Tuesday, September 28, 2021

A Postillion Struck by Lightning by Dirk Bogarde


A Postillion Struck by Lightning is the first part of Dirk Bogarde’s seven volume autobiography. First published as long ago as 1977, it has stood the test of time, has been widely read throughout its existence and has been reviewed, probably, hundreds, if not thousands of times. This, therefore, is not a review of the book, but a reflection on a particular aspect of it.

The first volume covers years of childhood, schooling, and finally professional stumbling towards what became a highly successful career in films. It might be said that Dirg Bogarde had three different film carriers, a mass market, Mr. Clean in the Doctor films, the experimenting intellectual in his art house period and finally accomplished and internationally recognized character acting in his Death in Venice phase.

Here we have the idyllic childhood spent in the Sussex cottage or around Hampstead in North London. We have the failed school years where first nothing much interested him and then, during his time in a Glasgow technical school, when nothing at all interested him. He had to live with an aunt and uncle during those years in Scotland, and his only self-protection came by learning a Glaswegian accent.

He was born into a special family. His mother had been an actress, while his father was art critic at The Times. The surname originated in Belgium and his grandfather deliberately lost himself up-river in South America, only to return, old, aged, grumpy and cantankerous.

Dirk Bogarde’s prose is highly expressive and includes moments of vivid colour when events are magnified to significance. On country walks we share the vistas, smells, an occasional hug of an animal, always with something that amplifies the experience. We feel we personally get to know the tortoise. In later pages, he is already on stage, disdainful, he says, of any notion of stardom. He is happy to be doing what he does, and small venues in London, amateur to semiprofessional, will do. But we know what happened next.

But perhaps the most intriguing section in A Postillion Struck by Lightning happens in Glasgow, on a day when he is playing truant from school. In the 21st-century, the victim of sexual assault is granted whatever space is demanded to describe, relive, speculate, question, compensate, or indeed pursue -or indeed any verb that may be applicable – the recalled experience. In 1977 Dirk Bogarde relates his own experience from the 1930s in almost a bland, matter-of-fact way. It comes across almost as if it were a scene from one of his films. The detail of the assault can be experienced by reading the book, and it is essential that it is not described here because it has a theatrical character that itself is grounded in the cinema. It was, nevertheless, a real experience and a terrifying one as well. Now presumably, possibly, the perpetrator of this assault was still alive when this book was published, and yet there appears to be no record of the actor’s having pursued any action against his assailant.

One of the joys of reading is being presented with the surprising or the memorable. When I began A Postillion Struck by Lightning, I never for a moment thought I would be writing this kind of review.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Mary Swann by Carol Shields


I have just completed four years of thinking through a project. There were several false starts, many rejected, some reworked ideas. What I wanted to achieve was tangible, but I could not grasp it. When I thought I had it held, it would melt away or fly out like squeezed soap. Some six months ago things gelled and I began in earnest to write Eileen McHugh, a life remade. It’s the story of a sculptor who left no work, but who, by accident in this case, had become sufficiently recognized for a biographer to reconstruct her life and remake her lost work.

With the book complete and published, I decided it was time to relax and took up Mary Swann by Carol Shields. I found and bought it in a charity shop bag full because I knew the author, not the book. I began to read and the experience was uncanny.

Mary Swann concerns of life and work of a poet from rural Canada. The town of Nadeau was both small and insignificant, until, that is, the world discovered a slim volume of a hundred or so poems by one Mary Swann, insignificant herself, until she was murdered - shot, bludgeoned, dismembered - by her husband in 1965.

Born in 1915, the exact date still debatable, she lived out her anonymous, almost hidden life, even from locals, on the farm. Elsewhere in the world this would be called a peasant holding and her life would be characterized as mired in poverty. Mary Swann had no domestic help, no appliances, none of the trappings of modern life. She never drove a car. Isolated, remote, poor, dilapidated are words that applied equally to the setting of the life and the person who lived it. Nothing much is known of her relationship with her husband, who killed himself after murdering his wife. The erasure was complete, except that they had a daughter who is alive, but is unwilling to discuss family matters.

