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5.0 out of 5 stars The wonder is in the detail, the pitch, the phrases and ideas and ways of looking at things..., 18 May 2011
This review is from: Memoirs of a Midget (Paperback)
At some 133,000 words this is the longest single piece Walter de la Mare produced. It is a mighty work, its close-woven psychological threads intensely complex, morally and spiritually provocative, and far more profound than it seems. Published early on, in 1922, it was quite popular but gradually faded away. The reprints that followed rode on the back of the poetry and stories at which Walter de la Mare was to excel, and he never attempted anything like `Memoirs of a Midget' again. If he had written no more after `Memoirs', I doubt that he would have any reputation left at all.

The midget is Miss M, reputedly born in Rutlandshire, England's smallest county, somewhen in the last half of the 19th century. Her memoirs fell into the hands of a Walter Dadus Pollacke and these start with her recollection of a family tradition: how she had crept into the kitchen cat's basket. As a consequence of this, she tells us, `the kitchen cat, too frequently meddled with, lugged off her kittens one by one to a dark cupboard', and then with the last one secured, `she was discovered in rapt contemplation of myself as if in debate whether it was her maternal duty to carry me off too. And there I was grinning up into her face.'

It is delightful. It starts well enough. And exactly how small is this Miss M who could grin up into a cat's face? Everyone who reads this book asks that question sooner or later. The cast is an extensive, dramatic concoction of the gothic and the weird, the abnormal, the inhibited, the shadowy, the repressed, and some who suggest they are not who they seem or no longer what they once were. All are class-bound. There's Fanny Bowater, with whom Miss M falls in love and who is everything Miss M is not. There's Mr Anon, a misshapen unprepossessing dwarf inhabiting memories or fantasies and who falls in love with Miss M, but perhaps only because she is the nearest he considers to be another of his kind. There's Mr Crimble with spectacles and rook-like stooping shoulders, curate-in-charge of St Peter's, who uses Miss M as go-between to carry his letters and futile proposal of marriage to the exotic Fanny. There is Lady Pollacke, `whose plumed and purple bonnet was as much too small for her head as she herself was too large for the room', and her husband Sir Walter.... These and all the rest teach Miss M the moods of the world.

However, this peculiar and discursive book is unfortunately much larger than its small subject deserves. Theresa Whistler, Walter de la Mare's biographer, said that its incessant, close focus on detail demanded `an unrelaxing mental vigilance from the reader that becomes tiring over so long a composition.' Few readers will disagree. Yet Angela Carter, no mean exponent of a not dissimilar genre, tells us that this `haunting, elegiac, misanthropic, occasionally perverse study of estrangement and isolation may be read with a good deal of simple enjoyment, and then it sticks like a splinter in the mind'. And a splinter in the mind it certainly is, and not one to be easily teased out.

As time goes on the narrative, although mannered throughout, can become tediously slow and turbid. The style is meticulous and quirky, the words either weighed and measured with great precision before being fixed in place on the page or flung down in a passionate outburst like a handful of pebbles. And with many of the characters grotesque and finely delineated, although not necessarily in every detail, there are pages and scenes that might be anticipating Mervyn Peake's `Gormenghast'. Nevertheless, as you make your sometimes intrigued, sometimes puzzled, sometimes uncertain way through, you gradually realise that the memoirs charting Miss M's every incident, episode and encounter and heart-breaking moment are in fact no more significant in the grand scheme of things than the events of any sensitive and reflective life that's trying to come to terms with a universe that has no means of distinguishing between a human being and a grain of sand and no reason for doing so. So take heed of Angela Carter's advice: this is simple enjoyment, a journey: make the best of it and you'll be richly rewarded. Don't poke it about and try too hard to work out what it means.

