Resonance and Residence
“A work will only have deep resonance if the kind of darkness I can generate is something that is resident in me already.” — Anish Kapoor
I am feeling a bit dreamy this evening. It is a strange feeling in this day and time, particularly when faced with the stubbornly unsubtle pace of life in a city pushed to the limit of enforced gaiety by the current bread-and-circuses offering of our thoughtless public servants, but there is an explanation for it, and a reason for my treasuring of this state in defiance of my surroundings. I’ve been reading Henry Brocken again.
Those who are familiar with my reading habits and my compositions may know that I have long been vitally interested in the work of Walter de la Mare; I have read many of his stories, most of his novels, and much of his poetry. I have also set several of his poems, and was led to write a long and discursive fantasy for organ inspired by his most famous poem, “The Listeners.” The misty, grey and fleeting quality of much of his poetry, even that written for children, is particularly and personally congenial, but is often the beauty of his language, particularly in his novels and stories, that I find especially captivating, in spite of Boucher and McComas’ comment that “we freely admit we find Mr. de la Mare’s self-consciously subtle wordiness unreadable.” (Subtle—yes. Self-consciously so, and unreadable—an emphatic no.) Henry Brocken, his first novel, is particularly noteworthy in this regard, even if it just barely qualifies as a novel; the language is so beautifully assembled that one comes away with a feeling of being almost lost, but strangely, it is as if one is lost in one’s own thoughts and dreams rather than the writer’s, and there is a sudden upwelling of the very kind of resonant darkness that Anish Kapoor describes.
But this is not meant to be a paean to the overlooked work of an underrated writer. I was guided back along my path to Henry Brocken after finishing the recently published novella Mitko, by Garth Greenwell, who is currently a member of the English Faculty at the American College of Sofia, Bulgaria. The episodes related in Mitko are simple and very short; this is no epic multi-generational tale of unrequited or everlasting love. On the surface, the story is an examination of the confusion one experiences in examining the differences and similarities between sexual desire and emotional longing; to quote one reviewer, “a scruffy, alluring young street hustler named Mitko catches the eye of a fussy, repressed visiting American in Sofia, Bulgaria, who then pays the young hustler for sex and quickly, disastrously, falls into a kind of love with the boy.” This, of course, is not a promising opening for a narrative with the typical Lifetime Channel happy ending, and the story has more to do with what the same reviewer calls “the weird quasi-delirium of desire.” At the end of the day, as with Henry Brocken, I find the narrative itself almost more important—one might almost say enchanting—than the route dictated by the lovely, dark melancholy exuded by the plot.
Mr. Greenwell is very clearly a poet—a fact of which I was not aware when I first took up his book—and this is yet another link to Walter de la Mare, whose prose, like that of Mr. Greenwell, is informed and inhabited by poetry at every turn. How wonderful to find a writer of the present day who is not afraid to write long, beautiful sentences that shape themselves like thoughts, and thus miraculously convey the narrator’s state of mind, ambiguously focused and diffused at once, without violating the law of “show—don’t tell.” Perhaps this is yet another characteristic that reminded me of the mysteries of Henry Brocken, for I find that Mr. Greenwell is similarly guilty of being self-consciously subtle. Fortunately, I do not share Anthony Boucher’s prejudice, and greatly admire the present author’s fearlessness.
Finally, it is a combination of the beauty of his language and his skill at investigating the sadness of the human soul that reveals Mr. Greenwell’s sumptuous talents, but perhaps what touched me most of all was the discovery in Mitko, as in Henry Brocken and other works by Walter de la Mare, that resonance does, indeed, have a vital connection to resident darkness.
[With apologies to Mr. Greenwell, it appears that I wrote this several weeks ago and forgot to post it. I have left it as it stood, without updating the timeline.]Garth Greenwell, Henry Brocken, Mitko, Walter de la Mare