The sun is never so beautiful as on a day when you take to the open road.
For several months, during my travels on foot around southern Europe at the tail end of the 1980s, I carried with me a copy of Jean Giono’s Les Grands Chemins in its French paperback edition, loaned to me by the poet and bouzouki player Hubert Tsarko. Against the odds, my copy shows almost no sign of wear and tear. Sometimes I suspect it is not the book that Hubert loaned me, but I cannot remember buying it again, so have to assume that the same copy has survived the battering of more than thirty years in almost pristine condition. However, that suspicion — that the book is not the same as it was — begins to take on new significance after my pre-ordered copy of The Open Road lands on the doormat with a thump, one day in November, rudely disturbing the slumber of my ancient springer spaniel, Bruno. Re-reading Giono’s novel in another language, thirty years on, it turns out not to be the same book at all, despite the claims of its title.
The book that I remembered was evocative of a lifestyle and a place that I no longer count as mine, but the threads that the story pulls at are lodged deep in memory, and they connect me to some of the wilder places of Europe, as well as to a sense of hearth and home represented in the novel by the fires that the unnamed protagonist keeps burning in his walnut-oil mill on long winter nights, and the climb through the alpine forest towards his final act of sacrifice and betrayal.
A few weeks after drafting the opening paragraphs of this review, Hubert gets in touch with me from Liverpool, in one of his rare and random phone calls, and in answer to my questioning tells me that I returned his copy of Les Grands Chemins in 1989,when he was living in Carrer Sant Just, in the heart of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, and that he still has it. In which case, I ask myself, where did my identical copy come from? The truth is that I have no idea.
In case the reader is wondering, this seemingly far-fetched tale is relevant to the writing of this review, as it sets the tone for my relationship with this curious and rather wonderful novel, translated for the first time into English by Paul Eprile and published by New York Review Books, who have been doing a great job in making Giono’s oeuvre available to a new readership, having issued translations of the novels Hill, Melville and A King Alone over the past five years.
I myself attempted a translation of Les Grands Chemins some thirty years ago, but that effort, for better or worse, has disappeared along with so much else. Giono’s narrator is not an educated man; he has apparently served time in prison, and lives from hand to mouth. One of the difficulties of translating the novel lies in finding the right tone and register for the narrator’s constant use of slang and vernacular expressions; and this, more than anything else, was what put paid to my efforts all those years ago. Consequently, my trepidation in waiting for the English version to appear was acute. As the reader will have gathered by now, I have an irrational sense of propriety towards this novel.
Unfortunately, reading the book in translation was a bit like meeting an old and dear friend who has undergone cosmetic plastic surgery, and the result, while by no means a disaster, has left him looking like someone other than himself.
Some novels, perhaps, are more untranslatable than others.
Jean Giono is best known to readers of English as the author of The Man Who Planted Trees, a bittersweet tale written long before there was an environmentalist movement to speak of, and which was made into a popular animated film in 1987. His novel Le Hussard sur le Toit (The Horseman on the Roof ) was also turned into a successful movie, starring Juliette Binoche, but neither of these works really do justice to the deeply felt sense of place and the emotional intelligence of Giono’s work, almost all of which is set in or around the town of Manosque, in the Department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, where Giono was born and spent his entire life. Or almost his entire life: in 1914, at the age of nineteen, he was sent off to war, like the vast majority of France’s young men. He trained in the Alpine Infantry and took part in some of the major battles of World War One, including Verdun. Life at the front marked him forever. He was one of the very few survivors of his company to return home, and he became a lifelong pacifist. This was something for which he would be made to suffer after World War Two when he was falsely accused of collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. But that was all later.
Returning to Manosque in 1919, Giono took up the job in a bank which he had held before the war, and began writing. He started with prose poems and moved on to novels. After a few false starts he published Colline (Hill), a strange and intricately patterned tale of rural life, in which the human, animal and vegetable worlds occupying a remote mountain hamlet are seen to be intimately and ineluctably entwined. Colline attracted the attention of some of the big names of Parisian literary life, including André Gide, who paid a visit to find out who this promising young writer was. But Giono was never tempted by life in the metropolis. He bought an old house in an olive grove on the edge of town, and stayed put, dying at home in October 1970 at the age of seventy-five. He thus belongs to a diminishing group of writers who are profoundly and irrevocably associated with a particular place, a defined and circumscribed landscape. ‘Of a piece and of a place’, as Raymond Williams’ protagonist says of his taid, Ellis, in People of the Black Mountains. In fact, re-reading Williams’ last novel immediately after reading Giono has led me to think that this is what Williams would most have liked to be; a writer lodged in a specific locus or habitat, like his namesake Waldo, also a pacifist, who wrote unerringly about a single community in the Preseli hills; or the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto, like Waldo a village schoolteacher, who spent his entire working life within the region of the Veneto. All three men — Giono, Waldo and Zanotto — spent most of their lives within a small, rural community, and each of them, by focusing on the local and the particular, spoke for the whole of humankind. In The Open Road, Giono’s narrator touches on this very theme when he discusses ‘the things you notice at significant times. For example’, he continues, ‘the footprints of a man who seeks happiness in one spot, with everything taken care of and easy to understand; in a world that following the seasons, seems to follow you; that fulfilling its own destiny, fulfils you . . .’.
Giono has an uncanny skill in evoking the natural world without sentimentalising it: instead he reminds us how our subjective responses, rooted in memory, determine our way of being in the world:
At this time of year, the chestnut sap flows earthward and settles underground. It oozes from all the nicks in the bark that summer has opened wider. It has that hard-to-describe smell of bread dough, of flour mixed with water. A falcon, chased by a cloud of titmice, swoops by low over the trees. The midday warmth spreads like a quilt from my knees to my feet. I’m letting my beard grow, to contend with coldness in general. To live in love or to live in fear: it all comes down to memory.
This seemingly straightforward paragraph can be broken down into four distinct topics, more specifically into three cascading non-sequiturs, which nicely illustrate Giono’s technique. First, the lovely evocation of the sap, oozing from the chestnut tree, and likening the smell of that sap with bread dough. Second, the vision of a bird of prey pursued by a cloud of tiny birds, Third, the weather (warm, but foreshadowing the cold), and finally the curious crowning insight: whether we live in love or in fear, we are constrained by memory. How many novelists would be reckless, or skilled enough to pack so much into a single paragraph?
The extract also serves to show up some of the shortcomings of the translation, because the French says something a little different:
En cette saison, la sève des chatâigniers descend et rentre sous terre. Elle suinte de toutes le égratignures que l’été a élargies dans l’écorce. Elle a cette odeur équivoque de pâte à pain, de farine délayée dans l’eau. Un faucon file en oblique, très bas à travers les arbres, poursuivi par une nuée de mésanges. La chaleur de midi est sur mes pieds et mes genoux comme un édredon. Je laisse pousser ma barbe pour des questions de froid universel. Aimer, vivre ou craindre, c’est un question de mémoire.
First, I would disagree with ‘that hard-to-describe smell of bread dough’, which is a rendering of ‘cette odeur équivoque de pâte a pain’. Unfortunately ‘équivoque’ does not mean ‘hard to describe’, and would more suitably be transcribed as ‘that dubious (or ambivalent, or suspect) smell of bread dough’. And in that puzzling summative sentence, the translator has again changed the meaning of the original: the French is: ‘Aimer, vivre ou craindre, c’est un question de mémoire’, which might be translated as: ‘To love, to live or to be scared, it’s all a question of memory’. These are not terrible misjudgements, more a case of a translator slightly overstepping the mark. If they were isolated incidents, it would matter less, but unfortunately they are not, and this only added to my discomfiture.
The mountains around Manosque, the deep valleys and the forested hillsides, provide the backdrop, or rather the context, for all of Giono’s writings. We are drawn, in his stories, towards some elemental and chthonic myth of home, and yet village life, in Giono, is never quite what it seems. His fullest and most convincing characters, men and women alike, share a kind of emphatic yet amoral physicality; neither existentialists nor primitives, they are people with roots; people who know what and who they are, even if they lack ego or even ‘identity’ in any modern, strictlyindividualistic sense. I’d be tempted to call them animists were animism not such a questionable term, much like ‘nature’ — as though nature were something distinct from us, which we visit or even, God forbid, ‘get back to’. ‘The very fact that we have a word for “nature” is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as a part of it’, write Kingsworth and Hine in Uncivilisation, and their Dark Mountain Project offers a perspective that is likely to ring a few bells for anyone who admires Giono’s work, or rejects the fond conceit of human progress.
The premise of The Open Road is simple: we follow the travels of the unnamed narrator, a solitary vagabond, across the hills and valleys of Alpine Provence as autumn turns to winter, some time around 1950, the year the novel was written. The story is narrated in first person, present tense, and unbroken by chapters, giving a seamless, almost dreamlike quality to the whole. In fact it is that oneiric sense of non-sequitur, and of the narrator’s seeming indifference to outcomes, as well as the contradictory impulses that steer his decisions — if indeed he can actually be said to take decisions — that most impressed me on my first reading, and of which I was reminded this second time around.
