Thursday, July 20, 2017

Galsworthy at the summit of his efflorescence - there are things which are things

For some reason I had the idea that John Galsworthy’s prose was on the heavy side.  I had had the same idea about Arnold Bennett, but The Old Wives’ Tale was pretty springy, overall.  Rhetorically trimmer than Thackeray or Trollope.  Galsworthy’s first paragraph, much edited here, had me worried:

Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage. But whosoever of these favoured persons has possessed the gift of psychological analysis (a talent without monetary value and properly ignored by the Forsytes), has witnessed a spectacle, not only delightful in itself, but illustrative of an obscure human problem. In plainer words [uh huh]…. He is like one who, having watched a tree grow from its planting—a paragon of tenacity, insulation, and success, amidst the deaths of a hundred other plants less fibrous, sappy, and persistent—one day will see it flourishing with bland, full foliage, in an almost repugnant prosperity, at the summit of its efflorescence. (ellipses mine)

To me, this is heavy.  But it is only, thank goodness, a rhetorical flight, a bit of pompousness to get me in the right mood to meet his characters, many of whom are themselves heavy, rhetorically and in one case physically.  Knocking characters against each other, hopping among points of view, Galsworthy is nimble, faun-like.

Is there a faun in the novel itself?  I am now about convinced that in English novels of this period they are mandated:

The bracken grove of irretrievable delights, of golden minutes in the long marriage of heaven and earth!  The bracken grove, sacred to stags, to strange tree-stump fauns leaping around the silver whiteness of a birch-tree nymph at summer dusk. (3.1)

This classical encomium to a grove is concealing, or I suppose in its way, revealing, the illicit sexual activity of two characters.  It is another of the narrator’s rhetorical flights.  The previous couple of chapters are written in short sentences, short paragraphs, much dialogue, and precisely employed descriptive language, as with this carriage ride:

A faint odour of glue from the heated horses clung in the thick air; the coachman and groom, rigid and unbending, exchanged stealthy murmurs on the box, without ever turning their heads.  (2.13)

The glue and “stealthy” strike me as particularly good.

In a 1922 preface, Galsworthy writes that The Forsyte Saga “is no scientific study of a period; it is rather an intimate incarnation of the disturbance that Beauty effects in the lives of men.”  He means “men” literally, but “Beauty” is curious.  “Incarnation” is curious.  Most of the Forsyte men are art collectors of some kind – one owns, or thinks he owns, a Turner! – concerned with money but beneath that, secretly, aware of something else.

There are moments, too, when, in a picture-gallery, a work, noted by the casual spectator as ‘* * * Titian* - remarkably fine,’ breaks through the defences of some Forsyte better lunched perhaps than his fellows, and holds him spellbound in a kind of ecstasy.  There are things, he feels – there are things her which – well, which are things…  He did not desire this glimpse of what lay under the three stars of his catalogue…  God forbid that he should admit for a moment that there are such things!  Once admit that, and where was he?  One paid a shilling for entrance, and another for the programme.  (2.9, ellipses mine)

Setting the mockery aside, this is the strange heart of The Man of Property, the sorting of the various Forsytes by their sense of the things that are things, and the tragedy that occurs when the thing that is a thing is not a thing, but a person.

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