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Maurice Guest by Henry Handel RichardsonThey say love is blind. And when that love is young love, well, the stakes are raised higher still. It’s tempting to summarise the plot of Henry Handel Richardson’s 1908 debut Maurice Guest thus: A loves B; B loves C; C loves D; D loves E; F loves E too; but E loves A. And so on. Everyone is in love with someone, but that someone is either unobtainable, or attainable and completely wrong for them.

Of course, the novel is more than that. Much more. As a study of obsession and erotic love it has few equals. Madam Bovary comes to mind as the obvious touchstone. (It could also be related to Ahab’s ill-fated obsession for the white whale in Moby-Dick.) But there’s something about the very European Maurice Guest that defies comparison, even with the great novels.

The prose, if a little overblown at times, is otherwise sublime. I could quote from any of its 631 pages. Here is a sample from the opening, where Maurice Guest, a provincial Englishman, finds himself newly arrived in Leipzig, a centre of music, to study piano in the renowned Conservatorium. He has exited a concert in which he heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, (which I am happily listening to as I type):

Maurice Guest walked among the mossgreen tree-trunks, each of which vied with the other in the brilliancy of its coating. He was under the sway of a two-fold intoxication: great music and a day rich in promise. From the flood of melody that had broken over him, the frenzied storm of applause, he had come out, not into a lamplit darkness that would have crushed his elation back upon him and hemmed it in, but into the spacious lightness of a fair blue day, where all that he felt could expand, as a flower does in the sun.  

In many ways this passage sums up Maurice in a nutshell. He is the musical scales personified, either running up in some wild jubilation (brilliancy, rich promise, flood, elation, fair blue day, expand), or plunging down in a dark despair (darkness, crushed, hemmed-in). As he walks on, pondering the music yet more, he is ‘full to the brim of ambitious intentions’.

Poor Maurice, with all his grand plans! He soon finds himself lonely in a new city, longing ‘for a familiar hand or voice to take the edge of an intolerable loneliness.’ The first chapter ends on an unsettling nightmare, setting the tone for what is to come. And if that isn’t enough foreshadowing, in the following chapter we get his mother’s view of his chosen calling as a musician, which she sees as ‘something of a tragedy’. (Mums know best, don’t they?)

There are others struggling to find their place in the high-pressure world of concert-level musicianship. It is this broad canvas that takes Maurice Guest into a place beyond Madam Bovary’s relatively contained cast. It allows Henry Handel Richardson to explore several flavours of sexual love: homosexual, sisterly, woman for homosexual man (yet another ill-fated love with a tragic ending of its own), group sex and sadomasochism. All these things are somewhat disguised by Richardson, but not to any large extent. They add a rich supporting tapestry to the main game of Louise and Maurice’s relationship.

Maurice finds some friends, including the lovelorn Dove (who, as my limited plot equation above suggests, loves Ephie, who in turn loves Schilsky) and the steadfast and hardy Madeleine, who falls for Maurice. But he is too obtuse to notice. And once he lays eyes on Australian Louise Dufrayer he can’t see anything but her…

For one instant Maurice Guest had looked at the girl before him with unconcern, but the next it was with an intentness that soon became intensity, and feverishly grew, until he could not tear his eyes away. The beauty, whose spell thus bound him, was of that subtle kind which leaves many a one cold, but, as if just for this reason, is almost always fateful for those who feel its charm: at them is lanced its accumulated force.

‘Intentness that soon became intensity’. Wonderful. He goes on to take in her appearance. This is what he notes of just her eyes:

So profound was their darkness that, when they threw off their covering of heavy lid, it seemed to his excited fancy as if they must scorch what they rested on; they looked out from the depths of their setting like those of a wild beast crouched within a cavern; they lit up about them like stars, and when they fell, they went out like stars, and her face took on the pallor of earthly dawn.  

Oh dear. ‘Smitten’ doesn’t begin to cover it, does it?! He believes he loves her, but it is something else in truth, an obsessive passion that takes control of him body and soul. Madeleine tries to warn him off Louise, all to no avail. To his thinking, not a bad word can be spoken of her, and Madeleine’s warning is nothing more than scurrilous gossip.