The real fascination - and this, I think, is what Angela Carter was driving at - lies in the remarks and observations that Miss M's fragmented and naïve genius scatters like pearls throughout the narrative. Her father, for example, had explained the stars, told her they were `huge boiling suns, roaring their way through the vast pits of space'. But she preferred, she says, `to keep them just as `stars' ... and I loved to lave [lave, mark you] my hands in a trickle of light that had been numberless years on its journey to this earth'. She was `unfeignedly grieved that the bleak moon was naught but a sheer hulk, sans even air or ice or rain or snow.' Some while later - when the world is `mantled with snow', the snow which Miss M `believed was the fairness beneath which the unknown Self' of Fanny Bowater lay slumbering - Mr Crimble tells her of the death of a sick parishioner, Mr Hubbins. `My eyes strayed to the silent scene beyond the window, silent, it seemed, with the very presence of poor Mr Hubbins. I should not like,' she says, `to go to Hell in the snow.' Mr Crimble says the poor man had a wonderfully peaceful end. `Peaceful!' she replies. `Oh, but surely not in his mind, Mr Crimble. Surely one must be more alive in that last hour than ever - just when one's going away.' So much closer to the ground and further from the sky than the rest of us, Miss M never loses her peculiar perspectives. Mr Anon tells her of a bygone age when men were his size. Man then had no name for God but `had now swollen to his present shape, having sunk deeper and deeper into a kind of oblivion of the mind, suffocating his past and now all but insane in his own monstrosities.' She reflects upon the implications of this and says,' There can't be one God for the common-sized and one for - for me; now, can there? Can you see Jesus Christ in these woods? Do you believe we are sinners and that He came to save us? I do. But I can see Him only as a little boy, you know, smiling, crystal, intangible; and yet I do not like children very much.'

All is in the detail, the pitch, the phrases and ideas and ways of looking at things: the mark of Walter de la Mare.

As for the ways of looking at things, dreams are dreams, and who knows where they come from? It's no good asking the dreamer. All Coleridge could do with `Kubla Khan' was to write the fragments down; they were none of his making, he claimed. But if you want to know what you might draw out of Miss M's memoirs, and if you feel so inclined, you could start by reading it as a general commentary upon the human condition, for a second time as a plea for tolerance and social equality and women's rights, and then ... well, why not take the Freudian trip? You might even consider giving it a Jungian spin... If you do, by the time you have learnt the reason why poor Mr Crimble, who looked like a corpse when Miss M last saw him, cut his throat, and have also discovered that Miss M and the perennial outcast Mr Anon are on their way to meet the Showman and join the circus, you'll have found half the cards in the Major Arcana and be up to your neck in mysteries aching to be decoded and as tantalisingly enigmatic as Bob Dylan at his apocalyptic best.

My take, as I write this, was that it can be all of the above. But I then got snagged on Miss M's remark about half way through when she says she is 'as heavily burdened with other people's responsibilities as was poor Christian with the bundle of his sins'. How do we know when we get to the end that this is not John Bunyan's `Pilgrims Progress' with a different ending? It is the Showman, whom Miss M sees as Apollyon, who does for Mr Anon. Apollyon is the Foul Fiend from `Pilgrim's Progress', who pays the wages of death, and who set up a Fair in a town called Vanity. Mr Anon carries Miss M in a cage to the circus (as were Christian and Hopeful carried through Vanity in Bunyan's dream) to the Showman before she becomes Signorina Donna Angélique, the Fairy Princess of Andalusia in Spain. But unlike Bunyan's Christian, Miss M cannot defeat Apollyon. Having lost Mr Anon she searches everywhere for his lost spirit. Even if we have every faith and firmly believe in the Celestial City and think we know the way there and what we must do to reach it, we shall never know it exists until we arrive there. Her last words are `Leaf, pebble, crawling night-creature - with slow, animal-like care, I turned them over one by one, seeking and seeking.' Is this story Pilgrim's Progress with the last chapter missing? I don't know. Nor does Sir Walter Pollacke who finds her note: `I have been called away. - M'. This story is infuriating at times, yet quite wonderful. I can always thumb through it and find something magical I've never seen before. Do parts of it rewrite themselves when the book is closed?
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 16 Nov 2012 10:24:39 GMT
Zaroff says:
'dont poke it about'...priceless.
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