Easily distracted

Easily distracted
Marianne von Werefkin (Russian / Swiss, 1860-1938), Mondnacht [Moonlit Night], 1909-10. Tempera and mixed media on paper laid on board.

Friday, July 7, 2017

A strange tale he told me: Two for the River and Other Stories by L. P. Hartley





Two for the River and Other Stories is a 1961 collection by L. P. Hartley. I did not read all the stories, as I did with The Travelling Grave last week, but I appreciated and was challenged by the ones I did read.

Hartley in these stories focuses on self-isolated men and boys at the brink of emotional and physical exhaustion, confused by troubled dreams that seem to undergird experiences of waking crisis.

The phrase "Dreams go by contraries, you know" is used in two of the strongest stories: "The Corner Cupboard" and "The Pylon." Both deal with characters completely cut off from those around them, and who fear objects they have imbued with uncanny power.

A sensation of anxious deja vu infuses the most classically satisfying story in the book, "Two for the River." Hartley employs foreshadowing to brilliant effect, and it is only by the skin of their teeth that a canoeing husband and wife do not drown.

Dreams and dreamlike states of waking are a recurring theme for Hartley. A dream is the final pivot in "Someone in the Lift," a powerful story about supernatural foreshadowing of family tragedy. The dream in "The Pylon" suggests a later family tragedy which will take place after the story (abruptly, even for Hartley, a master of abrupt terminations) ends.

"The Two Vaynes" returns to the world of cruel hosts and the viciously-intended game of hide-and-seek previously seen in "The Travelling Grave." A Grand Guignol twist is given to the host's long-concealed crime, reminding me of Sayers' "The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers."

"Per Far L'Amore" is also a crime story. But the reader and the main character do not realize it until the final paragraph. We think we are reading a story about an English visitor to Venice (a favorite Hartley subject) falling apart from the effects of heat, humidity, and mosquitos. The story has an opulent setting, and would serve as the basis for an unsettling giallo thriller.

"The Waits" is a skillful story of supernatural revenge, and "Interference" seems to be building up to an E.F. Benson-scale haunting before it cuts off.

"The Crossways" is another of Hartley's stories using faux folk elements, reminding me of "Conrad and the Dragon" from The Travelling Grave and Other Stories. Here, however, a typically unhappy Hartley family ends up with a happy ending.

The stories in Two for the River and Other Stories were written later than those in The Travelling Grave. There is less variety in plot and action, and there are no out-and-out masterpieces like "Podolo" or "The Cotillon."

Below I have a few more notes, and some excerpts, from the stories.

Jay
7-7-17



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Two for the River

....But the river-banks had just been in full glory, two interminable winding borders on which grew willow-weed and loosestrife, the lilac clusters of hemp agrimony, deep yellow ragwort, lemon-yellow chick-weed, the peeping purple of the woody nightshade, the orange drops of the ranunculus, the youthful, tender teazle-cones of palest pink contrasting with their hard, brown, dried-up predecessors of the year before — and, a newcomer to the district but very much at home, the tall white balsam.

....On the garden and river-bank alike autumn had already laid its spoiling finger, bringing languor and disarray to the luxuriance of summer, making it flop and sprawl. To this the river itself bore witness, for on its grey-green surface floated the earliest victims of the year’s decline, yellow willow leaves tip-tilted like gondolas, that twirled and sported in the breeze, until the greedy water sucked them under.

Someone in the Lift • (1955)

....Magic has its rules which mustn’t be disobeyed.
....At first Peter was more interested than frightened. Then he began to evolve a theory. If the figure only appeared in his father’s absence, didn’t it follow that the figure might be, could be, must be, his own father? In what region of his consciousness Peter believed this it would be hard to say; but for imaginative purposes he did believe it and the figure became for him ‘Daddy in the lift’. The thought of Daddy in the lift did frighten him, and the neighbourhood of the lift-shaft, in which he felt compelled to hang about, became a place of dread.
....The lift was coming up from below, not down from above, and there was something wrong with its roof—a jagged hole that let the light through. But the figure was there in its accustomed comer, and this time it hadn’t disappeared, it was still there, he could see it through the mazy criss-cross of the bars, a figure in a red robe with white fur edges, and wearing a red cowl on its head: his father, Father Christmas, Daddy in the lift. But why didn’t he look at Peter, and why was his white beard streaked with red?

The Face

....As a bachelor he had been a social asset and in continuous demand at parties. As a married man he didn’t exactly drop out, but he would go nowhere without his wife; he ceased being Edward, he became Edward and Mary, or perhaps Mary and Edward. In the social and every other sense he lived entirely for her, and it then became more than ever apparent how superficial his previous friendships had been.
....Nothing more would happen to them except a child, and this, strangely enough, they did not have, though they were going to have one when five years later Mary Postgate was killed in a motor accident.

