Saturday, October 1, 2016

where the snow smells like whales - Tess's vegeto-human pollen - Hardy, the great fantasy novelist

Where The Return of the Native (1878) burrowed into a single strange landscape, Egdon Heath, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) takes its heroine on a tour of central Wessex, so Hardy can describe a series of weird places.  I am reading William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End (1896), which is entirely invented, and there has not been anything nearly so weird.  Early going, I hope.  Hardy’s fantasy novel is much more fantastic.

A valley that is a center of dairy production, sending cans of milk to London by train, I suppose a pretty ordinary place, is turned into a biology experiment:

Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Froom Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate.  The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings.  (Ch. 24)

The milkmaids “writhed feverishly” in a landscape “which sent up mists of pollen at a touch” (I’m mixing chapters – 23 first, then Ch. 19).  People mate like plants.  In an earlier landscape, a hay harvest, the “floating, fusty débris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers” form “a sort of vegeto-human pollen” (Ch. 11).

The contrast is so strange, the Anglo-Celtic level of the story, the milk and turnip level, wrestling with the educated narrator who has a sharp enough ear to note that the sound of the dancing is muffled “from their being overshoe in ‘scroff’” – peat dust – “They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed” – but also can’t stop himself from dragging in the satyrs and nymphs, “Lotis attempting to elude Priapus.”

Ah, just a page earlier is that beautiful sunset, “when yellow lights struggle with blue shades in hair-like lines, and the atmosphere itself forms a prospect without aid from more solid objects, except the innumerable winged insects that danced in it.”  I rarely understand what is meant when a book is described as “atmospheric,” but in Tess of the d’Urbervilles the atmosphere is a constant presence, a motivating force.

The masterpiece is the description of Flintcomb-Ash, the turnip farm, “a starve-acre place” where the fields are full of “bulbous, cusped, and phallic” rocks, the migrating birds come direct from the North Pole, “gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes – eyes which had witnessed scenes of cataclysmal horror in inaccessible polar regions of a magnitude such as no human being has ever conceived” and the snow that follows the birds like a “white pillar of cloud,” a Biblical snow, “smelt of icebergs, arctic seas, whales, and white bears” (Ch. 43).

The snow smells like whales.  What were those idiots in the previous post talking about?  Hardy is awesome.  How could Robert Louis Stevenson, of all people, not experience some pleasing surprise when reading about that blizzard under a palm tree?

How this all fits together is still a puzzle to me.  Another piece tomorrow.


  1. I'm leading a six week seminar starting in January on Tess and Under the Greenwood Tree, Hardy's "happy" novel. So everything written here will be testicular grist for the mill (if Hardy really writes "balls to the wall" as described in the previous post's comments).

  2. Hardy gets pretty wild here, which I think is what was meant.

    Wait, you're a Tess-lover - an expert, even - what do you do with the narrator?

  3. Little known fact: the expression "balls to the wall" is in fact about airplane throttles and not testicles! That is my weak excuse for sullying the pure and lofty literary atmosphere of this blog with my previous comment...

    But, moving on, isn't that quote about the birds incredibly Lovecraftian? "scenes of cataclysmal horror in inaccessible polar regions of a magnitude such as no human being has ever conceived." Or maybe Lovecraft — another writer whose stuff is genuinely "atmospheric" in the way you describe here — is like a one-note Hardy.

    The last post made me want to read Hardy for a good laugh. This post made me want to read him for beauty and weirdness. I think I'm going to have to read him. Maybe The Dynasts. Have you read that Tom? I'm sure you have.

  4. Tom: I like great, flawed novels. I prefer Daniel Deronda to Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend to Bleak House, for example. Authors whose reach occasionally exceeds their grasp. Melville and Hardy top the list. Occasionally it's too much: Pierre and Jude the Obscure come to mind. I've read Tess at least five times and, frankly, haven't bumped on some of the sentences you have quoted that, in isolation, are certainly howlers. Hardy, like Scott and Cooper, gets away with all sorts of literary transgressions for me because each of these three novelists is both great and awful at the same time. Dostoyevsky heads that list in my book; he's great at the concept and awful at the sentence level.

