“France lay very much in our path, our path to almost everything that could beckon us forth from our base – and there were very few things in the world or places on the globe that didn’t beckon us; according to which she helped us along on our expansive course a good deal more, doubtless, than either she or we always knew.”
So wrote Henry James in 1915, less than a year before his death, of a country I love and one which appears to have had a salutary effect on Nige and Nigeness. In his first post since returning from France, Nige recounts his first visit to Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres and works in a reference to Geoffrey Hill and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy. Nige might like to know that Zbigniew Herbert, too, paid a first visit to Chartres and wrote about it in “The Stone from the Cathedral” (Barbarian in the Garden):
“Perhaps instead of writing about stained glass modulating light as Gregorian chant modulates silence, about mysterious chimeras meditating above the abyss of time, one should ruminate on how these stones were hoisted, about bricklayers, stonemasons and architects – their materials, tools, tricks and wages – forfeiting what possessed their souls when they erected this cathedral. A simple goal, an accountant’s view of the Gothic, but the Middle Ages also teach modesty.”
On Tuesday, Nige wrote about V.S. Pritchett’s Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, which I remember reading while sick with the flu in the fall of 1988. I recall it as a fever dream. Nige writes:
“The book is clearly a product of deep, long reading of Chekhov and an equally deep understanding and sympathy. It is, in fact, the kind of book - short, wise, beautifully but unshowily written, and absolutely to the point - that is increasingly rare in a world of stupefying doorstep biographies and unreadable, unilluminating criticism. And Pritchett published it in his 88th year!”
On Thursday, Nige used a wondrous archeological discovery in England to work in another Geoffrey Hill reference, this one from Mercian Hymns, my favorite among his books. Here’s Section XXV, which juxtaposes Ruskin’s compulsively readable Fors Clavigera and Hill’s grandmother:
“Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer's darg.
“The nailshop stood back of the cottage, by the fold. It reeked stale mineral sweat. Sparks had furred its low roof. In dawn-light the troughed water floated a damson-bloom of dust --
“not to be shaken by posthumous clamour. It is one thing to celebrate the 'quick forge', another to cradle a face hare-lipped by the searing wire.
“Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer's darg.”
By sharing his enthusiasms, whether butterflies or the novels of William Maxwell, Nige rouses us from our diurnal slumbers. Many thanks, Nige.
[Henry James, by the way, wrote the essay “France” during World War I for inclusion in The Book of France in Aid of the French Parliamentary Committee’s Fund for the Relief of the Invaded Departments. James first visited that country at the age of six months, in October 1843. In 1915, the year The Book of France was published, James became a naturalized citizen of Great Britain as a wartime act of solidarity.]