Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More colour in November...





'... why, wondered Gilles, should this level of light transfigure the earth, beyond any magic of sunrise or sunset?  He saw the bare trees of the terrain beyond the eastern wall of the cloister, the swift grey current of the Seine, and across the narrow strait of the Ile Notre Dame with its black piles of wood and turf, the grass betwen them a strange, passionate green.  There is more colour, he thought, in November than there is in August, except perhaps in water.  For water dies, the earth never.  Those naked trees, indifferent to the fall of leaf: the life is more than meat, they say, and the body than raiment: what we have we hold.'

Sunny days at this time of year always remind me of this passage, from Peter Abelard by Helen Waddell, which is probably still about my favourite book, though I generally mistrust such categorical statements. 

I know in many ways it is pure romantic fiction; even Helen Waddell herself cannot remain faithful to her sources (and there can have been no one to whom that was more important), and square the love story with the fact of Abelard's tiresome arrogance, egoism and unkindness.  It's interesting though, I think, that nine centuries on we still want to believe in them, and to feel that we know them.  The other side of this desire is a kind of self-mortifying modern iconoclasm in fiction and historical writing alike that casts him as a kind of monstrous mediaeval hybrid of the Marquis de Sade and Jean-Paul Sartre, and her as a masochistic doormat victim or else a complete figment of his, or someone else's, imagination, which in turn elicits protest and counter scholarship and supposition from their apologists.  Either way, they go on mattering.




I don't even have a clear recollection of when I first read the book, but I think it may have been a long time ago at a time when I was so preoccupied by troubling circumstances that it was quite difficult to read or concentrate on anything much.  But I don't recall because I became so completely absorbed in the world of it that everything else disappeared for the duration.  And I keep coming back to it because sometimes nothing else will do, there's nowhere else I want to go.  Partly, I think I understood on about the third reading of it, because the truly important and compassionate relationship within it isn't between Abelard and Heloise at all but between Heloise and the elderly, cynical, fictitious old scholar Gilles de Vannes, whose musings comprise the passage here (we hear much of his inner voice, something of Abelard's, nearly nothing of that of Heloise).  Mostly though, I just want to lose myself in Helen Waddell's glorious, melancholy, translucent vision of that corner of France in that part of the 12th century.  It's like the light coming through beech leaves.



'... the autumn seemed to him richer than any spring, and this pale persistent sunlight had a kind of heroic tenderness.  There is no memory in spring, he thought, not even the memory of other springs: but a November day of faint sunlight and emerald moss remembers all things, the wild promise of the January days, snowbroth in February, violets in March, new-mown hay in June, dew-wet mint trodden underfoot on August nights, the harvest moon in September, the hunter's moon in October. ...He had it now: it was this level of light, of the sun near the horizon'



7 comments:

rb said...

Yes, it is interesting. I think often our perceptions of our favourite books, or those that have left a particularly deep imprint on our soul, has more to do with how we ourselves were when we read them than the book itself.

Two of the books I consider to be of particular significance to me were read at times when I really couldn't function at all, when it took a lot of effort to read, to force myself to let go of stuff and throw myself into the book - and when it finally happens, I think the experience is somehow more profound.

Well, I have always thought that.

Rouchswalwe said...

Beautiful. There are 2 symphonies that hold such an import for me. When immersed in them, I heal a little. Coming out on the other side, I see things more clearly. And then there is a particular poet I can always rely on.
There is an Abelard volume on my shelf, I think. Unread. Now you've piqued my interest, Lucy.

Plutarch said...

I think H and A has a dramatic truth which is somehow more important than the historic truth. I read it more than 50 years ago and it still seems to matter.

Granny J said...

Beautiful November colors...

Barrett Bonden said...

Resonances with Anna Karenina which for me is more about Levin and less about the tragic lovers. An uneasy sense of masculinity has kept me away from H&A but there's yet another echo with "the elderly, cynical, fictitious old scholar" in the part of Don Alfonso in Cosi. And bringing us more or less up to date it's the sort of role that James Mason used to favour once he'd ceased to be a matinée idol, although there are many (Mrs BB prominent among them) who believe that that particular radiance only ceased with JM's death.

christopher said...

My goodness, I love coming here.

Sheila said...

I think I need to read this book.

I love the quote about spring and autumn difference.

I want to walk that field!