort of pictures are on the walls? All these things tell you something.

devicesThis excerpt from Devices and Desires is characteristic of what this conviction looks like in practice. I suppose it could be argued that such long descriptive passages are not strictly necessary, that they are a form of padding in novels otherwise structured very tightly, as all of hers are, around the intricacies of a murder investigation. She treats every room this way, not just ones that clearly lead us towards revelations about the crime: readers who like their mysteries leaner and faster and more plot-driven might feel that the story gets bogged down. I don’t see it (or experience it) that way. For one thing, I enjoy James’s writing–I like the rhythm of her sentences, the meticulous care she takes to create a vivid, tactile sense of place, and the way her catalogs of specifics so often lead, as here, from exterior to interior, from setting to psychology. For another, because James’s crimes are always intensely personal, character is plot for her: thus her attention to setting as a device for exploring character serves the key purpose of her fiction. Finally, here we are seeing through Dalgliesh’s eyes: what this passage tells us is not just how the room’s inhabitant lives (and thus what she is like) but how observant he is, and how his scrupulous detachment as a professional investigator is combined with the self-awareness and sensitivity that make him not just a skilled detective but also a poet.

Imaginary Interiors

A-Time-of-GiftsFrom Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts:

There were farm-buildings which elms and chestnut trees and birches snugly encompassed and Hobbema-like avenues of wintry trees which ended at the gates of seemly manor-houses–the abodes, I hoped, of mild jonkheers. They were gabled in semi-circles and broken right-angles of weathered brick bordered with white stone. Pigeon-lofts saddled the scales of the roofs and the breeze kept the gilded weather-vanes spinning; and when the leaded windows kindled at lighting-up time, I explored the interiors in my imagination. A deft chiaroscuro illuminated the black and white flagstones; there were massive tables with bulbous legs and Turkey carpets flung over them; convex mirrors distorted the reflections; faded wall-charts hung on the walls; globes and harpsichords and inlaid lutes were elegantly scattered; and Guelderland squires with pale whiskers–or their wives in tight bonnets and goffered ruffs–lifted needle-thin wine-glasses to judge the colour by the light of the branching and globular brass candelabra which were secured on chains to the beams and the coffered ceilings.

Imaginary interiors . . . No wonder they took shape in painting terms! . . . For if there is a foreign landscape familiar to English eyes by proxy, it is this one; by the time they see the original, a hundred mornings and afternoons in museums and picture galleries and country houses have done their work. Those confrontations and recognition scenes filled the journey with excitement and delight. The nature of the landscape itself, the colour, the light, the sky, the openness, the expanse and the details of the towns and the villages are leagued together in the weaving of a miraculously consoling and healing spell. Melancholy is exorcised, chaos chased away and wellbeing, alacrity of spirit and a thoughtful calm take their place.

Meindert_Hobbema_-_Wooded_Landscape_with_Travellers_-_WGA11442

Like many readers I know, I have been struggling with my concentration in these pandemic days. This has happened in other, less extraordinary circumstances as well, of course, and usually the cure is as much about finding the right book to break the slump as it is about anything else. With that in mind, I have been casting about for the right book for this moment, and it occurred to me that I should re-start A Time of Gifts, which I had begun long ago and, for no particular reason, put aside. This passage on the happy congruity between the art and the reality of the Dutch landscape was one of the ones I had earmarked before, and I loved it just as much when I came across it this time. It is bound to remind any reader of George Eliot of her wonderful tribute to Dutch paintings in Adam Bede:

It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise. I find a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence, which has been the fate of so many more among my fellow-mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute indigence, of tragic suffering or of world-stirring actions . . .

All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women, and children—in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy. Paint us an angel, if you can, with a floating violet robe, and a face paled by the celestial light; paint us yet oftener a Madonna, turning her mild face upward and opening her arms to welcome the divine glory; but do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world—those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions. In this world there are so many of these common coarse people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness! It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes. Therefore, let Art always remind us of them; therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things.

Woman Scraping Carrots

I was thinking that another way to break up the inertia I’ve been experiencing in my reading and writing would be to approach my blog at least some of the time as more of a commonplace book, to take the pressure off having to say something organized about my reading every time. So there may be more posts coming like this one: just an excerpt or two from whatever I’m reading, maybe with a bit of commentary, maybe without. It’s nice just to share the good bits, I figure–and A Time of Gifts is sure to have many of them.