    So I accept that when I enter Hardy's world I'm going to find the over-Latinate sentence, the overreaching and overwrought constructions, the giant symbols that occasionally grate. But I'm also going to find a sublime sense of place, of characters lost in a world of past and present that they both understand like the soil under their fingers and can't grasp like the heavens above them (think Two on a Tower, one of Hardy's worst novels).

    Tess is cosmically flawed, and cosmically great. I don't know how else to put it. Hardy has Tess cry to Heaven just before the death of her baby (christened "Sorrow," so you know at what level of symbol/allegory you are working with), "Heap as much anger as you want to upon me, and welcome, but pity the child!"

    I ask that you do that for Hardy's narrator, as well.

    I don't know that I would call myself an expert, but I am certainly an admirer. When I lead my seminar I will lead with my love for his unique artistry. Some love him, some don't. I don't like Thomas Pyncheon, for example, and I don't have time for James Joyce or Gertrude Stein. Even when Hardy is at his worst, at least I understand what he is trying to say.

  5. What a fine defense of the strengths of the novel. Thanks, Christopher, for writing it. The big flawed novels are always a challenge for me. My tastes run to perfection. Thus I howl at the howlers.

    I do better with these books than I used to, I can say that.

    If I ran a seminar on Tess, it would mostly involve me saying "Whaddya think this is?" We would spend one class just looking at online images of Wiertz and Van Beers paintings (Ch. 39). I wish I could attend yours!

    Robert - Lovecraftian - oh yeah! It's something else. That entire chapter, really the entire turnip farm section, is something else. A great example of the "sublime sense of place."

    I have not read The Dynasts. For an unreadable book, it seems plausibly readable.

  6. I haven't touched Hardy, apart from the poems, for about thirty years. I must dig something out soon. This sounds a lot weirder than I remember. Maybe I was a lot weirder then.

  7. Some terrible writing in Tess, for sure, but also some quite magnificent writing, too. It's the atmosphere he does so well, as you say - real atmosphere. I love this passage:

    The dull sky soon began to tell its meaning by sending down herald-drops of rain, and the stagnant air of the day changed into a fitful breeze which played about their faces. The quicksilvery glaze on the rivers and pools vanished; from broad mirrors of light they changed to lustreless sheets of lead, with a surface like a rasp. But that spectacle did not affect her preoccupation. Her countenance, a natural carnation slightly embrowned by the season, had deepened its tinge with the beating of the rain-drops, and her hair, which the pressure of the cows’ flanks had as usual caused to tumble down from its fastenings and stray beyond the curtain of her calico bonnet, was made clammy by the moisture, till it hardly was better than seaweed.

  8. Wild, isn't it? Hair as seaweed. The light-on-water sentence is beautiful.

  9. Christopher Lord,
    A bit unrelated perhaps, but may I ask why you prefer Daniel Deronda to Middlemarch?

  10. I am speaking for myself, not Christopher, but I understand the deep interest in watching great writers really fight with their form - to watch them bend it and stomp on it and wrestle around with it because it just won't do what they want.

    Strange and wondrous things can happen. Some of the aspects that look careless or artless in Daniel Deronda and Tess are really the result of the artistic ambition (and frustration) of the writers.

  11. I'm rather fond of messy flawed novels (though I also like the ones that come close to perfection.) But maybe that's in part because I walk by the grave of Cooper so frequently.... (And if we didn't have Cooper, we wouldn't have Twain on Cooper. Which would be such a loss.)

    Hardy liked Poe, I believe. Those tragical-eye birds could fly straight into Arthur Gordon Pym!

  12. Oh yes, Pym's crazy bird scene - those nests. These birds are renegades from Poe's orderly geometrical nests.