We first meet our man hitch-hiking at the side of the road. When a lorry pulls up he falls into conversation with the driver about the availability of jobs in the area. The driver asks what kind of work he is looking for, and the man replies: ‘A bit of everything. A hundred trades, a hundred headaches’. (Again, a translation quibble: the French is the alliterative ‘Cent métiers, cent misères’. By expressing ‘misères’ — miseries, misfortunes — as ‘headaches’, the translation not only misses out on a chance to replicate the music of the original — something like ‘a hundred trades, a hundred tribulations’ — it also relegates the narrator’s quip about work from existential grievance to mere gripe or irritation.)
But translation issues aside, there are already — by Page 2 — signs that things are not quite right. The lorry, ominously, is ‘hauling acid for a factory’, and the driver has to make the delivery three times a day, an eighty-mile trip each way in order to hit his target. Four trips and he starts making a bonus. It soon becomes apparent that there is a lot of work around, because the country is undergoing ‘reconstruction’ here and elsewhere, due to the ravages of war. In fact the remnants of war and occupation are everywhere visible, as are the trophies that have landed in France since its end, from the American army raincoat worn by the narrator to the American-made farm machinery that he showcases for one of his employers, and the American cigarettes smoked by his sometime companion, ‘the artist’. Modernity has encroached on this rural landscape in the form of goods imported from the land of the victor. A sense of recent upheaval, and the ambiguity with which the narrator faces the challenges of the day seem to suggest that rather more is going on than might first be apparent. Mention is made of the war in Indochina (Vietnam) as France embarks on a sordid struggle to hang onto the last of her colonies. There is a sense of uncertainty, even of anxiety in the air. Perhaps we could call it ‘cultural anxiety’, of which our protagonist is only too keenly aware. We might look to the novel’s epigraph, taken from Hamlet, for some clue or insight:
Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:
I pray thee stay with us: go not to Wittenberg.
This seemingly commonplace entreaty to a son to stay at home, not to abandon the mother, sits rather strangely at the start of a novel in which the protagonist is always on the move, never once makes mention of his family, nor ever suggests that he might be missed elsewhere. Since Giono’s characters are most often individuals who live their entire lives in one place, this novel is unusual in that its narrator is a drifter. He is a stranger to the villages he passes through: every place he encounters, he is visiting for the first time. Moreover, very early on, he says that chateaus with turrets ‘scare the shit’ out of him, perhaps a reference to his having spent time inside, or else, given the recent war, a prison camp. So why the reference to a mother’s prayers?
The man walks or hitches from village to village, and although these places are unfamiliar to him, he is an astute observer of the flora and fauna, as well as the people (most especially the women) in the places he passes through. He takes on odd jobs, looks after a walnut-oil mill, fixes things, and forms a curious friendship with a man he calls ‘the artist’, a fellow vagrant whom he meets up with early in the novel. The artist does no work but rather earns his keep as a card sharp.
From the outset, the narrator’s relationship with the artist is ambivalent:
I see a guy sitting on the boulders next to the rushing stream . . . As I get closer, I can make out he’s holding a guitar between his legs.
I ask him, “What are you up to?”
He raises his head: he has a nasty gaze. A moment later, he answers, “I’m fixing this, see.” He’s carving a tuning peg with his knife. He’s a young guy. I don’t like the way he looks. But I’m watching his skilful hands, and I stick around.
He asks if I’m going to the fair. I tell him I didn’t know there was a fair. I want to speak nicely to him. He’s tanned. His hair is curly. He looks like a girl and he’s strong. Right away, his gaze was so off-putting, I want to see it again. I don’t think he made it nasty on purpose. It was just his natural look.
There is so much here that resists unpacking: the fact that the artist has a ‘nasty gaze’ and yet our man wants to see it again; the fact that he both ‘looks like a girl’ and that ‘he’s strong’; the idea that the narrator finds the stranger’s gaze ‘so off-putting’ that he wants to see it again.
It comes as no surprise, given this new string of non-sequiturs — including a thinly disguised homoeroticism — that the two men fall in together. But the ease with which the narrator accepts his own ambivalence toward the artist is something which, for me, fuels the central conundrum of the novel: the chemistry between the two men, and the way in which the relationship unravels.
At that first encounter, the artist asks our man to accompany him to a fair in the nearby town. Reasonably enough, the narrator wants to know more about his companion, but he holds back, since, he says, he knows that the artist would only tell him lies, and in a way that is what he’d prefer, since ‘if he told me the truth, I’m afraid it would make me sick.’ And on this rather unusual premise the two start out their association — ‘friendship’ seems too intimate a name for it, something about which the narrator comments: ‘There are plenty of things about him that annoy me. I wouldn’t want this kind of man as a friend.’ We learn that the artist plays his guitar at fairs and village dances in the area, but this is only a sideline to his main source of income, as a card sharp. Not only does he cheat at cards, he does so with such style and artistry that the narrator is astonished and impressed in equal measure; smitten, in spite of himself. He misses the artist when he disappears after being beaten up, and he does refer to him as a ‘buddy’, however obfuscating the rest of his description:
. . . that glorious buddy I’m talking about is in reality the slimiest bastard on the face of the earth: absolute scum, thief, liar, in it for himself, nastiness incarnate, capable of swindling his own parents, happy as a pig in shit. No matter how thick I lay it on him, I still miss him.
The artist is a study in raw egotism: obsessed with money, he is rapacious, arrogant and yet oddly vulnerable. The narrator, by contrast, is solid, trustworthy, and only a little vain (he tends to his beard with the fastidiousness of a dandy). From the outset it seems almost inevitable that the artist will meet with some sort of comeuppance, but what is extraordinary are the lengths to which the narrator will go to rescue and protect him. An initial act of violence provokes a sort of a chain reaction, and the story shifts tone. The novel then becomes something darker and more restless until the narrator finally takes action, revealing his own wayward and ruthless moral code.
In his introduction to this edition, Jacques Le Gall makes an interesting comparison with the Jack Kerouac of On the Road, a story ‘of two guys hitching to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else.’ Although, as this quotation from Kerouac’s 1948 journal might suggest, there are points of intersection between the two novels, it seems to me too simplistic a comparison, and Giono has always been a superior psychologist and observer of human foibles than Kerouac; moreover The Open Road is, in my opinion, a far more interesting novel than On the Road. There is certainly a kinship between the two works in terms of their brevity of composition, Kerouac hammering out the first draft of On the Road over three weeks in 1951, and Giono taking only two months to complete his novel, in a break between shifts on The Hussard on the Roof. But here the congruences end.
Earlier I mentioned that one of the problems of translating a novel like Les Grands Chemins is to decide what kind of a slang one translates into. In a novel as packed with idioms and locutions as this, the dialect and register one opts for is always going to be a gamble. Add to that the plethora of aphorisms with which the narrator peppers his account and you have something like a translator’s nightmare. Paul Eprile has chosen to adopt the diction of the American 1950s, even of the beatnik, and this offers us ‘broads’ for women (for the offensive and outdated French gonzesses), or ‘java’ for coffee. We also have ‘chicks’ — which, sadly, is appropriate for the era — and on other occasions the narrator ‘takes a dump’ and so on. Admittedly our narrator is a hobo à la française and accommodation to the street language of the era seems fitting, up to a point. I can’t quite see our narrator digging the zeitgeist in Big Sur, or jiving to the electric Kool-aid acid test with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and so to an extent the association with beat lit is misleading, but when all is said and done, the translation of dialect and slang idioms is always going to present problems. I don’t want to come down too heavily on Paul Eprile, who had to make some difficult choices, and whose translation of Colline — another tricky work, full of poetic imagery and Provencal idioms — I enjoyed very much. The fact that I failed to connect with this novel in English is probably no fault of his. And here’s the thing. My main problem with The Open Road is the one that I started out with: it failed to live up to the memory I had of it. So, on completing this review, I pick up my old copy, and re-read the original version, and at once I am back in Giono’s world, and it all makes sense, in its own inimitable fashion. As I said, some novels are more untranslatable than others.
Paul Eprile’s translation of The Open Road by Jean Giono is published by New York Review Books.
This piece first appeared in Wales Arts Review on 02.02.2022
When we set out, just past Castell Dinas, we pass a dog driving a tractor. Or so it seems.
The shadow of Bruno the dog is long. We see him everywhere. Every morning when I first go downstairs I expect to see him, lying on his rug by the front door. Making coffee I expect him to approach me, nuzzle the back of my knee with his snout. I expect him to stand by the back door, waiting to be let out for a pee and on returning inside to stand by the fridge, awaiting his treat. But he isn’t there.
