Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Elephant Downstairs (Unfinished)

My brother started me on The Lord of the Rings. I suppose I was ten or eleven. He was nearly done with the The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume, and said I should read it when he was done. I picked up the second, The Two Towers, just to look at it. About twenty-four hours later, in which I did nothing but read and sleep, I had finished it, with the gates of Cirith Ungol slammed shut against Sam; my brother in the meantime had finished the Fellowship, so I devoured that, going back in the narrative, as well. I gulped down The Return of the King in another twenty-four hours, up until the destruction of the Ring -- and stopped.

I couldn't bear to finish, to no longer have it in front of me to read for the first time. It was several days before I picked it up again and finished it, very slowly for me -- I was in the habit of wolfing my books, in those days. But this was the last I had: I savored it.

Of course I read them again, over and over: I counted some forty times, before I lost track. I read them aloud to my children, a couple times to each. I learned Spanish, French and German partly by reading translations of The Lord of the Rings into those languages. A long easy text that I knew by heart: it was a perfect way to absorb vocabulary. So it's a peculiarity of my linguistic competences that I know the words for hauberk, baldric, and chalcedony in four languages.

Where was I? Oh yes. I put off finishing. And I thought of that when I thought of the fact that I've tended to leave things by favorite authors unread. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy I read soon after I had first read the Rings: I remember that the very first time I felt carsick, we were on a long journey in southern Oregon, near Mt Thielsen, and I was staring at an ink drawing of the helmeted twin soldiers that pursue Titus in the last volume.

Gormenghast is chilling to read because the author dies under your hands: he had a degenerative illness -- I don't remember what -- that gradually robbed him of his powers of connected thought and of sustained artwork. Titus Alone has strange gaps and discontinuities that increase as the book goes on: but as Peake is so idiosyncratic, laconic and florid by turns, both as a writer and as an artist, you don't realize it for quite a while. He never loses that power of the line, the power that Blake thought was the essence of art: in one swift curve he captures a whole world of imaginative intensity. But as Titus Alone progresses the canvas on which those lines emerge is increasingly blurred confused -- or, simply, and terrifyingly, empty.

So I came to the end of Gormenghast in a sobered and subdued frame of mind. And for years and years I never read anything more of Peake's. There wasn't, after all, a lot more to read, and it wasn't easy in those days to find: everything but Gormenghast was long out of print. But eventually I snapped up Mr Pye, which was not much more than a morsel. And there it lay. I read his wife's biography of him. It is, as some complained, a hagiography, but all the more moving for that: she loved him and missed him desperately. And although I'm sure he had numerous faults, one thing he could clearly do is love: he swept her off her feet, and she stayed swept, ever after.

I felt, reading that biography, that I understood fully for the first time -- though I couldn't quite put it into words -- what I was in the world for. Peake saw things. Beautiful and ugly. And they set up a resonance in him: they made him a wellspring of vividness and intensity. One night, he and his wife-to-be heard odd trampling noises below his studio: on opening a trap door in the floor they found that an circus elephant had been lodged there, whom they fed buns and sugar. I have no idea whether this story is true -- his later biographer presents it as true -- but it certainly feels true: that Peake, by the intensity of his perception, could cause elephants to appear in the middle of London.

And that, I felt, was my own gift, on a far lesser scale; my calling. I have always heard the elephant downstairs. I have always been struck witless by apparitions of beautiful and grotesque things, not all of which can be seen by other people. And I've always had a gnawing, nagging idea that my job was to make a door, or at least of window, of myself, so that these things could come into the world.

Last night, rubbing oil along the humped spine of an old man, the night air came walking in, at intervals; his younger German wife, leaning against the wall, spoke softly, looking aside, as Europeans do. Pools of light and dark, sleeping and waking; a cuckoo clock that spoke unexpectedly; a tiny dog that let me rub his belly but never quite trusted me. I am doing the work I was sent to do. And so what if it breaks my heart?

No comments: