Tag Archives: Rebecca West

Dashing off downhill.

“There was an actress who wore a white dress with a circle cut in it just above her navel so that her skin could be seen, which looked very pink. Against the white, it was as if she had dropped a slice of ham on her lap; but it showed good feeling and willingness to think out new ways of pleasing.”

The actress appears at a party in New York, in the last pages of Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West. At the end of the third novel in the Aubrey Trilogy, Rose is talking about her visit with her sister Mary to the United States during the Great Depression; West herself did visit many times, not as a musician but as a journalist and author. What she does in these books I think of as the best kind of historical fiction, the autobiographical kind; when I do my time travel I like to go about with a friend who knows the places and people well, who is observant, analytical, and attentive to every detail.

“Since the crash in America Mary and I were not offered nearly such good tours… but we could not keep away, and we felt a longing… to be with our friends again. They were so friendly and they were so violently engaged in life; being with them was like getting on a toboggan behind somebody one liked, putting one’s arms round them, and dashing off downhill over the spurting snow.”

“On the boat the American passengers told us stories of ruin, but with an upward, hopeful inflection that made them hard to consider: it was as if we were trying to look into the eyes of someone who wore brightly polished spectacles.”

“…these people spoke always of general ruin, which had not touched them yet but must, of this paralysis, spread further. They spoke too of prescriptions to end it, and showed themselves naked and newborn in their innocence, as unaware that blood ran in their bodies as they were of bandages and tourniquets.

“’They are like us when Papa went away,’ said Mary, as we drove home. ‘Do you remember how we talked about going into factories, we did not know which, and making enough to keep the house going?’

“’They are like us in other ways,’ I said. ‘They speak of the stock market as something that has an independent existence and sometimes gave them lots of money. It was their father, they are like us, they are gambled children.’”

Nancy was glowing.

Cousin Rosamund is a more difficult read than the first two books in the Aubrey Trilogy (also known as The Saga of the Century), in ways I might tell about later. But this passage in which the Aubreys’ friend Nancy shares her expectant-mother thoughts sweetened the mood:

“You see, the thing isn’t a bit reasonable,” Nancy went on. “Oswald keeps on telling me how it happens, ovulation and all that, but it doesn’t explain anything. It’s not logical that two little things without any sense can get together and make a third thing, that suddenly gets sense and thinks and feels for itself and gets born and has a will of its own, and is a person. How can there be a person, suddenly, when there wasn’t before?”

“It’s a mystery,” agreed Aunt Milly.

“Yes, put it like that, it’s against nature,” said Aunt Lily.

“And think of it happening all the time,” Nancy went on. “And all these people that come into the world in this extraordinary way clinging on the earth, which is just a star like any other, and nobody knows how the stars come to exist. It’s all so odd that anything should be here.”

“I never thought of it before, but it would be more natural if there wasn’t anything at all,” said Aunt Milly.

“Yes, it’s all so unnatural that there must be a meaning to it,” said Nancy, glowing. “They always say so in church but you only half-believe it, but having a baby, it’s more extraordinary than anything they tell you in church. I don’t know what it all means,” she proclaimed, “but I feel that I might know any minute now.”

-Rebecca West in Cousin Rosamund

Warned by their music.

By the end of the second novel in Rebecca West’s Aubrey Trilogy, This Real Night, the children are grown up, and our narrator Rose is often discussing with herself the meaning of world events and human behavior. The narrator’s inner dialogue is just one of the ways that I think the author expresses her own wonderings and certainties; the reader also learns from discussions between the characters, often in emphatic statements that one or another makes out loud or privately in silence, on any number of topics, from fashion to politics and philosophy, from the motives of others to the failings of herself.

The constant revelation of what goes on in her highly analytical mind, her wanting to understand the meaning of things, and her sureness that there is something numinous behind the visible world, all draw me to the stories. (She makes me love just being with the characters — I never want to leave them — which is probably a greater reason, but it deserves its own post.)

I don’t know how to describe the elements of her prose style that makes every other sentence seem worth reading a second or third time — so I keep posting samples. I can say that each page is rich in metaphors that somehow are more than metaphorical: they convey an understanding that there is something more than meets the eye; much of the truth of things is underneath, and beyond.

She is quoted as having said, “Writing has nothing to do with communication between person and person, only with communication between different parts of a person’s mind.” She didn’t complete This Real Night until almost 30 years after The Fountain Overflows, and it was published in 1984, the year after her death. Here are a couple of passages from the last chapters:

“We were not surprised when the war came, for we had heard our father prophesying it all through our childhood… We had also been warned by our music. Great music is in a sense serene; it is certain of the values it asserts. But it is also in terror, because those values are threatened, and it is not certain whether they will triumph in this world, and of course music is a missionary effort to colonise earth for imperialistic heaven. So we were not so sorely stricken by August, 1914, as many other people. Indeed we had our consolations. It was proved to us that music was not making a fuss about nothing, and that the faces of our parents had been distorted out of common placidity not by madness but by the genuine spirit of prophecy.”

Soon, however, their only brother Richard Quin enlists, and after a few months of training in England, during which his family sees him often, he ships off to the Continent, and they accompany him to Victoria Station in London.

“The space around the station had become one of those areas which, like cemeteries and the corridors of hospitals, are swinging on a turntable between the worlds… myriads of men in uniform, deformed by the weight of the kitbags on their backs, of women and children scurrying by their sides, those also deformed, by the weight of grief and stoicism… Above, a great dimly lit illuminated clock said that this was the hour. The occasion was the annulment of life, for what is life but being able to move according to the will?

“But the people who got out of the taxis and cars, all the men bent under their kitbags, were doing what their will would never want them to do, which it could never let them do, were it not in the custody of something outside them not certified to be wise or loyal. The clock said that there was not time to start that argument….”

They were melting under the influence.

“A thread of sweet sound was spun into the night.” Rose and Richard Quin attend a party at which he charms the hostess in many ways, not least by playing his flute in the summer-house.

“Above us the sweet hollow voice rose and fell, doubled back on itself and glided forward, ubiquitous, tracing a pattern among the stars and another within us, behind our breast-bones,” and Rose finds herself thinking about the boy standing next to her, that if he wished she would marry him, though she had planned up to this point never to marry. “There was no need for an exceptional destiny.”

“My brother’s music was proclaiming that there would be a huge vacuum in the universe, a hole that would swallow all, if we did not fill it with something that the notes defined with a clarity forbidden to words.”

But then she begins to listen to Richard Quin, “with the special knowledge that came of being his sister, and I was astonished by the simplicity of the strangers. They were melting under the influence of a tenderness which they believed to be in his performance, but was not there. They were inventing it because they needed it. The music promised sweetness which was for himself alone. He ached with a desire to be in another place than this, where he would find that sweetness. If he felt concern whether they found this same delight for themselves, it left no trace in the sounds he made. And he felt no such concern; from this and that, over the years, I knew he did not.

“There was this excuse for his indifference, he had already discharged whatever debt he owed to them. He could speak of what they desired and they could not. Without him they would have been voiceless. With him their need pierced the night like the reply to the ray of a star.

“Yet surely that was not quite right, surely one never discharges one’s full debt to other people. But again that cannot be true, if the payment one makes is large enough. I could not work it out.”

-Rebecca West, This Real Night