Coun­try life in war’s shadow

The Herald Magazine - - Arts BOOKS - Re­view by Richard Stra­chan

Blooms­bury, £16.99

some of the most ap­pallingly savage and grotesque scenes ever con­ceived by the hu­man imag­i­na­tion. Hell is not a place of uni­ver­sal fire, but a de­scend­ing pit struc­tured ac­cord­ing to a moral sys­tem de­rived from Aris­to­tle, where in each cir­cle the pun­ish­ment fits the crime.

When needed, es­pe­cially when re­pro­duc­ing the lan­guage of the devils, Dante did not hes­i­tate to em­ploy coarse, scat­o­log­i­cal terms which brought a blush to Vic­to­rian trans­la­tors.

In the male­bolge, or ditch, which con­tains the thieves, whose pun­ish­ment is to run naked for all eter­nity, their hands “bound tight be­hind by ser­pents whose heads and tails thrust be­tween thighs, en­twined their gen­i­tals”, Dante en­coun­ters Vanni Fucci, the Brute of Pis­toia, who ex­plodes in foul-mouthed rage.

Gray’s lan­guage is even stronger than Dante’s: “the Brute flung up his fists / each with two fin­gers parted in wide Vs / and screamed, ‘Up your arse, God! Fuck you and yours!’ ”

Dante also soars to the high­est heights of lyri­cal verse, and even here has writ­ten ten­der, poignant verse, for in­stance, when de­scrib­ing the plight and pun­ish­ment of the doomed, adul­ter­ous lovers Paolo and Francesca, mur­dered

by Francesca’s hus­band when he found them to­gether read­ing the story of Lancelot and Guin­e­vere. The choice of a literary text as cause of their ru­ina­tion is sig­nif­i­cant, and un­der­neath Dante’s lines lies a sub­tle self-ques­tion­ing over whether his own love po­etry might have led some of his read­ers astray. The pity ex­pressed for the two lovers is rare.

Gray in­cor­po­rates ex­pla­na­tions in the verse where he deems nec­es­sary. The damned sub­merged in the river of boil­ing blood, the place of pun­ish­ment for those, es­pe­cially tyrants, who used vi­o­lence to­wards oth­ers, in­clude Diony­sius, the bru­tal tyrant of Syra­cuse, and Alexan­der. Dante men­tions the lat­ter only by name, but Gray ex­pands: “That scalp is Alexan­der’s, called the great / for grab­bing states from Greece to In­dia / dy­ing when thirty-three. He over-ate.”

And he may well have done, but the com­ment is not found in the text of the Divine Com­edy but only in Gray’s ren­der­ing of it. Gray him­self has oc­ca­sion­ally overeaten, but this Hell is a mag­nif­i­cent feat of reimagining of one of the great­est of all hu­man cre­ations.

WHEN Melissa Har­ri­son’s first novel Clay ap­peared in 2013 it seemed to of­fer a coun­ter­point to the “new na­ture writ­ing” pop­u­larised by writ­ers such as Robert Mac­far­lane. Whereas the “lone en­rap­tured male” (in Kath­leen Jamie’s phrase) would of­fer an ex­cur­sion­ist’s view of na­ture, some­thing “other” that was there to be vis­ited, Har­ri­son’s fic­tional and de­ter­minedly ur­ban ex­plo­ration of the nat­u­ral world was rooted in the ex­pe­ri­ence of the char­ac­ters who moved through it.

Her new novel takes a sim­i­larly Lawren­tian ap­proach to na­ture, see­ing it not as some­thing rei­fied or held apart, but wo­ven deeply around the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence of it, coloured and partly de­fined by our own per­cep­tions.

In this case Har­ri­son has turned away from a con­tem­po­rary set­ting to ex­plore the febrile decade of the 1930s, where, much like our own era, ques­tions of politics, eco­nom­ics and im­mi­gra­tion are twisted by the un­scrupu­lous for their own ends. The novel is nar­rated by Edie Mather, a 15-year-old farm girl whose fam­ily own Wych Farm, deep in the Suf­folk coun­try­side. Over the course of a sum­mer, the fam­ily are var­i­ously vexed and en­ter­tained by Con­stance FitzAllen, a free-think­ing up­per-class bo­hemian who has de­scended on the nearby vil­lage of Elm­bourne to re­search a book. “I’m mak­ing a study of coun­try ways,” she tells a baf­fled Edie. “Folk­lore, cot­tage crafts, di­alect words, recipes – that kind of thing.”

De­ter­mined to pre­serve the old ways from the march of progress, Con­nie writes a se­ries of “Ru­ral Sketches” for a London jour­nal, her re­ports on the farm­ing com­mu­nity like an an­thro­pol­o­gist’s field pa­per.

Edie is the youngest in the fam­ily and is be­gin­ning to chafe against the re­stric­tions placed on her, al­though at the same time she is in­creas­ingly wary of the life that might lie ahead.

To Edie, Con­nie pro­vides a glimpse of London glam­our and of some­thing else too – a re­fined and al­most ca­sual sense of sex­u­al­ity that seems more ap­peal­ing than hav­ing to en­dure the rough at­ten­tions of the boor­ish Alf Rose from the neigh­bour­ing farm. Con­nie’s pres­ence has a gal­vanis­ing ef­fect on the po­lit­i­cal fric­tion in the vil­lage, a com­mu­nity at the mercy of fluctuating mar­ket prices, but she soon re­veals the prej­u­dices that lie be­hind her im­age of the English ru­ral past; a past where Jews and Gyp­sies have no place and where talk of “in­ter­na­tional fi­nanciers” has an al­to­gether more sin­is­ter mean­ing.

Through­out this, Edie feels her­self spin­ning adrift in a sea of ex­pec­ta­tions, haunted by the spec­tre of mad­ness that runs in her fam­ily, and obliv­i­ous to the lo­cal ten­sions un­leashed both by the re­cent war and by the war that is yet to come.

Through­out the book Har­ri­son is icily clear that farm­ing is not just a way of life but also a busi­ness and a pro­fes­sion. It is a pe­cu­liarly volatile in­dus­try as well, buf­feted by vari­a­tions in weather as well as in fi­nance, where dis­as­ter and penury are only a bad harvest or a dip in share prices away. This un­sen­ti­men­tal­ity (on the part of the char­ac­ters as well as the au­thor) vies with the love and re­spect those char­ac­ters have for their liveli­hood, and it pro­duces a pic­ture of an era and an en­vi­ron­ment that feels gen­uine and hard-earned. Har­ri­son has clearly done a tremen­dous amount of re­search on the terms and tech­niques of farm­ing in this pe­riod (from the con­struc­tion of bar­ley ricks to the Wheat Act), but none of it feels re­gur­gi­tated or gra­tu­itous. She rev­els in po­etic lita­nies of plant names (jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, mouse­tail, shep­herd’s nee­dle) and turns a poet’s eye on the slowly chang­ing land­scape and the hu­man arte­facts within it: “Our churches are of knapped flint gleaned from the fields,” Edie ob­serves, “the land it­self raised up in prayer.” There are oc­ca­sional mis-steps; Con­nie’s voice seems a lit­tle too on-point and con­trived at times and she doesn’t al­ways con­vince as the cat­a­lyst for po­lit­i­cal un­rest in the vil­lage.

But in its re­strained sense of beauty and harsh­ness, its com­bi­na­tion of po­lit­i­cal acu­ity and mythic time­less­ness, the novel con­firms Har­ri­son’s stand­ing as one of the most orig­i­nal and sat­is­fy­ing of con­tem­po­rary English writ­ers.

Dante Alighieri in the In­ferno, by Julius Sch­midt

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