But Mary Swan wrote. She wrote pithy, crunchy verse that inhabits the world this side of the garden gate but seems to dig deep into the infinite internal space of being. Academics, having discovered her work, likened her to Emily Dickinson. Mr. Crozzi who originally accepted her poems for publication and produced a couple of hundred copies of Swann’s Songs, the perhaps appropriately titled slim volume, was the last person to see her alive, apart from her husband. There are estimated to be about 20 extant copies of the collection. But the content has found its admirers and champions. There are even academics whose reputation is built on the critique of Mary Swann’s verse.

There is to be a symposium on the poet and her work and Carol Shields follows the lives, testimonies and experience of a group of interested parties. There are academic researchers, who cooperate by competing. There is Rose, the Nadeau town librarian, timid, self-effacing and suffering. There is Crozzi, perhaps a little crazy, the publisher and a long-standing journalist in the local press, though himself an immigrant. He is an eccentric, opinionated type who dearly misses his deceased wife. He also likes a drink or two. There are Sarah and Morton, academics with their own lives to live who have championed Mary Swann’s work.  And there are others. Via the experiences of these characters and others, we piece together something of the life and work of Mary Swann, though, like everyone else involved, we never know her and her work remains enigmatic.

What for me was utterly uncanny, was that this was the exact form I had chosen for Eileen McHugh. Exactly what makes an artist? Why do we try to express ourselves in these arcane, often esoteric forms? What is authorship? What constitutes recognition? Who controls that process? How does life influence art, or vice versa? How do we recall our interactions from the past with someone we never thought we would remember? At eighty per cent through Mary Swann, I felt like I was reading a different version of my own book and I concluded I was very glad I had not read Carol Shields’s book before inventing my own.

But eventually, things diverged. Carol Shields’ Mary Swann concludes with the symposium on the poet’s work, a meeting that brings together the characters we have been following and constructed in the form of a screenplay. A particular thread of the plot begins to dominate. Competition surfaces, insults are perceived, and offense is taken. Difficult to explain events coalesce to identify and conclude what really has been going on in the background throughout the book. By the end of this superbly crafted and constructed novel, we are intimately involved in considerable slices of the contemporary characters’ lives.  Mary Swann, however, lingers in a continued, enigmatic anonymity that remains entirely her own, just as, thankfully, does that of my own Eileen McHugh.

Last Stories by William Trevor


Painters know that the viewer’s gaze can be tricked. Perhaps led is the better word, for this deception’s aim is merely to communicate more effectively. In visual art this can often mean placing a single line or mark, rather than spending hours with a hair-thin brush trying to capture detail. The trick, if it is one, is to convey all the detail by suggestion, so that the viewer’s mind creates it and therefore sees it.

The equivalent for writers is surely the ability to convey meaning both effectively and succinctly. But the idea goes beyond this. If we want to describe the life of a character, for example, we cannot and must not seek to include every detail. Salient points, finely formed, provide a complete picture. A single word, correctly chosen can create personality in a way that description alone can never achieve.

The technique is particularly noticeable in that much used but rarely mastered genre, the short story. And William Trevor offers a superb example of how it should be done in his Last Stories. These pieces are about people, their lives, loves, losses, hopes and fears. What happens to them is only as important as the how. And by the end of each story, we feel we have met the characters, shared their lives for a few pages. But we also feel we know them individually, and in depth.

William Trevor’s technique is startling. If this were visual, it would present a large canvas, most of which would be blank. Here and there would be marks, dabs, lines, almost randomly scattered across the surface. But when we stand back, these would coalesce and sum to reveal utterly convincing detail, which would then fill the rest of the picture. It is so easy when creating a short story to concentrate on the minuscule, to conclude that the form is better suited to the containable. Here William Trevor lays this idea to rest, elegantly, succinctly and in suggested, but vivid detail.