Of course, the plotting equation will tell you Louise is in love with someone else, the genius violinist and composer (and cad) Schilsky. He treats her with contempt in the eyes of Maurice, who has to endure one torturous dinner where Schilsky complains about her suffocating him, which precipitates one of Maurice’s first explosions of rage, on this occasion at the man who is not worthy of speaking her name let alone touching her. Maurice, meanwhile, literally kisses the ground on which she walks (and I do mean literally!).

Louise is volatile, demanding and self-centred. She is an adventurous modern woman, whose life is one of ‘love, suffering and sensual abandonment’ as Carmen Callil writes in her excellent introduction to this Text Classics edition. Her ethos is summed up in this: ‘It’s myself I think of, first and foremost, and as long as I live it will always be thus.’ She is not the woman for the romantic and hitherto sheltered Maurice.

When the more-than-two-timing Schilsky leaves town, breaking Louise’s heart, Maurice picks up the pieces and attempts to put them back together with the glue of his ardour alone. He knows she cannot love him in the same way he loves her (and the way she loves Schilsky still), but he ploughs on anyway, pleading with her to be his.

At first she says no. But then, in a form of mental gymnastics I’m still trying to figure out, bends herself and enters the relationship. And Louise being Louise, this is no ordinary courting; it is a full-blown sexual affair. With the whole town whispering behind his back, Maurice sheds his studies and his friends as Louise consumes him. His tragedy is he can’t get beyond his jealousy of Louise’s past with Schilsky. She has to be his wholly, a state that is impossible.

There are so many wonderful scenes. To pick out any for mention does the others an injustice. However… the walk home from an evening concert where Maurice first talks to Louise is memorable, with all their talk of ‘peace of mind’, her overly dramatic talk of suicide, and the final ill-fated handshake. (She is not the only one to talk of suicide; Krafft, a homosexual with brief designs on Maurice and an unknown past with Louise and Schilsky, speaks of it also.)

A far more pleasant an excursion is had on the winter nights where Maurice and his loosely knitted group of friends go ice-skating along the frozen river. But even in these happier times dark clouds loom. There is the misguided Christmas Eve excursion on the ice with Louise when a snow storm blows in. Even when the two of them embark on their summer affair in a nearby town, Louise has her head turned by a female waitress who dotes on her!

Finally, the violence toward the end and the ultimate and heartbreaking disintegration of their relationship are unforgettable.

There were moments, though, where I wanted to throw the book, not so much across the room as at the characters. ‘What are you thinking/doing?’ I often wanted to scream. I found it hard to believe the way Louise commits to Maurice and then stays with him as he descends into his all-consuming, controlling and violent temper-tantrums. It was only when I allowed for her darker side toward the end that I found peace on this score. (Long before the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon there was Maurice Guest!) Even then I felt as though there would have been so many other more worldly (and more suited) persons for her to corrupt. But as I say, love is blind. And perhaps the abandonment that Louise all too often gives into is blinder still.

Henry Handel Richardson is the pen name of Australian Ethel Richardson, who herself studied piano at the Leipzig Conservatorium before she found the anxiety of public performance too hard to bear, at which point, encouraged by the husband she met in Germany, she turned to writing.

As befits both the writer and the story, music pervades every page of Maurice Guest, and wonderfully so. Fugues and etudes and sonatas and concertos and symphonies abound. I’ve mentioned Beethoven, but many composers are mentioned throughout, including Wagner, Mendelssohn, Vieuxtemps, Brahms, Handel, Chopin, and on.

Richardson is perhaps better known for the coming-of-age novel The Getting of Wisdom and the trilogy based on her father’s life The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. Both of those novels are set in Australia. Maurice Guest is not a comfortable read at times. How can it be when, as Madeleine puts it, ‘romantic feelings of [Maurice’s] kind are sure to end in smoke’? It’s not Australian in any particular way, so I can’t call it an ‘Australian classic’. It is, instead, that greater thing, a realist European novel of the highest calibre, a forgotten classic perhaps, but a classic nonetheless.

