Not describing me, in this case, but significant anyway. The point is that these details in the title are taken to explain the subject's inability to cry. That's not been me, not recently at least. Perhaps twenty years ago I was quite different, but in the intervening time, whatever has happened to cause it, I am substantially changed. I spend a decent amount of energy avoiding crying, both by deliberately choosing to stay away from certain situations and by holding the tears back when they come. But I also accept that crying is a part of living, for me at least. It's a fascinating trope in literature, because it marks something about the time, the fashion, whatever it is that matters, whether the (heroic) characters are prone to sensibility, or marked by hardness of heart. Dumas's heroes are archetypically male, swashbuckling and often portrayed as superheroes in modern (re)interpretations. They are susceptible, both in terms of what affects them and how it affects them. They are not less because they cry.
I started writing this post a couple of days ago. Since then, an entirely different cause for sadness has arisen. Lives begin, lives go on, even as other lives end, but there are some deaths that are so monumentally cruel, where the redemption or the happiness that might run through some goodbyes is so absent, it is impossible to offer any words of comfort to those left behind. So, instead, Catullus leads us in our grief. Ave atque vale.
For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.
“There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die, Morrel, that we may appreciate the enjoyments of life. Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words, 'Wait' and 'Hope'.”
REM, the Bible, and that god among men, Alexandre Dumas, on hope.
It's a cliche, of course, but autumn is a particularly beautiful and sad time of year. The colours are absolutely spectacular, perhaps even more so than they are when the world is in full bloom in the middle of summer. But it all portends the fall, the barren months of winter, the cold, short days. I have noticed on rereading that a lot of the action in These Matters seems to happen in the summer, and that which doesn't often has a winter sun of some sort for company. I don't know why, but generally my imagination conjures these sunlit scenes rather than anything gloomy or wintry. Longshawe rides with Elizabeth at one point through what is now Manor House and Turnpike Lane, a place with significance for me as a former haunt. I seem to remember that being in the sun. Strelley sits in the lee of Sampford Courtenay's church in the evening of a sunny summer's day. I can't remember it raining in These Matters at all. Which, when you think about it, is massively unlikely. Perhaps the next time I get the chance to write a scene where the weather matters, it will be raining!
Autumn has that sense of the end of something, the irretrievable, the final, but there is something false in it. Winter is just as transient, it comes and it goes again, leaving the world much as it was the previous spring when it finally arrives. It's been a thought in my head for a long time to go and live somewhere where the weather is permanently like it is in the height of summer here, but the confusion stems from the summer being a time of holidays, of work ceasing, of time spent with family doing things that are chosen for being fun rather than just because you have to. The weather is only a small part of the equation. I do like being warm - the moment when open footwear becomes the correct choice is a key one in any given year - but I also like the world being cold outside, because then there's an excuse to set light to something inside the house and glory in that most base of human instincts, to sit around the fire and - in my case at least - tell stories.
The two song lyrics quoted on the front page are autumnal, I think. Soul to Squeeze is one of those songs that for the longest time I remembered hearing but was not able to own, partly because I didn't know what to look for (it turns out, it's from the soundtrack to the film Coneheads). Later, I downloaded it (illegally, I should imagine) and had it, and then I could look it up on YouTube or Spotify. It has a lovely turn of lyric, better in some ways than the much more famous (and structurally very similar!) Under the Bridge, which people of a certain age might say was the Chili Peppers' best record. Kiedis writes a lot of these longing, soulful songs, to the extent that you find it hard to believe there are so many instances of him breaking up over a woman as appear in the songs, but there you go. But this one, for me, is the best. And the Queen / Bowie masterpiece that is Under Pressure has what must amount to the single greatest climax of any pop record ever. Again, it's plaintive, lamenting, but not without hope. I thought about calling this post 'Wait and Hope', but I'm sure I used that before. So, let's finish with the quotation from The Count of Monte Cristo, because I'm reading Dumas at the moment and I think of all the people I admire and of all the people I would have wanted to meet, it is he who sits at the top. He has shaped my writing and my reading more than any other, and his books are among the very few that I have read more than once.
" Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words, 'Wait and Hope.”
