August 17, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 36: The Country of Pointed Firs


FullSizeRenderTitle: The Country of the Pointed Firs

Author: Sarah Orne Jewett

First published: 1896

Page count: 158

First line: There was something about the coast town of Dunnet which made it seem more attractive than other maritime villages of eastern Maine.

Firstly, wow.

Secondly, oh dear.

Oh dear, because I am in a quandary. This is one of those of books that I came to entirely ‘blind’, with absolutely no expectations or presumptions. The reasons for this are partly geographic, partly gendered, and I suppose I apologise for the latter element, but suffice it to say neither the title, nor the author’s name meant a thing to me. Nor is that first line one to set your heart racing.

And yet what I found was a book of extensive charm, and sudden deep pools of something else: insight, psychology, philosophy – literature, in short. And yet it’s possible that the book was able to work on me as it did because of my lack of expectations… indeed, once I’d read the first chapter or so, my rather low expectations.

My quandary is that I want to share my experience with other readers – that’s what these blog posts are about, after all – but it might be impossible to do so without spoiling the experience for anyone who takes me up. Which leaves me in that clichéd place of saying: look, just go and read it, trust me – especially and above all if you’ve never heard of it. I assume more Americans will have heard of it than Brits.

A couple of responses on Twitter to an earlier mention:

In fact, I’m already thinking of fellow Brits for whom this might be a Christmas present.

So that leaves me in the paradoxical situation of saying: please don’t read on, unless you’ve read the book, or I suppose if you’re already aware of it.

The country of the pointed firs is the coast of Maine, and the book is an account of a summer spent there by a woman (we don’t get to know her name, and for that insult I’m going to go ahead and call her, for the rest of this piece, ‘the author’), in the “salt-aired, white-clapboarded little town” named in the opening line. She is a literary type, though of what type it’s never made clear: it’s only mentioned because she gets so caught up in the life and business of her landlady, Almira Todd, “land-lady, herb-gatherer and rustic philosopher”, that she decides to rent the village schoolhouse, sitting empty over the holidays, to get her writing done.

The book is largely made up of her accounts of encounters with the people of Dunnet,  fishermen living and retired, and family members of  Mrs Todd,  who tell their stories, and very occasionally offer up an event – though this is only ever a trip to meet more people. In other words, it is that strange, undersung literary form that possibly doesn’t even have a name – a sort of country cousin to the Novel of Manners, the country journal of manners or somesuch, in which the man or woman of letters puts down in some vaguely fictional, usually reasonably humorous form the life of the real people they find themselves among. Sometimes the writer is a genuine outsider, sometimes – as seemingly in this case – an observant, semi-detached insider . Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence was a hugely successful and much-derided example, Garrison Keillor’s books seem another. Julia Blackburn’s Thin Paths, though more honestly non-fictional, is similar. You may raise an eyebrow, but Rachel Cusk’s brilliant Outline isn’t far from the stream, and reminds us that the frisson of literary characters made out of real people is nothing new. You wonder what the reception of Jewett’s writing was like among those who knew her. And from Cusk it’s only a step to Knausgaard, and that’s not a lineage I had in mind at all as I was reading the book.

Much of the book’s charm comes from those personal encounters which make up many of the short chapters, the phrases the characters come out with, and the stories they tell – and here again my ignorance or, to use an appropriately maritime metaphor, my lack of bearings, felt like the best possible armament. One of the first locals who rocks up to the author’s scholarly bolt hole to distract her is Captain Littlepage,  a “thin, bending figure” she describes as being like “an aged grasshopper of some strange human variety”. He tells the author about his seafaring days, and embarks on a frankly bizarre anecdote about a land discovered up beyond the north pole that… well, I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that, as I was reading it, I was thinking: this is where the story is going; either what has happened thus far has been a frame for this fantastical excursion, or else the narrator is going to up sticks and set sail to find it herself.

Which of course she didn’t. She just nodded along to the captain, and wrote down what he said, and a few pages later other people are commenting wryly on his tall tales. Silly me.

The thing to emphasise about these character studies and potted histories, and that really do make the book similar to Cusk’s Outline is that the author is absent from them. (Addendum #1: Elaine Showalter is perceptive on this point in A Jury of Her Peers, showing how the narrator self-presentation moves from third person, to passive construction, to ‘you’ and only latterly in the book to ‘I’.) The book, to this extent, is like a human Wunderkammer, where what is held up for our attention is wondrous only as far as it is ordinary; the people we meet are exemplarily human. The relationship between Mrs Todd and her utterly wonderful 80-year-old mother, is a case in point, and a case that quoting would only spoil. Old Mrs Blackett (I can’t help imagining a connection to Nancy and Peggy Blackett, the Amazons of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, though we learn the family has French ancestry) is there for your discovery and delight.

But these character studies alone wouldn’t make the book the remarkable thing it is. What Jewett also does is show a wonderful sympathy with the rhythm of the coastal life, and a writer’s eye that is able to pick out the elements of the landscape that illuminate our relationship with the environment. It is as wise about the land and sea, as it is open and understanding about the people who walk and sail on them.

Here is one central passage, that comes after we’ve heard the tale of Mrs Todd’s cousin-in-law, Joanna, now dead, who after being rebuffed in love takes herself off to a remote island to live alone. The author soon takes the opportunity of having herself dropped on the island, alone, to explore it, and is pointed the way to her dwelling.

I found the path; it was touching to discover that this lonely spot was not without its pilgrims. Later generations will know less and less of Joanna herself, but there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over, – the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance.

Allow me to request that you read that passage again, and dwell on the coupled phrase “curiosity and dim foreboding”. Allow me to insist you stop, for a moment, and consider the poetry, and the philosophy, bound up in those words.

Towards the end of the book there is a great family gathering of the wider clan to which Mrs Todd and her mother belong. (Part of Jewett’s cleverness is getting you to accept and dismiss the character of Mrs Todd so early on – you think: yes I’ve got her, she’s emblematic, I’ve understood her… only to find the author returning to her again and again, until you realise that yes, she is emblematic, but of so much more than you first thought – she is described at one point as being like a sibyl, at another as like a caryatid, she is as unlikely a heroine as Helen McGill in Parnassus on Wheels, and just as wonderful.)

The author goes along with them to the party, in their borrowed village cart, and the description of the journey, and the landscape they see on their approach, is splendid, but the passage as they make their way on foot across the field to the great formal picnic is something quite else. Here it is, at length:

There was a wide path mowed for us across the field, and, as we moved along, the birds flew up out of the thick second crop of clover, and the bees hummed as if it still were June. There was a flashing of white gulls over the water where the fleet of boats rode the low waves together in the cove, swaying their small masts as if they kept time to our steps. The plash of the water could be heard faintly, yet still be heard; we might have been a company of ancient Greeks going to celebrate a victory, or to worship the god of the harvests, in the grove above. It was strangely moving to see this and to make part of it. The sky, the sea, have watched poor humanity at its rites so long; we were no more a New England family celebrating its own existence and simple progress; we carried the tokens and inheritance of all such households from which this had descended, and were only the latest of our line. We possessed the instincts of a far, forgotten childhood; I found myself thinking that we ought to be carrying green branches and singing as we went.

Allow me to request… allow me to insist…

It’s not just that I see humanity here; I see America too. Its sense of its young history, and its relation to an older history, and to the land and the sea and the sky. A particular America, perhaps, and an America that today seems lost, or irrelevant, or destroyed, or perhaps simply overlooked. But, beyond that, or before it, look at the writing. The small masts swaying “as if they kept time to our steps”; the “so long” in “have watched poor humanity at its rites so long”; the word “instincts” in “We possessed the instincts of a far, forgotten childhood”. The instincts of childhood.

A final word on form. This isn’t a novella, whatever its length. Nor is it a novel. The reason is to do with its belonging to that genre (I wish I knew what I was called) that sets you down, sets the author down, in a particular environment, a particular small world, and immerses you in it, shows that it extends limitlessly in time if not in space… and then eventually lifts you out of it. There is no narrative arc. There is no conclusion. There is no closure. There is only the summer, and then the summer is over.

(Addendum #2: Having written all this, I looked up Jewett in Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers, in which she says “no other American woman writer has had such a dizzy ride on the roller coaster of critical politics”, with one generation of feminist critics following Cather in celebrating her, while the next one denigrates her for bourgeois sensibility, her unconscious traces of imperial privilege and her white ethocentricism (someone talks, at one point, of “painted savages”), with one critic, Susan Gillman describing that final family reunion as “a display of white supremacy akin to the Ku Klux Klan”. This is hard to take. Certainly there is something in that eternal echo back to antiquity – that so moved me – that is pitilessly white, and I think this is probably what I was getting at when I said that the vision of America it offers is one that is “lost, or irrelevant, or destroyed, or perhaps simply overlooked”. Certainly, it’s not the America of Ferguson, and would rather not be, thank you very much, just as the London that I’m sitting in writing this isn’t really a London in the Britain that has migrants dying in the Eurotunnel to get into it. This is hard, and it probably makes my final paragraph, in retrospect, seem even more infantile than it originally was, but there we go…)

I’ll tell you why I find this form so affecting – and I don’t mean this to be diminishing in the slightest – it’s because it is the form of the greatest children’s books. Children’s books don’t need a narrative arc, because children don’t understand the adult need for our stories to close – for our stories to find meaning in this world, before we die, even if that ending is tragic. Think of the end of The House at Pooh Corner. There is no closure, no conclusion, the story goes ever onward. It’s just that summer lasts, while it can, and then summer ends. That’s the form this wonderful book takes.

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.