Steven Carroll, The lost life (#BookReview)

Audiobook coverLast year, Mr Gums and I bought a new car to replace our loved but aging 15-year-old Subaru Forester. We’ve been keen to move into the hybrid world but wanted to stay with the SUV-style for various practical reasons, so, as soon as a reasonably-priced hybrid SUV appeared on the market here – the Toyota RAV4 – we were in, and so far so good. However, the real reason I’m sharing this is because another impetus for buying a new car was all the new technology, including the audio systems that enable you to play music – and books – via your phones. And so it was that I borrowed my first ever e-audiobook from our local library, Steven Carroll’s The lost life. The technology worked a treat.

Long-term readers here know that I’m not a huge fan of audiobooks, for reasons I’ve explained before. Fortunately, the reader here, Deirdre Rubenstein, did an excellent job. She was expressive, appropriately English-sounding, but read more than played the characters. That helps a lot.

So now, the book. I chose it for two reasons – it was short, making it a good test case, and it was by Aussie author Steven Carroll, whom I haven’t read yet, and whose Eliot Quartet series I’ve been wanting to read. The lost life, the first book in this series, is inspired by the poem “Burnt Norton”, the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Makes sense, huh! “Burnt Norton” was published in 1935, and most of Carroll’s novel is set in September 1934. The novel is framed by the story of Eliot and Emily Hale*, who did, in fact, visit Burnt Norton manor in 1934, but their love is paralleled by that of a young couple, 18-year-old Catherine and 22-year-old Daniel. Eliot, himself, is a fairly shadowy figure in the story, with the focus here being on Miss Hale and Catherine.

The story starts at Burnt Norton, a country estate to which Catherine and Daniel have gone for a romantic picnic and maybe a swim. It’s summer, and Carroll beautifully evokes the passion beating in the “ardent” young Catherine’s breast as she looks forward to further development of their physical relationship, which has not yet been consummated. But, they are interrupted by the appearance of two older people, who turn out to be, of course, Eliot and Miss Hale, and they scurry away because they are trespassing. However, they do observe, from behind the shrubs, a little lovers’ ceremony between the older couple, one that Daniel later violates, fortunately unbeknownst to Eliot and Miss Hale, but distressing to Catherine.

Here, I might pause and refer to the poem which inspired this novel. It starts:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

A little later come the lines that I remember so well from my university days:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.

I don’t know what it is about Eliot’s lines that move me so, but I think it’s their almost confounding spareness and mesmerising rhythm. Putting that aside though, it’s this sense of timelessness, of past, present and future being tied to the here and now, of both stillness and movement, of almost suspended animation too, that pervades Carroll’s novel as the protagonists work through their ideas about love and life.

“a felt experience”

Now, Catherine and Miss Hale know each other, as Catherine’s summer job is cleaning the house in which Miss Hale is staying. The plot is, to a degree, predictable. However, it is not the point. The point is how the characters react and feel about what happens. This is an introspective novel in which the two women reflect on love, their own attitudes to it, and what they see, or think they see, in each other. Miss Hale sees her young self in Catherine, her eighteen-year-old self whose disappointment she does not what to see repeated, while Catherine sees wisdom but also sadness in Miss Hale. She comes to realise, in fact, that Miss Hale, who describes her love with Eliot as “a different kind of love”, is a virgin. It is this experience of love, this mystery that endows a special knowledge, that drives the plot.

There is, though, so much to this novel. The tone is gorgeously melancholic, mirroring the poem that inspired it. Carroll also uses images from the poem – sunlight, roses, light – to suffuse his book with a sense of lost time. Repetitions like “young man of whom great things were expected”, “ardent ways”, and “the woman who won’t let go long after she has any right” add to the melancholic tone, while also anchoring our understanding of the characters.

There is also a link drawn between performance and reality. Catherine sometimes feels she is in a play or story, and this contributes to the theme of “the lost life”. Literally, it is the life Miss Hale lost by waiting all those years for Eliot rather grabbing life herself, but more broadly it can encompass all those lives we never have. Even if we, as Miss Hale realises we should, “grasp our moments as they arrive”, there will always be other lives not taken or lived. As Eliot writes in “Burnt Norton”:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened.

Ironically, Catherine, who delivers “a felt experience” for Miss Hale, becomes an actor who can “deliver a felt experience on cue”, offering up other lives to her audiences, while living her own moments as they arrive. It’s an inspired conclusion to a book about love, living, and the biggest of them all, time.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book.

Steven Smith
The lost life (Audio)
(Read by Deirdre Rubenstein)
Bolinda Audio, 2010 (Orig. pub. 2009)
5:57 e-audiobook (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781742333830

* Check Wikipedia for more on the relationship between Eliot and Hale.