The Corner Cupboard

Philip moves to the country to escape London at the start of World War Two. Hartley cryptically notes, "Dreams run by contraries," and there is certainly something nightmarish going on in the corner cupboard. Is the housekeeper Mrs. Weaver using voodoo on Phillip? Is she rearranging the dozens of bottles of his pharmacopoeia he dumped into the corner cupboard?

....Try as he would, he couldn’t meet her on the old cordial terms; his voice, he knew, was distant and formal, his enunciation too distinct, and his good-night cold. Shutting his bedroom door he vaguely felt he was shutting something out. Perhaps he needed a tranquillizer, a dose of bromide. He went to the corner cupboard.

At first he didn’t take in what he saw, he only realized there was a change. The stage which had been empty was now occupied—but by what? At the back a small broken bottle reared its jagged edges, its base strewn with splintered glass; and in front of it lay a white object made of cotton-wool, roughly shaped to form a female figure. But it wasn’t white all over, for covering the middle of the body was the blood-red petal of a rose. Beside the prostrate figure, pointing at its vitals, was the unsheathed blade of Philip’s pocket-knife.

Otherwise there was no change: the serried ranks of bottles looked on, unmoved in any sense.

Philip backed away, severely shaken. He tried to tell himself that it was all an accident—well, not an accident, his pen-knife couldn’t have got there by accident, nor could the cotton-wool, but somebody rummaging in the medicine-cupboard, not meaning anything special, perhaps trying to get a bottle out (some servants didn’t think that taking their employer’s medicine was stealing), might have produced these odd, surrealist effects. For a moment he thought of calling Mrs. Weaver and confronting her with it; but how did he know she had done it? The daily woman might have.

Somehow he felt he couldn’t go to sleep with that thing in the room; it had the air of being dynamic, not static; the intention that created it was still at work. He couldn’t lock his bedroom door, it had no key. He would have liked to move into another room; but would the bed be aired? Better the ju-ju concoction in the corner cupboard than a damp bed. But he would need something stronger than bromide now; one of those small red sausages from the phial that seemed to kneel so gloatingly beside the . . . well, the corpse. Overcoming his distaste he gingerly detached the phial from its rank, and opening it swallowed two capsules.

Philip decides to right fire with fire:

….Rage struggled with terror in Philip’s breast, but for the moment rage prevailed. Magic, indeed! He’d show her! He’d give her magic! But what, and how? His mind had never worked along those lines before. He looked up. On the top shelf lay the fat roll of cotton-wool in its flimsy wrapping of blue paper which he had intended as a barricade against the evil influences of the tortoiseshell. Had Mrs. Weaver, prying in the cupboard, moved it, and had the sight of what lay behind it touched her off? …

She had plucked it like a goose: feathers of cottonwool were everywhere, mingled with thin shreds of blue paper. Philip followed suit, and soon had fashioned from the yielding medium the grotesque likeness of a female form. But what to do with it? Exactly what harm did he intend her? What kind of death were those implacable soldier-bottles to witness?

The [doll] house on the landing just outside his door possessed a kitchen, and the kitchen had a stove, a big old-fashioned thing with an oven-door that opened. He took the stove out and suddenly his evil purpose seemed to animate it, giving it the cold fascination of a lethal instrument. But he must clean the cupboard first, for no blood was to flow. He must shift the scene so that no competing image should weaken its effect. He worked with nailbrush, soap and towel —Mrs. Weaver kept her kitchen very clean. How much verisimilitude should he aim at?

He wanted his tableau to be death-like, not life-like. Softly he closed the oven-door on the plump neck; the head was well inside; the arms and legs and trunk sprawled outwards. His horror of himself increased almost to faintness; through the salutary odours of the medicine-cupboard he thought he could detect a whiff of gas. And there must be one, there must be. He turned his bedroom gas-fire on, and listened to the exciting continuous susurration of escaping gas. Death could breathe out without ever breathing in. But he could not, and it was to escape himself and his own fate, not to hasten Mrs. Weaver’s that he turned the tap off and lurched out of the room.

The Waits

As with Walter De La Mare and Ramsey Campbell, L.P. Hartley sometimes makes me feel excluded from the kernel of his stories, given the often acroamatic style he uses.

"The Waits," unlike "The Corner Cupboard,"  is a compressed masterpiece of domestic tragedy. Naturally it takes place on the night before Christmas. A man and boy come caroling at the Marriner family's front garden, singing carols with scabrous lyrics.

The daughter is the first to attempt dispatching them.

‘What shall I give them, Daddy?’

‘Oh, give them a bob,’ said Mr. Marriner, producing the coin from his pocket. However complicated the sum required he always had it.