This counts toward my 2013 Australian Women Writers’ challenge. Australian Women Writers 2013 badge

You can read Callil’s celebration of Maurice Guest on its centenary of publication on The Guardian website here.

In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book program, Thomas Keneally, Geordie Williamson and Carmen Callil discussed the Text Classics series, which is being released into the UK. When asked what their pick of these novels was, both Keneally and Callil chose Maurice Guest (Geordie chose Patrick White’s Happy Valley.) I’ve not read anywhere near the full list of Text Classics, but I can at least understand why Keneally and Callil opted for this particular Henry Handel Richardson work. In every sense, it’s a titan of a novel.

Lisa at ANZ Litlovers felt much the same as I did. Read her thoughts here.

Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson

First published in 1908; this edition, 2012

Text Classics

631 pages

ISBN: 9781922079473

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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Participants: Dame Stella Rimington, thriller author and Chair of the Man Booker Prize judges in 2011; Stephen Romei, literary editor of The Australian; Neil James, executive director of the Plain English Foundation; and Chip Rolley, SWF artistic director.

As chair of the Man Booker Prize judges, Dame Stella Rimington caused a bit of a brouhaha when she suggested that the shortlisted books – and thus the eventual winner – should be ‘readable’.  Many saw this as an assault on the prize’s literary status, a ‘dumbing down’ as it were.  Chip Rolley kicked off this session by asking her what she meant.  She responded by saying that perhaps she’d used the wrong word, that maybe ‘accessible’ would have been a better choice.  She didn’t mean to suggest that it need be populist or simple.  Rather, good books should be true to itself, relevant, something that is bought and read rather than bought and put on a shelf, like Ulysses.  There are no guidelines given the Booker judges apart from that the winner should be the ‘best book published in the year’.  In 2011 there were 138 books submitted to the judges, which they have to read in only a few months, owing to the need to select the longlist.  For any reader this is a herculean task.  Publishers are only allowed two books each to submit, although there are other avenues (previous winners and those requested by the judges among them).  So there is a filtering of books at the publisher level, which is why other genres – a term which is an unhelpful wall in the view of James – do not get submitted.

But is accessible a better word?  Slightly, said Romei, though Rolley said Jeanette Winterson, also a SWF attendee this year, who was scathing in her views of Rimington’s ‘readability’ was of the view: ‘what is wrong with difficult?’  She wanted a writer’s language to expand her mind.

James said that all forms of writing when done well have more in common than might be suspected.  He quoted Winston Chruchill’s wonderful speeches (and gave hilarious management-speak versions alongside) as a means of underlying his point.  Great writing can be simple and direct and inclusive.

Romei, a fan of Ulysses and Moby Dick, spoke about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (see my review) and its sequel, Bring up the Bodies (review forthcoming), which stand out as both challenging reads – owing to cast of characters – as well as being cracking reads.  They ‘zip along’ – a reference to one of Rimington’s fellow judge’s comments.

James loves being challenged, but not being bored, to which Rimington said she bought Ulysses and got through the first few pages and found it was not giving her anything back, so on the shelf it went.  Romei said that listening to Ulysses was the ticket, something he likened it to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, another difficult read with many allusions, but which satisfied him because he was the sort of person who liked looking those references up.  (He also highlighted the i-phone/i-pad app of The Wasteland, which will please Sue of Whispering Gums who has highlighted her pleasure with the same app on her blog.)  Part of reading is the learning, said Romei.

Rimington said that a book should be enjoyable.  When asked by an audience member what makes a good story, she said ‘change’ was key.  She talked about Julian Barnes’ Boooker winner, The Sense of an Ending, (my review coming very soon), in which we start with a seemingly boring old man but realise he’s incredibly complex as we move through the story.  James said that there needs to be shape and good characters, as well as what Elizabthe Jolly described as ‘some central mischief’ that animates the story.  He wondered whether literary prizes were somewhat past their best, to which Romei quickly countered that he was against taking ‘stuff’ away from writers, that if anything there should be more of it.