In David Shield’s book, Reality Hunger, I come across this:
‘In English, the term memoir comes directly from the French for memory, mémoire, a word that is derived from the Latin for the same, memoria. And yet more deeply rooted in the word memoir is a far less confident one. Embedded in Latin’s memoria is the ancient Greek mérmeros, an offshoot of the Avestic Persian mermara, itself a derivative of the Indo-European for that which we can think about but cannot grasp: mer-mer, ‘to vividly wonder,’ ‘to be anxious,’ ‘to exhaustingly ponder.’’
The Chambers dictionary of etymology links ‘mourning’ and ‘mourn’ with old Saxon ‘mornian’, to mourn, and Old High German mornen, Icelandic ‘morna’ — but goes on to say ‘cognate with Latin memoria (mindful) see MEMORY’. So I look at ‘Memory’ in the etymological dictionary and sure enough, Shields is right: ‘Latin memor is cognate with Greek mérmēra = care, trouble, mermaírein = be anxious or thoughtful.’
Mermeros was a figure from Greek Mythology, a son of Jason, along with Pheres. Apparently the brothers were killed either by the Corinthians or by Medea, for reasons that vary depending on the rendition (see Medea). In one account, Mermeros was killed by a lioness while out hunting.
Iolaus mermeros is a butterfly of the Lycaenidae family. It is found on Madagascar.
Mermeros in ancient Greek means ‘a state of worry or anxiety’.
I find a blog written by the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who applies the concept of mermeros to the crisis of the world’s ecosystem: ‘Perhaps we should expand the psychoterratic typology beyond an established term such as ‘ecoanxiety’ to include a concept like ‘mermerosity’ or what I would define as the pre-solastalgic state of being worried about the possible passing of the familiar and its replacement by that which does not sit comfortably within one’s sense of place. I begin to mourn for that which I know will become endangered or extinct even before these events unfold. I know and worry that the coming summer will be too hot and will have a huge wildfire threat. I often have a tight knot of mermerosity inside me when I consider the scale of negative change going on around me and what disaster might happen next.’
Albrecht goes on to suggest that a new kind of mourning ‘might contains the emergent elements of detailed knowledge of causality, anthropogenic culpability and enhanced empathy for the non-human’ . . . ‘The etymological origins of the word ‘mourning’ come from the Greek language, mermeros related to ‘a state of being worried’ and its meaning is associated with being troubled and to grieve. We can see from these ancient origins that mourning is a versatile concept that can be applied to any context, present and future, not just to the death of humans, where there is grieving and worry about a negative state of affairs.’
On the day of Storm Eunice, I walk with my daughter Sioned up to Pen Trumau, starting from Castell Dinas, just off the Crickhowell to Talgarth Road. Castell Dinas was an Iron Age Fort that later sprouted a Norman Castle, of which the ruins are still visible. At 450 metres it is the highest castle in that hybrid geo-political entity ‘England and Wales’. It has the dubious privilege of having been sacked by two Welsh warlords, first by Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in 1233 and subsequently by Owain Glyndŵr on his visit to these parts circa 1405, on his way to Crickhowell. He burned down the castle there also.
On the south-west facing side of Pen Trumau we are out of the wind, but once on the ridge beneath Mynydd Llysiau we struggle to stay on our feet: leaning into the wind becomes an effort of the will. There is no way to depict the wind in a photograph of a treeless landscape, but the posture tells us pretty much all we need to know about the wind.
By the time we hit the ridge between Pen Trumau and Waun Fach we realise that the effort required to walk is more than we can sustain. I am tired and out of sorts in any case; since Bruno’s death I’ve been enduring a kind of failure to engage with thought, which drains my energy. Sometimes I feel I’m better off not thinking at all, that I’d rather be merely sentient, like a beast of the field. So much cerebral processing in the human. And for what?
As we descend from the mountain, and I look down over Cwm Grwyne Fechan, and beyond, to the ridge behind Pen Allt Mawr and westward, and I notice once more the way that the hills fold into one another creating a trompe l’oeil effect, the curve of a hillside concealed by another, a process of continual enfolding, that reminds me of something to do with grammar: the Black Mountains as a single recursive sentence, its hills clauses hidden within other clauses, disappearing from sight as you round a contour or cross a ridge.
Choose a day of red weather; no, leave the weather out of it, let the day choose you.
You decide to walk to Bal Mawr, setting out from the five ways junction, by the grey telephone box, and up to the ancient hill fort of Twyn y Gaer. You try to imagine the people who once lived here, on this windy outcrop . . . their huts and stone circles and rites of fire . . . and what of their songs? And their dogs, howling across the valley at the moon.
Twyn y Gaer lies at the centre of a trio of hill forts: Crug Hywel (known locally as Table Mountain) to the west and Tre-wyn, at the southern end of Hatterall Hill, to the east. Were the three settlements linked in some way? Their human inhabitants shared these hills with wolf, bear and wild boar. Did they have common enemies before the Romans came, with their regimented infantry and swift Caspian cavalry?
It will be a day of all weathers: sunshine, biting wind, rain and even hail. You stride into the wind and remember the days when you and the dog walked out together, which seems so long ago already. The dog is old now, he cannot join you. He sits on a rug back home in Grangetown.
As you walk from Garn Wen towards the rough-hewn steps that climb to Bal Mawr you begin to wonder — and this is not such a non-sequitur as it might appear — about the writer’s life and how it has become almost impossible to write a line without somehow becoming embroiled in identity politics.
A passage, only half tongue in cheek, from the novel you have just been reading* comes to mind, voiced by a disenchanted pale male: ‘It’s a kind of double bind, isn’t it. The privileged shouldn’t write about themselves, because that furthers the agenda of the imperialist white patriarchy. But they also shouldn’t write about other groups, because that would be cultural appropriation.’ I don’t want to be typecast any more than I wish to stereotype others. Identity politics sucks. You’re better off up a mountain, keeping schtum.
But you can’t stay up here forever. The badger faced sheep would laugh at you.
When you descend to the valley the sky will clear once more, which you will perceive as a kind of blessing. Not that you expect a blessing of any kind, only something to avert the waiting, and the dog, back home will look up when you return, slowly wag his tail in greeting, but he will know that you have been up the mountain without him and he will be sad.
At the bottom of the hill, beside the stream, sits the Tabernacl, built in 1837, a Baptist Chapel serving the community of Gwryne Fawr and Fforest Coalpit. No one lives in the small attached manse, and nor is it for sale. The past is all around you and the future is nothing more than a hypothesis.
*The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
Partrishow, tucked away in the folds of the Black Mountains, was named for a sixth century holy man called Issui, who settled beside a well in a remote hillside gully. The story goes that Issui was robbed and murdered by a passing traveller whom he had offered shelter for the night. The site became a place of pilgrimage, and the water from the well acquired healing properties. Early in the eleventh century a pilgrim who had been cured of sickness donated a bag of gold to build a church just up the hill from the well.
An eleventh century megalithic font remains intact from those times, inscribed with the words ‘Menhir made me in the time of Genillin’. (Genyllin Foel was son of Rhys Coch, Prince of Powys and Lord of Ystradyw.) Later, in the fifteenth century, the church was rebuilt and a beautiful rood screen, carved of Irish oak, installed. A figure of Doom, armed with spade, scythe and hourglass, was added in the seventeenth century.
In 1188, the church was visited by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde. Baldwin was accompanied by a retinue of soldiers and servants, and an irascible clerk named Gerald of Wales (known alternatively as Giraldus Cambrensis or Gerallt Gymro). Gerald was of Norman and Welsh lineage, and was a complex character, who had allegiances toward the Welsh, but whose Norman ancestry, and the fact that the Normans held the reins of power, meant that, by and large, he remained a spokesman for the occupiers. This was his summary of the people of the Black Mountains:
‘The natives of these parts are much given to implacable quarrels and never-ending disputes. They spend their time fighting each other and shed their blood freely in internecine feuds. I leave it to others to tell you about the inhuman crimes which have been committed there in our lifetime: marriages most cruelly brought about, inflicted rather than contracted, only to be cut short by separation and bloodshed, and many other savage acts of violence.’
The purpose of Bishop Baldwin’s journey through Wales was to recruit for the Third Crusade (1189-92). I try to imagine the scene, the priest, decked out in his finery, shouting out his sermon beneath the stone cross that still stands by the entrance to the little church.
But what would those shepherds and landless peasants — people who laboured to eke out a living from this ungiving soil — have made of the Archbishop’s summons to travel countless miles across the sea to save the city of God?
At the time of the crusades, the ordinary foot-soldiers, the kind being recruited by Baldwin here in the Black Mountains, believed that the Jerusalem they were being sent to deliver from the occupying Moslems was one and the same city as that described by John in his Book of Revelation: a glittering bejewelled city which promised the attainment of eternal bliss. They would have been sorely disappointed by what they found.
Baldwin never returned from the crusade. Having set off in April 1190 alongside Richard the Lion Heart as commander in chief of the army, he arrived in the Holy Land in September, ahead of his king. Shortly afterward, plague ravaged the crusaders’ camp and Baldwin died near Acre, before the year was out.
Gerald of Wales also failed in his ambition, which was to become Bishop of St David’s, in Pembrokeshire. After years of dispute, in which he failed to convince Pope Innocent III to agree his appointment to the bishopric, he resigned from his post as archdeacon of Brecon and wrote a letter of complaint to the pope, which famously includes these words:
‘Because I am a Welshman am I to be debarred from all preferments in Wales? On the same reasoning so would an Englishman in England, a Frenchman in France, and Italian in Italy. But I am sprung from the Princes of Wales and the Barons of the Marches, and when I see injustice in either race I hate it.’
On New Year’s Eve we climb the Ffwyddog ridge, that separates the valley of Grwyne Fawr from the Vale of Ewyas. It is warm for the time of year, but not so warm, nor so dry that we do not need extra layers and raincoats. The sun makes an effort to break through layers of cumulus, but to little avail. Once there is the glimmer of a rainbow, but the particles that form it dissolve almost as quickly as they assemble, or more correctly speaking, we are standing in the wrong place to see it. Everything is in motion; everything is a part of the spiral.
The contours of these hills shift with each change of the light, and with every turn of a story. Let’s imagine that the course of the earth’s trajectory shifts by a fraction of a millimetre, almost imperceptibly. You are a Norman baron on a journey across Wales, and you make the decision, at a given moment, to send your men-at-arms home, keeping only a bard and a fiddler and a clown. You are advised by your trusted companion that this might not be best idea when travelling through hostile territory, but the day is bright and it is springtime. What could possibly go wrong?
On the Ffwyddog ridge stands Dial Garreg, the stone of revenge. Here, on 15 April 1136, Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare and his small retinue were cut down in an ambush led by Morgan ap Owain, Lord of Caerleon, his brother Iorwerth, and their men. De Clare was en route to Ceredigion after returning to Wales in the company of his friend Brian Fitz Count de Wallingford, who held the Barony of Abergavenny. The two men had probably spent the night at Brian’s castle there.
Gerald of Wales, in his Journey Through Wales, written fifty years after the event, takes up the story:
‘A short time after the death of Henry I, King of the English, it happened that Richard de Clare, a nobleman of high birth who, in addition to the Clare estates, held Cardiganshire in South Wales, passed this way . . . He was accompanied by a large force of men-at-arms led by Brian de Wallingford, then overlord of this area, who was acting as his guide through the pass. When they reached the entrance to the wood, Richard de Clare sent back Brian and his men, and rode unarmed into the forest, although this was much against Brian’s wishes, and indeed, against his express advice. Richard was foolish enough to imagine the trackway was safe. Ahead of him went a singer to announce his coming and a fiddler who accompanied the singer on his instrument. From then onwards things happened very quickly. The Welsh had prepared an ambush for Richard. All of a sudden Iorwerth, the brother of Morgan of Caerleon, and others of their family, rushed out from where they were hidden in the thickets, cut down Richard de Clare and most of his men, and made off with their baggage which they had seized in this savage way. Just how ill-advised and foolhardy it is to be presumptuous is made only too obvious by disasters of this sort. We learn to be careful about the future and to exercise caution even when all seems to be going well. To rush on regardless is simply false bravado. It is at once rash and inconsiderate to take no heed at all of the advice given by those who are trying to help us.’
Despite this the sanctimonious advice after the event, I do find it strange that Gerald tells us that Richard entered the woods ‘unarmed’ — which would have been unheard of for a man of his position at this time.
The Welsh were mightily peeved by the intrusion of the Norman marcher barons, such as de Clare, onto their territory, what with their tithes and taxes, their habit of lording over the locals, a habit which has been pursued by the English towards the Welsh ever since. This assassination was but a small item in the period of unrest that followed the death of Henry I of England, prelude to a gruelling litany of betrayals and bloodbaths that took place over several centuries on these borderlands between the Norman, and later Anglo-Norman barons, and their Welsh (and sometimes Cymro-Norman) neighbours.
After the killing of de Clare, Morgan went on to capture Usk castle, and thus ruled over the area now known as Monmouthshire, calling himself King of Gwent. His lordship of Caerleon, at least, was recognised by Henry II, but only until 1158, when Morgan and his bard Gwrgant ap Rhys were, in their turn, murdered by Ifor Bach, the Welsh lord of Senghenydd, famous for scaling Cardiff Castle with a ladder and kidnapping its incumbent, William Fitz Robert, Earl of Gloucester, along with his wife and child. Ifor carried out his abduction in retaliation for Fitz Robert’s theft of land that Ifor claimed as his own, and he succeeded in this mission.
A well-known Cardiff night club is named after Ifor Bach. Nothing much is named after Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, but the stone of revenge stands as testament to his recklessness. The story suggests that this area was once densely wooded, as were other swathes of these hills.
Following the lane back down the Grwyne Fawr valley, we pass a corrugated iron shed, on one side of which are the words BEWARE DOG, and on the other, in the photo, THIEVES AGAIN. This message could be read in several ways.
Sometimes our reading maps onto our walks. Or vice versa. The night before I had been reading in Raymond Williams’ People of the Black Mountains how Glyn goes in search of his Taid one evening, when the older man fails to return from a long walk in the hills. He has left a note for this daughter, Megan, and grandson Glyn, which includes the lines:
‘It is such a lovely day, so still and bright, that I’m taking a lift back . . . so that I can go once again along the best of all walks through these mountains: what you’ve heard me call its heart line. I shall go up by Twyn y Gaer and along its old pastures to the Stone of Vengeance, then to the old circle at Garn Wen and the Ewyas tower, along the ridge above the reservoir . . . across Gospel Pass and along the ridge to Penybeacon, then as always above Blaen Mynwy and past Llech y Ladron to our spot height above Blaen Olchon and so along the Cat’s Back to the Rhew and the lane to the house.’
A conversation has just taken place between Glyn and his mother, Megan, in which Megan has expressed concern about her father’s late return:
‘Has he been well?’ Megan asked, forcing her voice.
‘Yes, as usual. He’s got so much more energy than the rest of us.’
‘Seems to have more energy.’
‘Yes, because he lives in one piece.’ ‘
‘He’s sixty-eight, Glyn.’
‘In one piece, in one place. It makes all the difference.’
So that is the opening premise, and like Glyn, who sets out to do his Taid’s walk in reverse, we ventured up Crib y Gath (the Cat’s Back) in his footsteps. Given that it was a day of low hanging cloud in late December, our expectations were limited, but I was also deeply conscious of my own investment in these mountains, and of what I have learned about them, and continue to learn, over many years. Williams also had thoughts, which he expressed, via his protagonist Glyn, in another passage:
‘Solid traces of memory! The mountains were too open, too emphatic, to be reduced to personal recollection: the madeleine, the shout in the street. What moved, if at all, in the moonlit expanse was a common memory, over a common forgetting. In what could be seen as its barrenness, under this pale light, there might be the sense of tabula rasa: an empty ground on which new shapes could move. Yet that ideal of a dissident and dislocated mind, that illusion of clearing a space for wholly novel purposes, concealed, as did these mountains, old and deep traces along which lives still moved. An empty and marginal land, in which the buried history was still full and general, was waiting to be touched and to move.’
Over the past month, over several excursions, I have become accustomed to a very particular light in which these hillsides bathe when the cloud is thinning and the sun is about to drop behind the western skyline. The effect of this densely filtered sunlight — beginning about an hour before sunset — is to cast an amber wash over everything, so that the whole spread of the upland; the peat bogs, the wide expanse of tussock grass and sphagnum, all of it, is luminescent with an understated warming glow. Unfortunately, this light does not translate.
The state into which I plunge is paradoxical; both deeply present and yet strangely detached, as though, like Williams’ protagonist, with ‘dissident and dislocated mind’ I too were ‘moving over an empty ground on which new shapes could move’.
For a moment, then, I consider this steep-sided ridge, Crib y Gath, as a mighty ship, plying the deep pasturelands, into a sea of mist. At the far prow, on a rocky outpost, can be seen a single figure — my daughter Rhiannon — unwittingly performing the lead role in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. To the right, the cloud covers the Olchon valley and creeps up the walls of Hatterrall Hill. In that moment everything lies fully within view, circumscribed by mist and as improbable as the hawthorn that sprouts at right angles to the rock. In fact the entire landscape creates its own rules of harmony, lives by its own innate rhythms. There is a symmetry to it all, which I cannot fathom, but which, as the years pass, seems ever more deeply to resemble a kind of consciousness.
Walking along the ridge that separates Cwm Grwyne Fawr from the Vale of Ewyas, I am attentive to the details, and enter a familiar state of watchful trance. But the details are relatively few when walking in a cloud, which swirls around me, as though I were on the deck of a great liner plying the folds of the sky. Far off to the south, a mysterious light beckons, the distant glow of somewhere. I know exactly where I am headed, but am aware that if I go the way I had planned when I set out I will be walking down much of the mountain in the dark: I decide to take a short cut, despite all the received and accepted wisdom about not taking shortcuts. But there are times when it is necessary, and this route is familiar. You remember the line from Roethke’s poem ‘I learn by going where I have to go’ but not necessarily, not always.
I cross paths with a wandering pony, a grey, but of such a strange hue as though stained with blue dye. I call her Ceridwen, I’m not sure why, and tell her I have an apple, but she isn’t listening. Another ambient mortal taking a shortcut over the marsh, talking to horses, imagining I am someone I am not. It is difficult enough surviving on this moor without having to conform to the fantasies of some passerby. And I too am having difficulty negotiating the exceedingly lumpy and boggy terrain, but the shortcut is effective and I cut a chunk off the circuit, and eventually descend though rock and moss to sit by the stream, y grwyne fawr, though it is hardly big, even in comparison with its sibling, y grwyne fechan (the little grwyne), and I sit and eat my apple and then a cheese sandwich, under the curious gaze of another blue pony. I pour coffee from my flask and watch as nothing much takes place. Here there is no mist; the cloud begins in a sheet around thirty metres above the stream, hugging the sides of the mountain above my head; due to the meteorological conditions it has no choice to be anything other than a cloud, but there is no ‘it’, I tell myself, just billions of tiny water droplets, visible water vapour, crowding around the upper reaches of the mountain. A few late crows harass the gibbous moon. As I descend the path past the reservoir, dusk is falling, and by the time I am past the dam, the darkness has settled, or rather, the accumulation of black air is complete. It is also noticeably cooler. A light shines from the window of a solitary farmhouse, the only dwelling in the upper reaches of the valley. There is always, in that descent towards human habitation at nightfall, a sense of safe return, something as primordial and as reassuring as a fire, a hearth, the company of kin.
Before the sheep, there were horses. People always associate sheep with these hills, and for good reason. The sheep have been here for three thousand years, but before the sheep, there were horses. Always there were the horses, for as long as there were men and women. Sheep became widespread on the Black Mountains during the Bronze Age, and their wool was one of the first textiles to be spun here. In Roman times the wool from these lands became famous for its quality. But the horses were here before the sheep. Tough, hardy, agile, less fussy eaters than the sheep, the horses formed a part of the landscape and the landscape formed the horses, and for much of the neolithic period, along with red deer, they were the most common large mammals living on these hills, which they shared with their two major predators, men and wolves. Both wolves and men hunted them in packs. There were brown bears too, of course, and lynxes, though the lynxes wouldn’t have hunted ponies. Nor the bears, for that matter. Later, in the first millennium BCE, the smaller Caspian breed of horse from Iran arrived, and they were certainly the dominant breed after the arrival of the Romans; they interbred with the indigenous stock to create the Welsh mountain pony of today. In this dead pony are all the dead ponies I have ever come across on these moors. The sadness of horses is immeasurable, cannot be sought in these pitiful blind eyes.
In his novel People of the Black Mountains (Volume 1: the Beginning) Raymond Williams imagines a neolithic horse hunt:
‘The five horses had stopped at the edge of the shale. The first had ventured in, then slipped and retreated. The men closed steadily. A red mare, facing them, turned suddenly and went in, slithering, on the shale. The others stood uncertainly, but as the men still advanced they turned and followed her, heaving and scrambling for a footing. The men ran to the edge of the shale, and suddenly Maran and his two were standing in the notch of the pass. They had loose stones for their slings and aimed them down at the legs of the horses, which were scrambling, terrified, in the deep shale. There were several hits on the legs. Maran and the others lifted their spears. But now the men also were scrambling. A young stallion, bleeding from a leg, broke back and ran through the line. Seran threw and missed. Then the red mare was down. Marod and Piran ran close and speared her. The big eyes rolled as she threshed her bleeding legs. Then Maran was above her, driving a last, deliberate thrust to the heart. She was dying but the others had broken, two back down the valley, one through and over the pass to the plateau. Piran began a chase but came back. Maran finished the mare with a stone.’
Raymond Williams, People Of The Black Mountains Vol.I: The Beginning v. 1 . Random House. Kindle Edition.
Following the hilltop path, there is a warm patina, almost a glow, to the afternoon, despite the chill. You look down on this sleeve of land that is Cwm Grwyne Fechan. You have been walking here your entire life. The autumn colours on the hills, ranging from gold to russet to purple, the gradations of light, and the untamed horses, many of them the descendants of those abandoned by their owners over the years, left to breed in the wild, so that a new race has emerged from the stock of indigenous ponies and the incomers. You have a half-eaten apple, but you know they will not approach, so you show it, and toss it gently towards the nearest horse. He stares at you, unblinking. You shudder with the fleeting memory of something, then it is gone. The valley is small, and yet so vast. You experience the moment like a shaft of joy, even though there is something else, something that brings you to the edge of tears. You know so little. Back home, you watch the short video and the view across the valley brings to mind the final lines of ‘The Sleeping Lord’ by David Jones – who once lived not far from here – lines that now read as extraordinarily prescient:
yet he sleeps on very deep is his slumber: how long has he been the sleeping lord? are the clammy ferns his rustling vallance does the buried rowan ward him from evil, or does he ward the tanglewood and the denizens of the wood are the stunted oaks his gnarled guard or are their knarred limbs strong with his sap? Do the small black horses grass on the hunch of his shoulders? are the hills his couch or is he the couchant hills? Are the slumbering valleys him in slumber are the still undulations the still limbs of him sleeping? Is the configuration of the land the furrowed body of the lord are the dark ridges his dented greaves do the trickling gullies yet drain his hog-wounds? Does the land wait the sleeping lord or is the wasted land that very lord who sleeps?
The following is an extract from my as yet unpublished travel memoir, Ambassador of Nowhere. It concerns a trip to Mexico in 2014.
Caminar en esta zona no le recomiendo: es muy peligroso, said the security guard on the graveyard shift at my hotel in Cuernavaca, as I set out for a midnight stroll. ‘I don’t recommend walking in this area: it’s very dangerous’. I am staying at the Hacienda Cortés, a sugar mill built in 1530 by the conquistador, Hernán Cortés, for the son he had with his mistress, La Malinche, and worked by the family – or rather, their slaves – until it fell into disuse and was, much later, reinvented as a hotel. Guests are housed in small bungalows, each with its own tiny patio garden.
Earlier there was a storm, rocking the trees outside my room, which shed leaves like thin leathery hands and a quantity of other solid matter, along with a downpour of such intensity that I put off heading downtown, settling instead for the more local comforts of the hotel restaurant.
On the latest leg of my Mexican journey, I have just spent a day and a night in Mexico City, returning to the capital from Veracruz to attend a tertulia, a literary discussion group organised by the poet Fabio Morábito and friends. Afterwards I visited the barrio of Mixcoac, passing Octavio Paz’s family home en route, before returning to the more familiar territory of Condesa, and dinner at Luigi’s with Pedro Serrano and Carlos López Beltrán.
Back on the bus to Cuernavaca, the perennial Mexican bus, we pass through the sprawling shanty outskirts of southern Mexico City and into the mist again. Daily travel awakens in the traveller a sense of permanent dislocation, which is of course what the word means; displacement, an absence of locus. I am drawn to Cuernavaca, not only for its alleged splendour, lying as it does, under the volcano – “plumed with emerald snow and drenched with brilliance” – and the setting for Malcolm Lowry’s magnificent, terrible novel of that name, but also because my friend, Peter, who died destitute on the streets of Athens thirty years ago, came here sometime in the 1970s in search of Lowry’s ghost, and to drink mescal.
The night before, I broke the journey from Veracruz by stopping off at the town of Puebla, where I had made vague plans to meet up with yet another poet. There, I witnessed an incident, insignificant in itself, which I could not shake off. As I was walking into town, an Indian woman – ‘Indian’ is not considered to be an offensive term in Mexico and Central America – utterly bedraggled, with long grey hair and dressed in rags, came running past me, chasing after a huge SUV, crying out, at volume and with some distress ‘Don Roberto, Don Roberto . . .’ She carried on at pace up the street calling out Don Robé . . . Don Robé . . . for an entire block, and I followed her until I could see the vehicle turning at the next set of lights. When I got to the junction, she had stopped, and was resting, hands on knees, her crevassed face fallen into a state of resigned torment. She seemed elderly, although poverty and stress and struggle probably added twenty years to her features. I asked her if she needed help, but she seemed not to see me. I asked again, are you all right? And she stared at me as if I were mad, as though the question – estás bien? – were so idiotic as to defy rational consideration. I cannot imagine what her story was, or what she felt she was owed by the object of her chase, the cruel, oblivious Don Roberto. Quite possibly, of course, she was delusional, and there was no ‘Don Roberto’ in the car that had driven away, only a random stranger, but the quality of her distress convinced me that some terrible injustice had been committed against her. The scenario was timeless, and her gasping of the honorific ‘Don’, as her spindly legs carried her in desperate pursuit somehow epitomized the gulf between want and privilege; his status and her subjugation. The image stayed with me as I rode the bus to Mexico City the following day, the massive form of Popocatépetl to my left caught fuzzily on my phone camera above the misty woodlands and broad meadows that gather around its base. The journey impressed on me the extraordinary diversity of the landscape; that within a few hours one can pass from the coast, across prairie, forest and the high sierra. The only constant is the truly terrible music being played full volume wherever you go.
I plan to read Under the Volcano in its proper setting, and I take my copy along with me to the dining room. Within an hour or so I am just as astonished – more so perhaps, because better able to acknowledge the scope of the achievement – by Lowry’s novel as I was the first time I read it, half a lifetime ago. I digest Michael Schmidt’s Introduction along with the chicken consommé, intrigued to discover that Schmidt grew up in the same streets that backdrop the story; and so I proceed to consume the first few chapters with my steak, nopales and avocado, washed down with a bottle of Chilean red, and I linger over dessert (fig tartlet and pistachio ice cream), then order coffee and a tequila. I have not eaten so much in months, and certainly not since my arrival in Mexico. By eleven, I have been reading for over three hours, having forgotten enough of the story for it to read like new.
In Lowry’s novel, we accompany the ex-Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, as he lives out the last day of his life – which also happens to be the Day of the Dead, November 2nd, 1938 – in Cuernavaca, which Lowry calls by its Nahuatl name, Quauhnahuac. Much of the novel is recounted in a stream of consciousness, describing the lurid visions of a man in the throes of alcoholic meltdown. The novel also narrates the events of the day in the external or material world, in which Geoffrey’s estranged wife, Yvonne, returns to him after a separation of several months. Others present – for at least a part of the Consul’s final day – are his half-brother Hugh, who has been intimately involved with Yvonne in the past, and is still attracted to her, the film director Laruelle (another of Yvonne’s ex-lovers), and a cast of minor characters who inhabit the actual town, as well as the infernal multitudes that populate Geoffrey Firmin’s increasingly haunted imagination as the story unfolds with steadily measured suspense – but with all the digressions of a mind in the throes of disintegration – towards its hallucinatory and terrifying climax. This duality, between the inner and the outer, between the spectacular writhing of Firmin’s tortured soul and the quotidian events that need to be negotiated if he is to have a function as a human being – an ‘animal with ideas’ – lies at the heart of the novel, and reflects a fundamental paradox in the life of the Consul, a tortuous, self-loathing self-portrait of his creator. ‘Function’ – not at all incidentally – is a word that is uttered with sinister insistence in the closing chapter by the police officer who will kill the Consul.
The novel has attained mythic stature for readers, its fans including numerous writers from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, as well as from the English-speaking world, since its publication in 1947, after a strenuous, decade-long gestation.
Despite filmic potential – as a classical tragedy set against a dramatic landscape – it has only made it to the cinema once, in one of John Huston’s last ventures, and although Albert Finney’s Consul is superb, the film fails to convince in its portrayal of the other lead characters, Yvonne and Hugh, perhaps for the very reasons that the novel fails: they are really not that interesting. Essentially, Lowry was only concerned with character: the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin.
Foiled in my plans for a late night constitutional by the watchman’s warning – I tend to err on the side of caution these days – I return to my room. I am a long-term insomniac, and although optimistically convinced that at some point I will ‘catch up’ on all the sleep I have missed, that rarely happens, and I suspect I will remain in a state of lack for the rest of my days. Instead, I read, drifting in and out of slumber on occasion, a rhythm that especially suits the reading of this book.
At one point, quite early in the novel, the Consul insists, with typical grandiosity, that he is involved in a ‘great battle’, although he is, at that moment, doing nothing more than discussing whether to go on a visit to the bullfight in a neighbouring town or to stay at home with Yvonne. That notion of ‘the battle’, the sense of carrying a massive burden, of suffering this great responsibility to ‘come through’ in a struggle for survival, is drawn upon by the Consul when he resists the opportunity of going home, of calling off the trip, of simply spending some time with poor, exhausted Yvonne. Laruelle, his friend, reminds him: ‘you’ve got her back . . . you’ve got this chance”, to which the Consul replies, with magnificent self-importance, “You are interfering with my great battle” – and again, rhetorically: “You deny the greatness of my battle?” At the end of this passage the Consul continues speaking, taking Laruelle’s part in the conversation as well as his own: “even the suffering you do is largely unnecessary. Actually spurious.” But Laruelle isn’t there anymore. The Consul is talking to himself. For much of the book, if he is not talking to himself, he is addressing one of his inner demons or ‘familiars’, which amounts to the same thing.
One of the best examples of the Consul’s mind at battle with his familiars appears in Chapter Five, when he leaves Yvonne sleeping inside the house – or so he thinks (in fact Hugh has taken her riding) – in order to venture into the garden and retrieve a bottle of tequila he has kept hidden in the shrubbery. The chapter picks up on some of the novel’s main themes or ‘useful debris’, in which we find references to film and to cabalistic philosophy, varieties or brands of alcohol, the local geography, horses, flora and fauna, and we meet with dogs, which, in different forms, appear fifty-eight times over the course of the novel. The passage is worth citing in its entirety:
‘We warned you, we told you so, but now that in spite of all our pleas you have got yourself into this deplorable – .’ He recognised the tone of one of his familiars, faint among the other voices as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind. ‘ – condition,’ the voice went on severely, ‘you have to do something about it. Therefore we are leading you towards the accomplishment of this something.’ ‘I’m not going to drink,’ the Consul said, halting suddenly. ‘Or am I? Not mescal anyway.’ ‘Of course not, the bottle’s just there, behind that bush. Pick it up.’ ‘I can’t,’ he objected – ‘That’s right, take just one drink, just the necessary, the therapeutic drink: perhaps two drinks.’ ‘God,’ the Consul said. ‘Ah, Good. God. Christ.’ ‘Then you can say it doesn’t count.’ ‘It doesn’t. It isn’t mescal.’ ‘Of course not, it’s tequila. You might have another.’ ‘Thanks, I will.’ The Consul palsiedly readjusted the bottle to his lips. ‘Bliss. Jesus. Sanctuary . . . Horror,’ he added. ‘ – Stop. Put that bottle down, Geoffrey Firmin, what are you doing to yourself?’ another voice said in his ear so loudly he turned around. On the path before him a little snake he had thought a twig was rustling off into the bushes and he watched it a moment through his dark glasses, fascinated. It was a real snake all right. Not that he was bothered by anything so simple as snakes, he reflected with a degree of pride, gazing straight into the eyes of a dog. It was a pariah dog and disturbingly familiar. ‘Perro,’ he repeated, as it still stood there – but had not this incident occurred, was it not now, as it were, occurring an hour ago, he thought in a flash. Strange. He dropped the bottle which was of white corrugated glass – Tequila Añejo de Jalisco, it said on the label – out of sight into the undergrowth, looking about him. All seemed normal again. Anyway, both snake and dog had gone. And the voices had ceased . . .’
The familiar speaks to the Consul amid the din of other voices ‘as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind.’ This arresting image presents the Consul as a man awash in a sea of phantasmagoria, the idea of ‘being shot from behind’ heavily foreshadowing the novel’s ending. Moreover, the brisk discussion being carried out by the Consul with his familiar carries a toxic, comic – or toxically comical – element that will persist over several such scenes. Its insistent, hectoring tone both incites the Consul to drink (‘Pick it up’; ‘You might have another’) and at the same time to back off (‘horror’ . . . ‘Stop. Put that bottle down’), an argument that the Consul has with himself throughout the first half of the book, after which he is too drunk to care. The snake, cunningly disguised as a twig, appears as a symbol both of the Fall, and of man beguiled by woman. Not, of course, that the Consul was concerned ‘by anything so simple’ as snakes – and here again we are confronted by the man’s grandiosity; he, who has stared into the very mouth of hell (the book has close parallels with Dante’s Inferno), is not concerned by a mere serpent, and on this account he feels pride, before ‘gazing straight into the eyes of a dog,’ which recalls the ancient Mexican belief that these animals acted as guides to the underworld. The dog is ‘disturbingly familiar’, which is not surprising as we met this very dog a few pages earlier, when the Consul and Yvonne entered their property on Calle Nicaragua, and its ‘familiarity’ has an explicit double meaning also. The Consul’s reaction to it, too, is identical to the previous encounter, and he utters the word ‘perro’ (dog) as much in recognition as in description, thus iterating one of the central themes of the novel, that of perpetual repetition, or endless return.
I am not sure if the proliferation of animals in Under the Volcano has been given full critical treatment but it strikes me as one of the central features of the novel. One writer who has paid attention is Javier Marías. There is a section in his Written Lives in which Marías lists some of the disasters of Lowry’s own life as recounted by Lowry himself. The strange thing is that the three stories he tells all concern animals: (i) a pair of elephants allegedly spotted by Lowry and his friend John Sommerfield hanging out on a street corner in Fitzrovia in the 1930s; (ii) the occasion when Lowry, convinced that a passing horse had snorted at him ‘derisively’, punched the poor creature so hard (just below the ear) that it ‘quivered and sank to its knees’; and (iii) the time that Lowry, stroking a pet rabbit with his ‘small, clumsy hands’ accidentally broke the animal’s neck, only to be consumed by remorse, and ‘wandered the streets of London for two days carrying the corpse . . . consumed by self-loathing’.