Weekends with T.S. Eliot (2)

Jeanette Winterson (b. 1959), British writer

Jeanette Winterson, 2005 (Image: Courtesy Mariusz Kubik, via Wikipedia using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

We are all everyone and everyone is us. (Fiona Shaw, talking about The waste land)

Last weekend I finished the Perspectives section of The waste land app, by listening to Fiona Shaw, Frank Turner and Jeanette Winterson. The fascinating thing is that they all say the same things, albeit in slightly different ways.

Timeless, universal, undated

Shaw talks about the timelessness of the poem, saying it doesn’t need to be brought up to date. Cities still exist, we still commute, we still visit suspect clairvoyance, she says. She also argues for its universality in the sense that we can be Hector sitting in the chair, or ourselves. We may only have one life but through poems like this we can also have many different lives. But we readers know this don’t we.

Turner’s take is a little different. He likens Bob Dylan to Eliot suggesting that both were “bottom feeders of the culture around them”. Putting it another way, he says they both have a “prophetic voice of judgement”, like prophets from the Old Testament. And you can’t get more timeless than that!

Winterson argues that Eliot, way back in 1922, saw where we were going: The waste land, she says, is “about now”, and is not “dated in any way”.

Captures the twentieth century

I love Shaw’s description that Eliot

Scraped a rake around the 20th century and gathered a leaf mould heap of what it was about.

Not bad, if you agree with her, for a poem written in the first quarter of the century.

Turner, similarly, describes the poem as “zeitgeisty”. He says Eliot identified that the forward progression that had been happening from the Renaissance to the first World War had come to an end. The waste land documents, he says, the failure of the progressive idea.

Winterson and Turner both call it a prophetic poem. While many saw a bright future after World War I, Eliot, says Winterson, saw the spiritual malaise coming. She suggests that if Eliot visited London and New York today he would not be surprised to see the economic crisis we are in, the way we have forgotten all values except “making money”.

Reinventing the language of poetry

Shaw talks of the way Eliot mixes banality (the throbbing of cities and machines) with lyricism (“the violet hour” for example). Turner, likewise, talks of how Eliot’s language can be angular and uncomfortable, and then suddenly be intersected with something lyrical, with more traditional “poesy”. Winterson articulates all this beautifully by describing how Eliot recognised (consciously or unconsciously?) that the language of poetry needed replenishing. He used, she says, fresh, direct, colloquial language, “the language of the everyday” to express “eternal things, the big ideas”.

As I listened to these various perspectives and how each saw the relevance of The waste land to now, I wondered whether it has been continuously relevant over the nearly 90 years since it was published – and somehow I think it has been. World War 2, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the troubles in Ireland, not to mention strife in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and South America. Even when on the surface – as in the 1920s – life has seemed comfortable for many, there has been something not quite right, and so:

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
(from “V. What the thunder said”)

I’ll just leave it at that.

Weekends with TS Eliot


Reading TS Eliot's Selected poems (Image: Courtesy RubyGoes via Flickr, using CC-BY 2.0)

Breakfast in bed is my weekend treat. It’s when I kick back with a book and simply relax – except this weekend and last I kicked back instead with my iPad and app for TS Eliot‘s The waste land. What fun I am having and intend to have over a few more weekends.

So, what have I been doing?

Fiona Shaw’s performance

Well, last weekend I pottered around the app checking out what’s there and how to navigate it, trying a couple of the readings (but not listening to the whole), and so on. And then I listened to/watched Fiona Shaw‘s performance of the poem. This is a performance rather than a reading. She uses gesture and limited movement (around the upper storey room in a house in Dublin somewhere) to convey the drama, humour and mystery of this rather tricky poem. If you hold the iPad in landscape orientation, Fiona Shaw’s performance fills the screen. However, if you rotate it to portrait orientation, the poem appears below the image with the text synchronised to the performance. This is what I did and, being a textual person, I preferred it this way. I loved seeing the words played out on the screen – and she was almost word-perfect.  I didn’t time it properly but it took, I’d say, 15-20 mins. I’d recommend this as a good way to start re-acquainting yourself with the poem if, like me, it’s been an embarrassing number of decades since you last read it.

Perspectives, from Seamus Heaney, Paul Keegan, Jim McCue and Craig Raine

I said above that I am a textual person and that’s true but, paradoxically I suppose, the thing that most grabs when I’m reading is rhythm and sound (something I’m loving in my current read, Kim Scott‘s That deadman dance, but that’s for later). And so, I have always loved TS Eliot:

In the room women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo
(from ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots.
(from “Preludes”)

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
This is the dead land
This is the cactus land
(from, of course, “The hollow men”)

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
(from “W. What the thunder said” in The waste land)

…  and so on. Staccato or sing-song, repetition or not, rhyming or not. It gets into your bones.