For all of Rimington’s controversial comments, the one thing that was agreed was that the Booker was awarded to a very ‘literary’ novel, something which got lost in the stoush over semantics.  What was interesting to her, was the giant unseen apparatus that survives on generating interest in the award, something that all of us Booker observers love to see.  I mean, what would a Booker shortlist be without some sort of controversy?

While a thoughtful debate, it wasn’t quite as lively as it might have been.  Perhaps we needed Jeanette Winterson on stage too.  Now that would have been interesting!

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“Call me Ishmael.”

It is one of the most famous opening lines in western literature, and one that immediately introduces the reader to the musical rhythm inherent in much of Melville’s acclaimed Moby-Dick, the story of the monomaniacal Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod as they circumnavigate the globe in search of whales – and one whale in particular, the white whale, Moby Dick, who Ahab has lost his leg to and now seeks revenge upon.  And yet, for much of the book, Ahab is either below decks, unseen and unmet until well after the Pequod has left Nantucket one cold Christmas Day.  Contrast this to the last pages when Ahab stands on deck, feverish in his searching, smelling the white whale’s presence, never once leaving to go down below, never once quitting the trail, even when every conceivable ill-omen befalls the ship and its crew.  It is a great allegorical tale of a man driven to something at the expense of all else, and made me think of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood, a similar tale of a man driven to extremes and damn the consequences!

We meet Ishmael, previously a merchant mariner, as he seeks a whaleboat to sail on.  Looking for a bed for the night, he comes across ‘The Spouter Inn: Peter Coffin.’  He thinks it an ill omen, and so do we!  There are some other wonderful hints about what is to come too, as the supposedly unlettered Ishmael talks of ‘blubbering’ [p11] as he considers the Spouter Inn, and how, when considering a dark painting on its wall, he sees in it something resembling the ‘great leviathan himself’ [p12].  Further to these, Ishmael reads the marble tablets erected in the local church to commemorate those lost at sea.  Thinks Ishmael:

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say – here, here lies me beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.  What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes!

Methinks Melville had the dictionary open at the letter ‘b’ whilst writing that sentence!  I like alliteration; and there is a lot of it in Moby Dick.

There are no more rooms left and so Ishmael is forced to share a room with Queequeg, “a cannibal with a tomahawk” – and his God-idol, Yojo.  At first suspicious of the tattooed islander, the two end up being best of friends and their burgeoning relationship is depicted with real joy, so much so I could not help but sense a homo-erotic angle, not just in their sleeping together, but in Ishmael’s later bathing in a tub of sperm where his task is to squeeze out the lumps with some of his fellow crew but he seems happier playing with their lumps rather than the solidifying sperm(!)  (Or I am reading a little too much into things here?)

It is also in these early pages that we see Ishmael question faith and religion, seeing as there is so much death in the whaling business.  Speaking of the tablets, he thinks [p40], “… Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.”  He then goes on:

Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death.  Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.  Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water is the thinnest of air.

What a beautiful last sentence.

The story of Jonah is referred to several times, as are countless other biblical and classical stories.  Ishmael places Jonah before us, “not … to be copied for his but … as a model for repentance.  Sin not; but if you do, take heed and repent of it like Jonah.”

Long before we get on the ship, and even longer before we get to meet the darkness within Ahab, Ishmael, snug in his bed with Queequeg, muses [p59], “… no man can ever feel his own identity aright except his eyes be closed; as if darkness were indeed the proper element of our essences, though light be more congenial to our clayey part.”  Whilst out bodies enjoy and need the sun, perhaps our minds are better considered through darkness.

It is only on page 74 that Ishmael boards the Pequod to interview, not with Ahab, but with Captain Peleg, the owner of the Pequod.  Ishmael is put on the list, but wants to (rightly) lay eyes on Captain Ahab before he sails.  Peleg describes Ahab, and this is our first introduction to him, “I don’t think thou wilt be able to [see him] at present.  I don’t know exactly what’s the matter with him; … a sort of sick, and yet he don’t look so.  … He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man…”

Ahab is busy brooding over his lost leg and the whale who stole it.

