Autumn fires

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Hardy's Return of the Native, Agnes Miller Parker

One of Agnes Miller Parker’s wood engravings for a 1930s edition of The Return of the Native. And then, from the same decade, a short film by Herman G. Weinberg called Autumn Fire.

There’s a man in the city, a woman in the country – both gazing mournfully at their landscape: autumn leaves, splashes of gleaming rainwater, city skylines, billowing clouds, and even a squirrel. If time is short, skip to eight minutes in for the general atmosphere. Whoever posted this on YouTube has used Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun for the soundtrack, which is perfect.

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Brave new dystopia

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Brave New World Finn Dean

Here’s a superb image from Finn Dean, the winner of this year’s Book Illustration Competition. His designs will be published as The Folio Society’s edition of Brave New World in September.

It’s fascinating to look at the future from the thirties and forties, and see how emotional detachment is a key feature. While Brave New World and 1984 are always in the searchlight, Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome is overlooked. I found it a year or two ago on a Waterstone’s ‘staff recommend’ shelf, and it’s great – particularly interesting as a vision of the future in a rural setting. The back cover quotes a Guardian review which describes ‘a horrified and darkly comic response to the appeal of totalitarianism, a mixture of Orwellian satire, rural sentimentality and Kafkaesque nightmare’… I note that ‘rural’ equates with ‘sentimentality’ again.

It’s a really distinctive book: the insight and observation is shot with a mixture of League of Gentlemen humour (as in Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton) and soap opera which makes its unsettling hold only stronger. The BBC adapted The Aerodrome in the early 1980s with Peter Firth, but the Monty Python-ish interpretation made too much light of the dark.

Aerodrome Rex Warner

Setting the graphic equalizer with Virginia Woolf and Stella Gibbons

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I hear you’ve been going out a great deal,” said Lady Waters, with that air with which lesser women prefix: ‘A little bird told me’ – but her confidante would have been an eagle.

From To the North by Elizabeth Bowen, 1932

To the North 1

The wood engraving is by Joan Hassall (I think).

This is one of the touches that make Elizabeth Bowen really enjoyable. Although she experiments with form, it’s the natural result of efforts to capture nuance. She’s quite willing to dip swiftly down to earth with an honest quip like this… there’s no desire to set the gentle reader adrift in a pond of preciousness and self-regard.

Of writers with a heyday in the twenties and thirties, I put Virginia Woolf at one end and Stella Gibbons at the other. I imagine this as a little like the treble and bass dial on an old stereo, and with a little balancing at the centre you’ll get Elizabeth Bowen.

I don’t believe there’s a great deal of difference in the ability to observe in either Woolf or Gibbons, though of course the presentation differs, and perhaps Woolf was observing herself a little more. (Woolf famously dismissed Gibbons’ literary prize for Cold Comfort Farm with ‘Who is she? What is this book?’.) My enthusiasm for Stella Gibbons is not based on Cold Comfort Farm, good as it is, but the other novels such as Westwood, Nightingale Wood and The Bachelor. There’s a lightness and modernity, a spirit decades ahead of the 1930s. A cool intelligence wants to escape mundanity, but it will not countenance the smugness and complacency of those who might think that they’re not.

Westwood Gibbons

Vintage have reissued most of Stella Gibbons’ novels, and this illustration is by Pep Montserrat for the recent reissue of Westwood.

There’s a scene in Bowen’s To the North, where the office secretary finally turns on her employer, that could be one of Gibbons’ finer moments:

“She stared at the fatal letter from Malaga, her mind recording a quite superficial astonishment: one had not expected Tripp to go off like this. What had one expected? Little – punctuality, bridling diligence, the impassable patronage of the educated young female towards employers who had respectively failed at the wrong university and attended none. She had been cheap, she wrote the King’s English, absented herself at teatime, and did not sniff… But all this time in Miss Tripp the juices of an unduly prolonged adolescence had violently been fermenting: now with a pop they shot out the cork from the bottle. The effect on Tripp, certainly, did not appear catastrophic: the bottle remained intact. Tripp’s outline (at which Emmeline stole a look) was once more placid, as though some natural process had reached conclusion. Doubtless she felt much better.”

But these moments are the light sparkling on a dark river. Bowen’s skill is in never placing us at the heart of one perspective – she writes with a hand-held camera thrown from character to character, most of them adrift. We’re carried along in the chatter of familiar comforts but it’s a sly deception, for the destination is cold and distant: dislocation.