This weekend I decided to explore the Perspectives section of the app which is where various luminaries talk about aspects of Eliot and the poem. I listened to/watched Irish poet Seamus Heaney, poetry editor from Faber and Faber Paul Keegan, Eliot expert Jim McCue, and English poet and academic Craig Raine …. and I gained some new perspectives! I’m not going to comment on all they say since you really should explore this app yourself (if, that is, you have access to an iPad). I’ll just focus on an aspect that most comment on, one way or another – Eliot and sound.

Heaney comments on the “musicality” of the poem. Paul Keegan goes a little further. He suggests that
“acoustic things, tonalities” are what attracts people more, today, to the poem than the “monolithic meanings”. These “acoustic things” though do convey meaning, don’t they, particularly when the allusions elude us. I do not, I admit, “get” all the allusions, but I love the sound of the poem and can sense his concerns even if I may not be able to articulate them in an analytical way.

Somewhat related to this, Keegan argues that Eliot showed it was possible for a poet to write without knowing exactly what larger meanings he was conveying. He suggests that Eliot didn’t necessarily know what he was getting off his chest and that he was more interested in “what poems do than in what they say”. This rather ties back to sound doesn’t it? Or, it does for me. What his poems “do” to me is complex – they move me emotionally but can often mystify me intellectually. They can sound at times like nonsense and yet you “feel” or “hear” something profound. How does he do that? Anyhow, Keegan expands his point, suggesting that Eliot’s poetry encouraged a new fearlessness about poetry “having to make sense, forensic sense”. It freed up, he says, some of those questions*.

Jim McCue’s contribution is a short but interesting one on the history of the poem’s publication. And then, Craig Raine takes up the sound issue again, but from a slightly different perspective. He describes Eliot, the American born English poet, as, really, a world citizen. The waste land is full of “voices” – something conveyed well by Shaw in her performance – from around the world including, most obviously, Germany, France and India. It’s like, Raine says, changing the radio dial (which was still a fairly new technology then.) He also describes the poem as “a fantastic operatic selection”, a not surprising description, I suppose, for a poem which Eliot considered titling “He do the police in different voices”!**

A technical (sort of) note

The app doesn’t always behave exactly as I would expect or like. Changing the orientation will sometimes bring a surprising result and take you away from where you were. It’s not hard to get back as there’s always the Home icon available at the bottom, but it can be disconcerting.

* I will though come back to meaning in my next post after I’ve finished the “Perspectives” section of this App.
** From Dickens’ Our mutual friend

TS Eliot’s The waste land, app-style

TS Eliot plaque SOAS London

Would Eliot have liked this new way of publishing? (Image, via Wikipedia, released into Public Domain by Man vyi)

Hands up if you’ve seen Touchpress‘s gorgeous iPad app for TS Eliot‘s poem The wasteland? Now, if your hand is up, why didn’t you tell me about it? Luckily, though, I have a real-life, dinky-di librarian friend who told me what my online friends didn’t!

This is not going to be a proper review as I only downloaded it yesterday, but it’s worth sharing sooner rather than later. At least , I think it is, because it’s a great example of how technology can enhance our reading experience, particularly of complex texts. The app comprises the following menu items:

  • Poem (the full text)
  • Performance (a filmed performance of the full poem by Fiona Shaw. You can watch the performance on its own, or with the text synced to it!)
  • Manuscript (facsimile of the original typed manuscript showing Eliot’s handwritten edits)
  • Perspectives (commentary on the poem and Eliot, by various people including Seamus Heaney and Jeanette Winterson)
  • Readings (several audio renditions of the poem, including two by Eliot himself, and others by Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes and Viggo Mortenson)
  • Notes (annotations and references explaining the poem)
  • Gallery (images relating to the poem).

There is a Home icon so you can quickly return to the menu screen to navigate around the app. And there are also well thought through navigations on other screens. For example, on the screen containing the straight text of the poem are icons linking directly to the annotations (Notes) and the list of audio versions (Readings).

I feel like the proverbial child in a lolly shop. Where do I start? Do I simply read the poem? Probably not, since if that’s all I wanted to do I’d have taken my lovely old Collected Works down from my bookshelf. So, what do I do? Do I read it with the annotations? Or listen to TS Eliot read it or watch Fiona Shaw perform it? Or do I play around with the edited manuscript facsimiles? Whatever I do, though, I’ll be in good company. The app – for a rather challenging poem, remember – was one of the topselling apps the week it was released and was named “app of the week” in the US.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter
(line 18, The waste land)

It will take many nights to read, watch and absorb this terrific production, but it’s winter here so I’m starting now…

TS Eliot
The waste land
iPad app (AUD16.99) 
Touch Press and Faber and Faber, 2011