In Under the Volcano, it is when the Consul is at his most lubricated and fluent that the animals begin to pile up in abundance, as in Chapter Five. If this is the case, it reflects that the mind – especially, perhaps, the alcoholic mind – thinks in terms of animals because animals provide a natural metaphoric filter. Animals, as Claude Lévi-Strauss insisted, are good to think with.
The references to animals are almost too many to name, but it is interesting to reflect on the peculiar term the Consul employs to refer to animals: ‘people without ideas’ (in contrast to his term for humans as ‘animals with ideas’). ‘Earlier it had been the insects; now these were closing in on him again, these animals, these people without ideas.’ They include a pariah dog with three legs ‘with the appearance of having lately been skinned’ (clearly a xolo), as well as, in Chapter Five alone, ponies, a snake, a tiger, scorpions, leafcutter ants, Quincey, his neighbour’s, cat; (pink) elephants, a lizard, humming-birds, butterflies, ants with petals or scarlet bloom, an unnamed insect (caught by Quincey’s cat); a snake in the grass and ‘a procession of thought like little elderly animals’; various birds, a bull, three black vultures, a caterpillar, a large cricket (with a face like a cat); a scorpion and some ‘murdered mosquitoes’. Indeed, ‘the whole insect world had somehow moved nearer and now was closing, rushing in upon him.’ Throughout the book flutter a host of birds, in their capacity as omens: in Chapter One alone we encounter ‘sleepy vultures’; ‘small, black, ugly birds, something like monstrous insects’; ‘a frantic hen’; ‘fowl roosting in apple trees’, and another vulture for good measure. In the book as a whole, I counted 153 references to mammals, insects and birds, and no doubt missed a few.
Lowry’s own ‘great battle’ with alcohol has been well documented, and not least through critical analysis of his masterpiece. He was never able to replicate the success of his singular, most powerful novel, and the reason is clear: he was too drunk, too much of the time. One of the best studies of Lowry and his writing is by the American writer and rock musician, David Ryan. In his intimate, exacting essay, Ryan says that Lowry, like most addicts, never developed a healthy self-identity, remaining wrapped in a state of infantile narcissism. Drawing on Lacanian theory, he claims that Lowry’s behaviour as an adult, his mammoth drinking binges and voluntary disappearances suggested an inability to distinguish between himself and the world around him, resulting in chaos with every misconceived utterance and histrionic gesture. That would certainly be true of his Consul, Geoffrey Firmin. And the ‘mirror’ theme is supported by a couple of instances recorded by those who knew Lowry.
One of Lowry’s biographers, Douglas Day, provides an anecdote from an old friend of the author, James Stern, who ‘recalled how fascinated he [Lowry] was with mirrors’, and recounts one episode at a party when Lowry disappeared, and Stern found him in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, snorting blood from his nose, which he caught in his hands and ‘thrust up to the ceiling , so that the whole place was red and white’, all the while staring at himself in the mirror and laughing. Lowry’s French translator, Clarisse Francillon, remembered his ‘habit of slyly watching for audience reaction whenever he was behaving outrageously’.
Among the many photographs of the writer posing, glass or bottle in hand, one shows him holding a mirror, reflecting his own image as he is being photographed; and this inevitably leads to the question: why do so many of the photos of Lowry – including those on the dust jackets of books about him – show the writer shirtless, dressed in bathing shorts, staring at the camera in a manner at once glazed and pompous, trying to make an impression with his meagre moustache and his chest pushed out like a bantam cock, as in the often-reproduced photo of Lowry at Burrard Inlet? Why so many photos of a half-naked Lowry? And when we get past the bared torso and the chest hair and the focus on the face – the one on the back cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Under the Volcano – there is something both arrogant and vapid and fearful in those cold, clear eyes. The gaze is, we might surmise, intended to be piercing and riveting, but our attention is distracted by the sparse filaments of the faint moustache, the suggestion of vulnerability in the chin and the plump cheeks, a vaguely satyric pointedness to the ears; in fact what the portrait suggests more than anything else is that the sitter knows that he is meant to be there, but is unfortunately elsewhere, unobtainable, or more likely nowhere, waiting for this to be over with so he can go get another gin. More gin, buckets-full if at all possible, rivers-full, oceans-full of gin. This fantasy, which I am attributing to Lowry, originates in the Consul’s delirious outburst in Under the Volcano, when he attempts to recall an earlier life in Granada, Spain:
How many bottles since then? In how many bottles had he hidden himself, since then alone? Suddenly he saw them, the bottles of aguardiente, of anís, of jerez, of Highland Queen, the glasses, a babel of glasses – towering, like the smoke from the train that day – built to the sky, then falling, the glasses toppling and crashing, falling downhill . . . bottles of Calvados dropped and broken, or bursting into smithereens, tossed into garbage heaps, flung into the sea, the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Caribbean . . . the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal . . . How indeed could he hope to find himself to begin again when, somewhere, perhaps, in one of those lost or broken bottles, in one of those glasses, lay, for ever, the solitary clue to his identity?
Oh, that beautiful tequila and beautiful mescal! The simplicity of the descriptor reminds me of Hemingway’s choice of adjectives when writing to his friend Archie MacLeish in June 1957. Having been restricted by his doctor to a single glass of wine per day with his evening meal, he looks forward, with euphoric anticipation, to ‘a nice good lovely glass of Marques de Riscal’. This is an impossible utterance in the mouth of anyone except a crazed devotee, but as expressed by a writer who avowed a parsimonious approach to adjectives, the collocation of ‘nice’, ‘good’ and ‘lovely’ must be regarded with deep suspicion.
Malcolm Lowry’s grotesque diminution, his descent into the wretched, querulous, occasionally violent individual who choked to death on his own vomit in a rented house in Hove, England – a place epitomising parochial English decorum – represents a pathetic shadow death compared to the Consul’s fictional passing, flung down a Mexican ravine after his drunken debacle in the El Faro bar, followed by a dead dog that someone throws after him.
It always seemed to me that what literature and alcohol had in common was that they both allowed, momentarily, the ability to watch the world from a place of enhanced perception, or even to provide the illusion that you were really engaging with the stuff of life at a heightened level. Lowry summarises this clairvoyant state perfectly in Under the Volcano, when the Consul attempts to explain to his wife, Yvonne, why he is the way he is:
‘But if you look at that sunlight there, ah, then perhaps you’ll get the answer, see, look at the way it falls through the window: what beauty can compare to that of a cantina in the early morning? . . . for not even the gates of heaven, opening wide to receive me, could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless joy as the iron screen that rolls up with a crash, as the unpadlocked jostling jalousies which admit those whose souls tremble with the drinks they carry unsteadily to their lips. All mystery, all hope, all disappointment, yes, all disaster, is here, beyond those swinging doors.’
And a little further on: ‘how, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’clock in the morning?’
I am tempted to compare this passage with Ronnie Duncan’s account of a visit to Crete with the Scottish poet W.S. Graham, in which Graham expresses an idea that would be familiar to Lowry’s Consul. Duncan is trying to get Graham to come out for a walk, to visit a museum, rather than continuing to drinking himself into oblivion – as he has done every day of the trip thus far – on the balcony of his hotel room:
So I held on like a terrier and eventually he gestured around the balcony – at the sea, mountains, beach and the tumble of houses on either side – and said that his task was to turn all these into words. ‘It is all’, he said, ‘better than I could ever have hoped’ – reminding me that he’d said this on arrival. And then it came to me that there was really nothing else he wanted or needed: this one experience of a Cretan setting, supplemented by visits to some all-Cretan tavernas, was all he could encompass or wished to encompass.
Lowry and his early morning cantinas, just as Graham and his Cretan tavernas; both of them are relaying an idea that promotes a kind of epiphany – what alcoholics are reputed to call ‘a moment of clarity.’ Compare ‘not even the gates of heaven, opening wide to receive me, could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless joy’ with ‘all he [Graham] could encompass or wished to encompass.’ And again, consider this eulogy to Lowry, written by his close friend Earle Birney, and cited in Schmidt’s Introduction: ‘. . . his whole life was a slow drowning in great lonely seas of alcohol and guilt. It was all one sea, and all his own. He sank in it a thousand times and struggled back up to reveal the creatures that swam around him under his glowing reefs and in his black abysses.’ Both Lowry and Graham shared the conviction that alcohol might open the gates of perception. How extraordinary that so much can be invested in an alcohol-enhanced vision of this kind, in which you are – or else believe you are – seeing more sharply, engaging more profoundly, empathising more absolutely, feeling more deeply; in other words, it might be said, replicating the aims of great literature.
