Wednesday, March 02, 2016

`But with Compassion See Life'

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s words, Stevie Smith comes off like a charmingly but not altogether harmlessly eccentric character in one of Fitzgerald’s novels, perhaps a teacher in At Freddie’s: “Eccentricity can go very well with sincerity, and, in Stevie’s case, with shrewdness. She calculated the effect of her collection of queer hats and sticks, her face ‘pale as sand’, pale as her white stockings, and also, I think, of her apparent obsession with death.”

It’s pleasing to learn that two writers one admires, even loves, were friends of a sort and admired each other (as with Larkin and Pym). In her review of the posthumously published Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (1981), quoted above, Fitzgerald writes, ten years after Smith's death: “Stevie was good company and (what is not the same thing) a good friend. She could be `Comfort Smith’. Deep intimacy she drew back from, because she respected it so much. `That troubled stirring world of two’ was always strange to her, though love was not.” This recalls a time when writers were more than appendages of the marketing industry and “friend” was more than an idle keystroke.

I was reminded of the Smith/Fitzgerald friendship while reading Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (Chatto & Windus, 2013), in which Hermione Lee transcribes much marginalia and other previously unpublished material written by her subject. Inside the copy of The Frog Prince and Other Poems that Smith had given her in1966, Fitzgerald left a typed account of the lunch she had with the poet in 1969 at her house in Palmer’s Green. Fitzgerald might almost be setting up one of her stories:

“She was, as always, very small, grey hair cut very short like a ragged boy or an inmate of an asylum, very bright dark eyes, huge nose, birdlike. Combination of shrewd business woman, genuine artist, lonely middle-aged woman anxious to please, and mad-woman. House where she had lived for 61 years with her aunt . . . not changed in all that time . . . Upstairs, aunt's bedroom just as she left it when she died, freezing cold . . . Downstairs in the basement, stone sink, ancient stove with stovepipe, might have come out of La Bohème, faint mould . . . a cupboard with bits of tarnished silver . . . fluted gilt teacups, Japanese teapots, no lids, nutcrackers, dim cruets.”

Fitzgerald captures the anachronistic, shabby-genteel, jumble-sale world of Smith’s poetry and novels. And why is “no lids, nutcrackers, dim cruets” so funny? Fitzgerald continues:

“Stevie struggling mysteriously with the lunch, a large tough chicken . . . There were squares of carpet on the floor – we thought they were samples and she was choosing a new one – they were samples, but she had got them free and was sticking them together to make a carpet. Evidently it was too late for her now to learn to cook; she looked dwarfed by the huge thick plates and forks; she had bought some large white tombstone-like meringues from the local shop; felt distressed by her going to this trouble.”

Like Smith, Fitzgerald lived a less than glamorous literary life, sometimes on the margins, and was attracted in her work not to the shiny and prosperous but to losers and castoffs. Others might have felt superior to Smith and mocked her manner of living. Fitzgerald empathized:

“Afterwards, walk through Palmer’s Green; said she couldn’t decide to make the break and leave the house where she’d lived for so long; Palmer’s green had been country when they arrived and she still loved it. Pointed to dismal, pollarded trees in dreary road: how beautiful they look against the sunset! Stopped on the banks of a dirty lake in the park surrounded by depressed-looking bushes; said this was `all the lakes in the world, and all the water in my poems.’ . . . She seemed half aware and half not aware of how very odd the house was; she seemed to stand half inside and half outside herself. Shrewd about money and people. The decision to leave seemed to be the great one in her life. She said she must stay unhappy to write poetry . . . We had a bright pink and yellow Battenburg cake for tea. Stevie put on a strange hat to see us down to the bus. She kissed me good-bye.”

Lee tells us Fitzgerald reviewed Smith’s collection Harold’s Leap when it was published in 1950, and wrote: “Noble human beings at the height of their tragedy are usually grotesque.” In twelve words Fitzgerald distils Smith’s stance before the world, her mingled unhappiness and comedy. “Noble” and “grotesque” are seldom paired. Recall the lines from one of Smith’s best poems, “Do Not!”:

“Oh know your own heart, that heart’s not wholly evil,  
And from the particular judge the general,  
If judge you must, but with compassion see life,
Or else, of yourself despairing, flee strife.”

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