Monday, May 23, 2022

Dorothy Richardson's Interim, book 5 in Pilgrimage - It went on and on. It seemed to be going toward something.

My piece about Dorothy Richardson’s The Tunnel (1919) was a bit late, and now I’ll write up Interim (1920), the fifth novel in the Pilgrimage series, a bit late.  All this relative to the novel-a-month readalong mostly taking place on Twitter, useful for many reasons but mostly for Neglected Books posting startling archival finds like the actual article the protagonist Miriam is reading in the highbrow dental trade journal The Dental Cosmos.  And that’s the second literary dental trade journal encountered so far in Richardson’s books.  When Katherine Mansfield reviewed The Tunnel, she seemed to be a bit frightened by Richardson’s capacity to remember details like this.

Last time I worried about the metaphysics; now I’ll just wallow in the prose.  Look at this – Miriam is reading:

She plunged back into Norway, reading on and on.  Each line was wonderful; but all in a darkness.  Presently on some turned page something would shine out and make a meaning.  It went on and on.  It seemed to be going toward something.  But there was nothing that any one could imagine, nothing in life or in the world that could make it clear from the beginning, or bring it to an end.  (382)

Now Richardson is writing about the metaphysics of fiction.  Is Miriam reading Pilgrimage?  Aside form the word “Norway” the passage is a good self-description.

She read a scene at random and another and began again and read the first scene through and then the last.  It was all the same.  You might as well begin at the end.  (383)

What on earth is she reading?

Ibsen’s Brand [1867] is about all those worrying things, in magnificent scenery.  You are in Norway while you read.  That is why people read books by geniuses and look far-away when they talk about them.  (383)

Two or three fine pages of young intellectual discovery. 

People go about saying ‘Ibsen’s Brand’ as if it were the answer to something, and Ibsen knows no more than any one else. . . . (384, ellipses in original)

The aggressive italics are a normal feature of Richardson’s style.

Interim is mostly a boarding house novel, in which Miriam meets many curious neighbors, many of them medical students, one even, exotically, Canadian.  But the novel begins with a marvelous long chapter where Miriam spends Christmas with the family of some former students from her brief time as a teacher in Backwater (1916), three novels ago.  In a kind of climax, Miriam begins remembering earlier Christmases.  Curiously, as interior as Miriam is, she does not do much remembering.  Everything is now and forward.  So this scene was a surprise:

‘Didn’t you love it?’ broke in Miriam presently.  ‘Do you remember—’ and she recalled the Noah’s ark as it had looked on the nursery floor, the offended stiffness of hthe rescued family, the look of the elephants and giraffes and the green and yellow grasshoppers and the red lady-bird, all standing about alive amongst the stiff bright green trees.  (298)

And on and on, like Ibsen, for a couple of paragraphs.  A paper theatre, a kaleidoscope, various dolls.  On and on to the point that she puts her hosts to sleep.  A lovely couple of pages in a lovely chapter.  Richardson, a real innovator, gets in line with a long English tradition of charming fictional Christmases.


  1. I love "the offended stiffness of the rescued family" followed at just the right distance by "all standing about alive amongst the stiff bright green trees." She gets better and better.

  2. Right, the rhythms, the repetitions, without sounding mechanical - a terrific sentence-level writer.

  3. This passage in Claire-Louise Bennett's TLS review of a novel by Ann Quin, a writer I hadn't heard of, reminded me of Richardson:

    Quin’s prose is atomized, kaleidoscopic. It evinces a perspective that is constantly shuffling the distinction between objects and beings, self and other, and conceives of the world in terms of form and geometry, texture and tone. These characteristics led some critics at the time to suggest that Quin was indebted to the nouveau roman. In a brilliant essay on Quin for the TLS (“The Quin thing”, January 19, 2018), Julia Jordan unearths some predictably sniffy assessments (“Ronald Hayman charges her with ‘borrowings’ from Nathalie Sarraute; she has been ‘infected’ with an ‘idiosyncratic disdain for inverted commas’”) or, equally, unconscious imitation (Robert Nye calls Berg “nearer the early work of Graham Greene than the fashionable French new-wavers its author … imagined she was imitating”). To my mind, these derisive evaluations fail – of course they do – to take into account the impact that one’s domestic set-up has on what and how one writes. Discussing how her short-story collection, Fireworks, came about, Angela Carter, for example, said “I started to write short pieces when I was living in a room too small to write a novel in”. Boom! When I read Quin, I experience her fidgeting forensic style as a powerful and bona fide expression of a tense paradox that underscores everyday life in a working-class environment. On the one hand, it’s an abrasive and in-your-face world, yet, at the same time, much of it seems alien and is completely uninvolving – overwhelming and yet understimulating at the same time.

    Is it any wonder, then, that such a paradox should engender a sensitivity as acute as it is detached? Quin has an eye for minutiae, the “smudge of egg at the mouth corners”, no doubt about it, but she doesn’t dwell long on the strata of reality those sorts of details typically delineate: she knew there was more to life, more to people, than that.

  4. Yes, isn't that interesting. Yet Quin is a Dalkey Archive writer. I wonder in what sense Richardson is not.

    My experience with the nouveau roman is that it looks flat and fussily precise but is full of madmen and murderers. Quite un-Richardsonish. I wonder if that is somehow what the Graham Greene bit is getting at, written by someone who gave up on The Voyeur before figuring out what it is about.