Anne set off with the light step and glowing face of an eager benefactor; she came back after a minute or two at a much slower pace and looking puzzled and rather frightened. She didn’t sit down but stood over her place with her hands on the chair-back.

‘He said it wasn’t enough,’ she said.

Next it's the son's turn to try running them off:

....Jeremy came in, flushed and excited but also triumphant, with the triumph he had won over himself. He didn’t go to his place but stood away from the table looking at his father.

‘He wouldn’t take it,’ he said. ‘He said it wasn’t enough. He said you would know why.’

‘I should know why?’ Mr. Marriner’s frown was an effort to remember something.

‘What sort of man is he, Jeremy?’

‘Tall and thin, with a pulled-in face.’

‘And the boy?’

‘He looked about seven. He was crying.’

Hartley keeps the reader seated at the dining room table throughout this crisis. We only begin to piece together the story as family members come back to report, and the menace and anxiety accumulate.

Finally, Mr. Marriner digs out his pistol and heads for the door. We remain behind with mother, daughter, and son:

‘But it isn’t any good, it isn’t any good!’
Anne kept repeating.

‘What isn’t any good, darling?’

‘The pistol. You see, I’ve seen through him!’

‘How do you mean, seen through him? Do you mean he’s an imposter?’

‘No, no. I’ve really seen through him,’ Anne’s voice sank to a whisper. ‘I saw the street lamp shining through a hole in his head.’

When I finished reading "The Corner Cupboard," I thought a paragraph of exposition at the end had been left out in error, so I checked my copy of Two for the River and Other Stories against my copy of The Complete Stories. Nothing omitted. With "The Waits," I had the same feeling. I often have it when reading M.R. James, too: the feeling that the author, in complete command, is compelling me unconsciously to imagine that exposition.

It is a powerful feeling of the reader's imagination being pulled by A strong writer.

W.S.

I don't think it is a coincidence that writers return to themes of doubles, doppelgangers, and characters-come-to-life.

....He set himself to work as though he could work, and presently he found he could— differently from before, and, he thought, better. It was as though the nervous strain he had been living under had, like an acid, dissolved a layer of non-conductive thought that came between him and his subject: he was nearer to it now, and his characters, instead of obeying woodenly his stage directions, responded wholeheartedly and with all their beings to the tests he put them to.

The Two Vaynes

‘Is the house haunted?’

‘Not that I ever heard of,’ Fairclough said. ‘But there’s a legend about a bath.’

‘A bath?’

‘Yes, it’s said to be on the site of an old lift-shaft, and to go up and down. Funny how such stories get about. And talking of baths,’ Fairclough went on, ‘I must be getting into mine. You may not know it, but he doesn’t like one to be a minute late.’

‘Just let me look at it,’ I said. ‘Mine’s down a passage. You have one of your own, you lucky dog.’

We inspected the appointments, which were marble and luxurious, and very up to date, except for the bath itself, which was an immense, old-fashioned mahogany contraption with a lid.

‘A lid!’ I exclaimed. ‘Don’t you know the story of the Mistletoe Bough?’ Fairclough clearly didn’t, and with this parting shot I left him….

Monkshood Manor

....My bedroom walls were painted dark blue, but by artificial light they looked almost black.
....it occurred to me that if I had a book I might read myself to sleep —it was one of the recognized remedies for insomnia. But I hadn’t: there were two book-ends — soap-stone elephants, I remember, facing each other across an empty space. I gave myself till half-past two, then I got up, put on my dressing-gown and opened my bedroom door. All was in darkness.
….The library door was open and in I went, automatically fumbling for the switch. But no sooner had my hand touched the wall than it fell to my side, for I had a feeling that I was not alone in the room. I don’t know what it was based on, but something was already implicit in my vision before it became physically clear to me: a figure at the far end of the room, in the deep alcove of the fireplace, bending, almost crouching over the fire….

The Pampas Clump

....Obediently I screwed my eyes up. The library had two windows, and from the french window, the one nearest to the fireplace, by which we were sitting, the pampas clump did indeed block the view. It cut the line of the hills across the valley. In the early October twilight it looked quite enormous; its cone-shaped plumes, stirred by a gentle breeze, swept the dusky sky, soaring above its downward-curving foliage as a many-jetted fountain soars above the water fanning outwards from its basin. And like a fountain, it was, as Thomas had said, half-transparent. You thought you could see what was behind it, but you couldn’t be sure. That didn’t worry me ; I rather liked the idea of the mystery, the terra incognita behind the pampas. And Thomas should have liked it, too. No one ever called him Tom: at Oxford he was nicknamed Didymus, he was so much in doubt. Did he dislike the pampas because, in some way, it reminded him of himself, and his own weaknesses? I strained my eyes again, trying to sec what lay beyond the soaring feathers and the looped, drooping, reed-like leaves. Perhaps... Perhaps …