How well I recognise this joyous, delusional state. During the most intense periods of my own drinking career this was all I wished for: to watch it all, to bathe in it, to sink into the sun-dappled splendour of the world. Perhaps – eventually – to turn it into words. I started serious early morning drinking while living in Hania, Crete, in my early twenties. It had always been taboo, I guess – recalling the story from my schooldays of a boy whose mother slept with a bottle of Scotch at her bedside – but once I started round-the-clock drinking, the chips were in; even I understood what it signified. And for my friend Peter, who lived in a tin shack next door, but who had once lived in Cuernavaca, intoxicated absorption in the beauty of the moment was his creative mission; but long ago he had lost the impetus that originally drove him – to turn it into paintings – and now the drinking was simply an everyday necessity, and he had stopped painting, working instead as a comedic or parodic waiter at the once notorious To Diporto fish restaurant in Odos Skridlov, the street of leather, until he was too dissolute even for that place, whereupon I took over the job. How pervasive is this terrible myth among the artists I grew up amongst, the ones I read and admired, the ones whose pictures I watched being made in the Slade School of Art when I was an undergraduate in London and where I spent more of my social time than among my fellow-students at the LSE; how prevalent this delusion that drink and drugs would somehow help us experience life more ‘deeply’. Those rakimornings with Peter, when the morning sun flooded the ramshackle square in the Splanziaquarter, where we lived, with its pots of red geraniums and the sheets hanging out over the railings of the brothel next door, the sounds of the town waking, the glorious sense of detachment too – to be a part of it and yet apart from it – these are the things I felt in regard to both my Cretan and, much later, my Mexican sojourns, until a final, catastrophic visit to Guadalajara put an end to this bright and beguiling fiction . . .
I am so comfortable in my whitewashed room that I don’t want to sleep, and I read almost until dawn, completing the first half of the book, before drifting into fitful slumber. I wake at nine, utterly distressed and worn out, the fan above my head whirring insistently with a regular click at each revolution. Outside there is absurdly loud birdsong, and the sun is struggling to break through thick rainclouds. I drink a coffee, smoke a cigarette, and order a taxi into town, where I have arranged to meet up with the poet Pura López Cólome, Seamus Heaney’s Spanish translator, who will be my guide to Cuernavaca for the day, and we will visit Cortés’ palace to see the Diego Rivera murals, and walk the streets that furnish Lowry’s novel. But already I am less concerned with the reality of Cuernavaca than I am with the one conjured by Lowry in his parallel city of Quauhnahuac. The actual place has been spoiled for me by its fictional double.
First published in PN Review 255, Sept-Oct 2020
Yesterday we enjoyed a virtual visit from the fabulous Leone Ross: she took a class with students on the Creative Writing MA at Cardiff University and in the evening we had a chat about her new novel.
The attached review was originally published in Wales Arts Review on 10 May this year, and a link posted on this blog shortly thereafter. I am re-posting the review in celebration of Leone’s visit.
In her new novel, fifteen years in the making, the British-Jamaican author Leone Ross offers the reader an imagined island, like Coleridge’s caverns, measureless to man. The novel, taken as whole, is an infectious celebration of life, and especially of love, in all its divergent glories and sorrows, as well as a timely reminder of the perils of judgmentalism and prejudice.
On Popisho, a Caribbean nation in which the inhabitants are blessed with unique attributes, ‘a little something-something’ called ‘cors’— for example, the ability to talk with animals, or walk through walls — the ruthless Governor Intiasar controls the local economy with his monopoly of the toy factories, staffed by woefully underpaid workers, through which the island gains its revenue, and its leaders their fortunes. In response to this injustice, among others, a mysterious graffiti artist has daubed the walls of the factories with exhortations in orange paint, notably THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE, while a group of scavenging indigents, reviled and outcast, who inhabit the nearby Islands of the Dead, serve as a collective scapegoat for all the failures and frustrations of the population at large.
The island of Popisho is itself a wondrously unreliable narrator, a place that harvests stories as readily as its supply of edible and intoxicating butterflies, and it evoked, for me, the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the fictional worlds that serves as a precursor for this equally inventive novel. There are other influences: the author herself has mentioned Tony Morrison and Roald Dahl, among others, but I was reminded also of Alejo Carpentier and Jean Rhys, also Caribbean writers with a sharp eye for the follies and foibles of humankind.
The novel follows a single day in the life of three characters and their interlocking stories: one is Anise, whose ‘cors’ is to heal others, although she is unable to heal herself of whatever ailment causes her own babies to be stillborn. Anise has a cheating husband, but her quest to track him down and confront him leads her somewhere far more interesting, as she joins the riotous residents of a brothel in their resistance to a group of overly pushy punters.
Romanza Intiasar, the disowned teenage son of the Governor, whose cors is the facility to tell truth from lies, has fled the family home to live among the indigents with his male lover, Pilar. During the course of the day he comes across Xavier Redchoose — the novel’s central character — gifted with the ability to impress flavour into food, with the mere touch of his fingers. This awesome endowment has earned him the title of ‘macaenus,’ which carries with it the obligation to feed every citizen, once, and at an opportune time, in his restaurant — aptly called The Torn Poem. On the day in question, Xavier has been asked by the Governor to prepare the wedding feast for his daughter, Sonteine, and the request, more especially the man who has made it, vexes him greatly.
One of the features of island life is the preponderance of butterflies, which can be grabbed in mid-flight and eaten, offsetting a brief but glorious intoxication. If butterfly-quaffing is the equivalent of a fine wine or a spliff of quality ganja, the consumption of moth is something darker, shameful and more dangerous: a Popisho version of crystal meth. Xavier is a conflicted man, haunted both by the ghost of his dead wife and his addiction to moth. He has been in recovery for quite some time, but when a young fisherman gifts him a prize moth, he secretes it carefully away in a cloth pouch and carries it with him, just in case.
Popisho is a wonderfully sensuous island, and its qualities are those of abundance: fruit orchards, vines and resplendently coloured flowering bushes that border and encroach upon the human dwelling places. The scents of green pepper, ginger and cardamon float dense on the air. This sensory abundance is so all-encompassing that one is not surprised when things get out of hand, as they do, in the course of the day — the inevitable consequence, one feels, of ‘too-muchness’ — houses bend and shudder, an avalanche of scarlet physalis flowers fall from the sky forming immense puffy snowdrifts, and, alarmingly, women’s vulvae, or ‘pum-pums’, drop from their prescribed places and have to be snatched up and hidden from harms’s way, or better still, reattached, before being lost and picked up by the wrong owner. To rack up the tension a little more, a hurricane is on its way.
But just as mayhem threatens to overwhelm the narrative, there are moments of exquisite tenderness and beauty, one of which involves the emerging friendship between Xavier and Romanza, when, in the course of a short sea crossing to the Dead Islands, Romanza steps from the canoe and appears to walk on water, beckoning Xavier to follow. The notion has a famous biblical precedent, of course, but on this occasion walking on water seems simply to be the natural course of things; rather than a show of divine intervention, their feat is merely an emanation of the island, whose colours, scents and music permeate the lives of its inhabitants in magical ways. As Romanza comments to Xavier, while the two stroll across the coral reef and look down on yellow sea anemones and smiling runner fish, ‘I hear some places in the world prettier than Popisho, but I can’t believe it.’ I, for one, was converted, and relished my brief time as a guest on Leone’s enchanted island. I’m suggesting a sojourn there to everyone I know, as a refreshing and subversive tonic for the times we live in.
This One Sky Day is available now from Faber in the UK and as Popisho, published by Farar, Straus and Giroux in the USA.
‘Wentwood, the largest forest in Wales, undulates across the low-lying Gwent hills overlooking the coastal plain and the silver slash of the Severn estuary beyond. To the traveller entering south Wales it forms a mysterious green smudge along the northern horizon, and to the young Arthur Machen gazing east from the windows of his childhood home in the rectory at Llandewi Fach, north of Caerleon, it was a sinister and disturbing presence which lodged in a corner of his imagination for the rest of his life, emerging later as the setting for a number of his dark and unsettling stories. Machen walked the woodland trails and Roman roads of the forest many times, and was familiar with its ancient remains, old houses and farms and sheltered villages, but he concluded that it was ultimately unknowable.’
‘Hide & Seek’ is my own modest foray into Machen’s wooded netherworld. In it, an unsuspecting man finds his own reality turned inside out when his children disappear in the forest:
He sees only an image, or replica, of a life played out by others who – although they might resemble the figures, his own included, that make up his life, his world – are nonetheless figments, ghosts, a fleeting apparition. He is spellbound, but knows, at the precise moment of recognising the blankness of his mind, that he must break the spell, and whatever it costs him, he must return to his real life, return to the real nursing home, the car park, the Audi, his wife and kids. His decision is made; to assert the reality of the real.
Many thanks to the Three Impostors for making such a lovely object, to have and to hold (whatever you might make of the story).