Yet for all the wonderful musicality and alliteration in the writing, there are swathes of the novel that seem pointless, as if the real monomaniacal man in this story is perhaps poor Ishmael who, after surviving the voyage, has had some of the old Ahab’s single-mindedness rub off on him as he recounts his tale.  The story’s themes are myriad, dealing with: religion, politics, slavery, capitalism, good vs evil, class, and so on.  Education too, for Ishmael tells us [123], “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”  This is a wonderful line and often quoted, (though one wonders how it is that unlettered Ishmael learnt his classics on a whale-ship!)  As a measure of how the book holds within it themes which speak of America, Ahab sees the Pequod and says [p631], “The ship! … its wood could only be American.”

A number of narrative forms are employed, though why is beyond me; most of the novel is in prose, interspersed with sections like plays with stage directions, dramatic soliloquies, and asides to the audience.  This seems to be Melville experimenting with format, with what the novel can be, well ahead of modernism.

When we finally meet Ahab, 134 pages in, he is described as follows:

His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus.  Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish.

Note how the mark, whose origin is unknown, links with the whiteness of the whale he seeks, as if it is part of him, and he part of it.  Note also, Ahab’s ‘unalterable’ self: nothing will deter him from his aim.

Ahab stands erect, with an “infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of [his gaze].”  Melville was keen on ‘f’s that day!

After all this lead-in, this build-up of ill omen and danger, of Ahab’s brooding sickness, we are left in no doubt of Ahab’s trajectory when we hear his first words [p137]: “It feels like going down into one’s tomb … for an old Captain like me to be descending this narrow scuttle, to go to my grave-dug berth.”

Just as things are getting interesting, Melville diverts us off into the musings on different whales, before he thankfully brings us back to find Ahab co-opting the crew into the search for Moby-Dick.  Only poor Starbuck, the brave first mate, is against the hunt, saying [p180], ‘I came to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.’  But even Starbuck acquiesces.  The die is cast, the ship and crew committed.  Says Ahab afterward [p185], “’Twas not so hard a task.  I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. … They think me mad – Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!”

There are many fine passages, including the hunts, as well as delightfully depicted moments like the whale blubber being unfurled off a dead leviathan like an orange peel.  But there are long passages which, had they been left out, I doubt would have been missed, such as an examination of whale references in other books, though there is a great observation when discussing canallers [p280], in that, “… scarce any race of mankind, except Sydney men, are so much distrusted by our whaling captains.”  (I am presuming he means Sydney, Australia with all its convicts!, though am conscious he might be referring to Sydney Nova Scotia, Canada, also on the eastern seaboard of North America like Nantucket, Mass.  I wonder which it is?)

In any event, we learn everything there is to know about whales and whale history, how they are caught and cut, how they are stored and burned.  To my mind, the last 130-pages or so bring the story back to life, with little fat, though Melville’s sudden preoccupation with adverbs drove me a little to distraction.  (Placed end-to-end, one could walk clean across the Pacific Ocean on all the adverbs.  Some are truly(!) ponderous.  Take, for example, [p 626]: “… Moby Dick seemed combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven.”  Combinedly?!  Wouldn’t the sentence work better without that bizarre concoction?)

If there were ill omens at the start, then they positively pile up in these final 100 pages, as does Ahab’s madness.  He stays on deck, and every ship they meet the very first thing he asks their captains is ‘Have ye seen the white whale?’  Then, at last!, we come to the memorable meeting with the mighty Moby Dick, coming in the last 34 pages of 634 – and a wonderful ending it is too.

I shall quickly forget all the adverbs and think instead of the rhythm in the writing, the musicality of it, and the masterful way in which Melville builds Ahab as the paragon of monomaniacal man, a mysterious, ungodly god that will live long in the memory.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Vintage Classics

1851

ISBN: 9780099511182

634 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow (aka: personal library)

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