I imagine it's not a spoiler for Game of Thrones that Sean Bean dies quite early on. I also imagine that the average reader will know by this point that Boromir (that'll be Sean Bean's character in Lord of the Rings) also dies before the end of the first film. Having recently finished reading the end of the Harry Potter series, there are a fair few casualties, some more expected perhaps than others. Some characters have, by the end of their story, run their course and cannot survive without the world somehow being imbalanced. Their contribution is done, but their continued presence would somehow spoil the story that went before. Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted the Gladiator quotation on the front page in the last few days, one of the more low-key moments of that endlessly quotable film, but perhaps the single most touching moment of it. But Maximus cannot survive Commodus' death, because that alone is what drives him, his wife and son gone and waiting for him in the afterlife. There are characters in the Harry Potter books who don't seem to deserve their fate, dying in some cases for what seems to be a sort of pathos that ought to be generated in a different way. That last book also highlights the broad impossibility of making a big battle scene look good. You either go in close, or pull out to a wide angle and let the fog of war do its work. The films can do it better, because the switch in perspective is so clearly marked, but the books struggle with it. It's also hard to have a large group of people moving round together, because quite simply you have to write their names over and again, and it gets tiresome for the reader.
I have never thought about the arc of These Matters in a way that means I have the power or authority to kill off characters. They're not mine to kill, somehow. It's the story that dictates their lives and deaths, and there's a very real sense in which the story is outside or beyond me, and I only get to find out what it is in detail when I got there. Writing about dying is difficult, because the one thing anyone writing about anything hasn't done for themselves is to die. The rest of life's range of experiences are easier to get a handle on, from falling out with a parent to figuring something out or falling in love. It's therefore a genuine effort of imagination, rather than something where you just channel your experience into the book, to write about a character dying with anything like conviction. But I will confess this: when Guy Fletcher reads from the Bible as Lorenzo Calonna dies, I cry uncontrollably. It is those verses (of course, it is those verses), just as I can barely even speak the phrase "pure, lovely and of good report" any more, that set me off, but it is the scene as well. I don't praise my own writing, by the way, only that the story itself affects me here.
Writing, as I have been just recently, James Longshawe and George de Winter in book IV has been a different experience to Edward Strelley. I confess I haven't made much progress on William Pike's adventure just yet, but that will come in time. Longshawe is a simpler character, in a lot of ways, than any of the other three, loyal, clear of purpose, unable really to be dishonest. George de Winter has a kind of Cardinal Richelieu-ish quality to him, a fact which has become more apparent as time has gone on. He schemes and plots in ways that would be beyond even Strelley, but rather differently to Strelley, the world doesn't weigh on him. I can't imagine de Winter falling in love with anyone other than perhaps Mary herself, but he doesn't seem to have done so up to now. Strelley, of course, is a worrier, a deep thinker or an obsessive, depending on how you come at it. Unlike the others, when his mind won't go quiet, it pulls him apart and we see this in the snippets from the early part of book IV. Strelley seriously considers dying as a way of quieting his restless mind, stricken by what he feels for Elizabeth and what cannot be between them; not so much a suicide as a deliberate attempt to put himself in the way of fatal harm. It is this that aligns him with that restless mind about whom I have written a few times, Chris Cornell, a man who did in the end take his own life. What seems to be common is their contemplation not of the process of dying but the state of being dead, and that might somehow be better than the current state of being alive. Cornell's contemporary and briefly bandmate in Temple of the Dog, the much more famous and ultimately more successful Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, writes about suicide several times in the early days of Pearl Jam, but in each case it is the act that is significant, not the result. One need only read the lyrics to Like a Stone to understand that Cornell is the better writer by some distance, but also the one for whom fear, darkness and the reality of the end of his own life are tangible, not merely for the purpose of selling records. I wrote the dedication to No Evil from those lyrics: "For all that I've blessed and all that I've wronged..." Perhaps they are the same people, those that I've blessed and those that I've wronged. I can only hope that the former category outnumbers and outweighs the latter.
I do not fear Strelley's suicide, though. It is not, in the end, a part of who he is to consider taking his own life. I do fear - with some justification - that he will encounter such dangerous situations that not even my authorial intervention will be able to save him from himself. In terms of choices I have definitely made, one of very few that I didn't see coming was my decision to send Guy Fletcher to him in the south west, because Fletcher (he has matured, it seems, from 'Guy' to 'Fletcher' in book IV) has the power to draw Strelley back from the brink of self-destruction. I don't need him dead, because the long plan involves him. I can't yet see how his future will pan out, whether he will find any peace in the future. But that will have to wait, because for now book IV calls.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought