Sunday, March 15, 2009

Spleen, Olive Moore

I'd intended to write about Olive Moore's Spleen last year, but time got away from me and I never got round to it. But even if the time for a proper review has passed, I do want to say something about it before allowing myself to move on completely, because Spleen is the quintessential forgotten book and it deserves to be read.

I bought Spleen several years ago, precisely why I cannot say. No doubt it was in the midst of my full-blown obsession with all things associated with the Dalkey Archive, though it would have been prior to the Big Dalkey Get. I say Spleen is the quintessential forgotten book: Moore is the forgotten writer par excellence. (In fact, I'd pulled the book down from the shelf, its slim volume lost between our several books each by Lorrie Moore and Toni Morrison, to see whether it should be discarded.) She wrote four books ("Olive Moore" is a pseudonym for Constance Vaughan; according to the biographical note in the back of the book, she lived in Bloomsbury, ran in those sorts of literary circles, and wrote an essay about D.H. Lawrence), in the early 1930s, before disappearing, presumably dying around 1970. Dalkey produced a hardcover, omnibus edition of her work in 1992 and the stand-alone paperback of Spleen in 1996. It seems these reissues got good notices, where they were noticed, but I'd wager she's been forgotten again. Even in Dalkey's roster of misplaced modernists and post-modernists, lost writers and otherwise missing books, she seems easy to overlook.

This is a shame, for Spleen, at least, is excellent. The back of the Dalkey edition suggests that Moore writes "in a style similar to Virginia Woolf's". I think this comparison is apt, though if anything, I preferred reading Moore's prose over Woolf's chewier writing. Woolf is a useful formal comparison, too, I think. Things are narrated primarily from the perspective of Ruth, the novel's main character; her consciousness is revealed above all. Where so far Woolf's fiction has struck me as self-consciously innovating--as evidently by a writer conscious of trying something new (no disrespect to Woolf intended at all; I like her), Spleen feels somehow, to this reader, more organic. (For no good reason, I'm sure, I am also reminded of Ann Quin's Three, but my memory of that novel is dim. The reminder could simply be because they're both more or less forgotten English writers, now published by Dalkey.)

The novel concerns Ruth and her self-imposed exile after the birth of her deformed son 20 years earlier, whose deformity she feels responsible for. She meditates on motherhood, nature, equality, class. In her exile, for example, she muses on the pregnancy of one of the local Italian girls:
One day she would return from the beach or from the town with the day's papers, and Lisetta would run out to her with a face of beatitude announcing that Graziella had been delivered of whatever she had had to deliver, and Graziella, completed, would be sitting up in bed, the sweat still on her smiling face, accepting the cup of zabaglione and the figs, and the next day she would be up and about, singing to her infant, feeding it, washing it, ravished with delight in it, and binding it in the mummy-bands of a della Robbia holy child until only its face, surprised and formless, was visible. And from the first to last no fear, no despair, no mental torture. Nothing that was known to colder northern women, over-civilised, over-sensitised, bearing their children in an agony of pain and bewilderment.
As she herself, much earlier, when she had found herself desultorily pregnant, had been bewildered:
For how can one love a thing one does not desire? Perhaps because it is usual to love one's child. Then I am not usual. (How easy to accept this in the darkness of the night when the unreal becomes the obvious!) Because she knew that not wanting the child now she would not want it later. She knew it was not possible to her to love a thing she did not know or had not seen. How can one? Yet I am expected to. All women do. I am a woman. Therefore I do. And if I do not? (And at a movement real or a imaginary within her.) When I breathe, it breathes. When I feed, it feeds also. Against my will. Yet when it had finished using her for its own purpose, she must welcome it and say that it was hers and that therefore she loved it (all women do) at once and without question. When it had had nothing to do with her from start to finish.
She had eventually come to an understanding about the unborn baby and decided to try to will something in the world with it, not passively accepting it, but as an active agent, as men presumably are in the world. It is as if she were responding to a message: "Something different, said the message. Something worth having. Something beyond and above it all, said the message. Something new." After which she is radiant, happy; but something went wrong, and she blamed herself--both because of her earlier ambivalence and her later desire to create "something new"--and left. The novel begins with the present of her in exile and shifts back and forth, various details coming to light along the way. We are treated to images from her childhood (free and Edenic, raised by a father with radical educational theories) and her perfunctory marriage (after the father's death, she going along with what comes; her mother-in-law never forgiving her for not being sufficiently grateful for being "rescued from genteel poverty", not understanding "that Ruth was without gratitude because without knowledge of what genteel poverty might be"); descriptions of the beautiful Italian landscapes; conversations with locals; intellectual battles with a certain visiting male artist ("He said things which in her world simply were not said, were not thought: but she had lived too long out of any world to care what was said or thought.") . . .

As I said, this is not a formal review, but I hope I've managed to give some idea of the book and why it might be worth reading. (Another point in its favor, if you're interested in giving it a shot: the novel is 128 pages long.) As should be obvious, I recommend the book, especially--but not only--to admirers of Virginia Woolf and to readers interested in the period of the historical Modernists, and fictional explorations of class and gender.


Rebecca H. said...

This is going on my list of books I'd like to read -- everything about it sounds appealing. Thanks for writing about it.

Richard said...

Hi Dorothy! Thanks for commenting.

I had a feeling you might like this book. I'll be interested to hear what you think about it when you read it, if you get a chance to write about it.