The Crossways

....It was a hard winter and it set in early, but in spite of that people did not seem to want wood as they used to, and Michael grew' more and more morose and sour. Often when he came home he would not speak to them at all, and sat apart brooding, or wrent out again mysteriously and did not come back till after midnight. There was no pleasing him. If they sat quiet as mice he would complain of their silence; if they talked he would tell them to shut up. This was not so bad for the children as it was for their mother, for they now went to the village school and so had company. It was a long way to walk but they enjoyed it; they felt free the moment they got out of the house, and rather dreaded coming back, to find their mother drooping and listless, and their father, if he was at home, not lifting his head when they came in. Sometimes they lingered and talked to their friends, but they never spoke of the state of things at home, because they had promised their mother not to....

Per Far L'Amore • (1955)

Does she really know what she is doing?’ he had once asked her mother. ‘She seems to think that love to-day is different from love at any other time.’

‘Oh, Annette’s all right,’ Maureen replied. ‘Besides, there’s safety in numbers. We mustn’t interfere, we must let her find her feet. If she was really serious about anyone, I should know.’

‘Yes, but this isn’t England,’ Henry said. ‘Autres pays, autres mÅ“urs.’

Maureen shook her head. ‘We mustn’t spoil her fun,’ she said. It had become a slogan.

Interference

‘Come in,’ he called again and then he heard the door open, and footsteps behind the screen, and put on the smile of welcome he kept for Mr. Snow.

But it wasn’t Mr. Snow who stood towering over him—it was a stranger, a huge man with a red, pear-shaped face, and eyes as black as the moustache which mounted guard over his unseen mouth. After a moment’s silence, ‘Good evening,’ said the stranger. ‘Good evening,’ said Cyril, and rose uncertainly to his feet. ‘You said come in, so I came in,’ said the man. ‘I hope I don’t intrude?’

‘Of course not,’ Cyril answered. ‘But . . . but . . .’ He didn’t know how to go on and added, ‘Please sit down.’ The stranger seated himself in the farthest away of the three chairs and Cyril sank back into his.

‘I came to look for something, that’s why I’m here,’ the man said, ‘and I thought perhaps you could help me to find it. I see the birds have flown.’

‘If you mean the Trimbles——’ began Cyril.

‘I do mean them,’ the stranger said. ‘In their rooms was something of mine that I want back.’

‘What is it?’ Cyril asked.

‘I’m not at liberty to say,’ the stranger said.

‘Then I’m afraid I can’t help you,’ Cyril said. ‘They left some weeks ago and took all they had with them.’

The stranger nodded.

‘But it may still be here,’ he said. ‘Don’t you ever feel there’s something here, waiting to be found?’

‘If you would tell me what it was——’

‘No, that I can’t do,’ said the man. ‘But I’ll tell you what I can do—I can take these rooms of yours that are standing empty, and then I may come across it. You let the rooms, don’t you?’

‘No,’ said Cyril.

‘You let them to the Trimbles.’

‘Yes, and I wish I hadn’t.’

‘You’d find me a quiet tenant, Mr. . . .’

‘Hutchinson is the name.’

‘You’d find me a quiet tenant, Mr. Hutchinson. You wouldn’t hear me much or see me much. You’d know what I was doing—you wouldn’t have to keep tabs on me——’

‘I tell you I don’t want to let the rooms,’ said Cyril.

But the man steam-rollered on as if he hadn’t spoken.

‘There are the others, of course.’

‘The others?’

‘Yes, there are seven of us, but we could all squeeze in.’

‘Haven’t I told you I don’t want to let the rooms?’ cried Cyril in mounting exasperation.

‘Yes, but hadn’t you better think again, and take us in, since you can’t keep us out?’

The Pylon

‘I wonder what’s come over the boy,’ his father said, knitting his heavy brows and tapping his finger-tips against his teeth. ‘He used to be the clever one. Not quick and sharp like Victor, but thoughtful and original.’

‘I expect he’s going through a phase,’ his wife said, placidly.

‘Phase, indeed! He isn’t old enough for phases.’

‘You’d better speak to him, but if you do, be careful, darling. You know how sensitive he is.’

‘Sensitive my foot! I’m much more sensitive than he is. You ought to warn him to be careful.’

‘I only meant we don’t want anything to do with Oedipus,’ his wife said.

‘You shouldn’t spoil him, then. You should be much nastier to him than you are. I’ve more reason to worry about Oedipus than you have. Laurie might marry you, O.K., but he would murder me. It’s I who am to be pitied. No one ever pities fathers. No one ever pities Oedipus’s father, whom Oedipus bumped off. I think I shall expose Laurie on Mount Cithaeron, having first struck the toasting-fork through his toes.’

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