Country life in war’s shadow
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