Sunday, 2 June 2013

Penguin no. 1655: At Home
by William Plomer

As a child I had seen Chinamen wearing pigtails; at Mukden I saw in the street a richly dressed Chinese woman tottering along on tiny bound feet, a belated martyr to an uncommonly perverse fashion. I supposed it was the mingled appearance of helplessness and affectation which these broken, crippled, trotter-like feet gave to the gait that had caused them to be thought beautiful. Possibly for the male the sexual attraction lay in the certainty that, if pursued, no woman with such feet could run away. But behind this woman loomed smoking factory chimneys. On their black stilts the Satanic mills were after her. They would soon overtake her. She would never be seen again.

William Plomer has such an interesting way of describing the things he has observed, that after having read the first few pages, I never suspected that this was a book I would struggle to finish. I loved his first two chapters in which he describes his journey to England in 1929 to begin what he refers to as a process of re-Westernization. He records fragments of his experience; small moments observed during the nine day train journey from Japan to Ostend, via Siberia, aware that he is glimpsing a fast-vanishing world that few will have the opportunity to witness again.

He is 26 years of age at the time, and thinks of himself as heading home while never losing the sense of feeling like an outsider. He recognises that his attitudes are likely to differ from those of his contemporaries, as his have been conditioned by all the years spent living in Africa and Asia. He has no sympathy with the insular European idea that barbarism begins 'where Europe, or European civilization, has its ostensible boundaries.'

William Plomer was born in South Africa in 1903 to English parents. He spent only four years at school in England, including one year at Rugby, before returning to Africa to work at farming, and then spent some years teaching in Japan, before heading to London. He began his first novel, Turbott Wolfe, at the age of nineteen, and had it published in 1925 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf.  At Home is his autobiography covering the period from his departure from Japan to the conclusion of the second world war.

The only dramatic event that he recounts occurs soon after his arrival. He rents some rooms in a house in Bayswater owned by a woman he describes as 'a lively, pretty, fresh-looking Jewess in her early thirties', and one weekend, when he is staying elsewhere, she is butchered by her husband in the presence of her six year old daughter. The husband's jealous feelings had become obsessive, and he could no longer bear the thought of any man, including the uninterested Plomer, gazing upon his wife. William Plomer believes that he has been fortunate in escaping the same fate as his landlady, and uses the experience as the basis of his third novel, The Case is Altered. He also sets about looking for somewhere else to live.

Over the next thirty years he lives a largely nomadic life, moving from one London suburb to another. Although he thinks of himself as a poet and novelist, he writes very little, maintaining that his primary interest has always been in the pursuit of personal relationships, however fleeting. There is the sense that he feels the need to justify his choices, perhaps because he clearly conceives of himself as a person of superior ability who may not have succeeded in a way others expected him to. He classifies himself as a man of reflection rather than of action, emphasising that this is the more impressive character-type, although noting that a desire to cultivate understanding 'may make a man feel superior, smug, priggish, and fill him with that intellectual vanity which is a form of spiritual pride..'. I find that I agree with him, as he is inclined to mix quite a bit of sermonising in amongst his recollections, and smug and condescending is how I felt he came across.

His admiration seems saved solely for those with a talent for poetry or writing, and perhaps for other artistic pursuits, and he seems to cast himself as a person of unerring discrimination in sitting in judgement on who is admirable and who is not; for him, popularity and merit are incompatible. Most people are written off as mediocrities, described in terms such as 'gaping self-improvers'. He clearly counts himself amongst the elite, and then seems to be ready to judge the whole of (English) humanity on the basis of the one thing he believes he does well. I found his attitude very condescending, particularly the following paragraph -
It was, and still is, a delusion widely held by persons who ought to know better that antiquity is in itself a virtue. Those eighteenth-century letters from a member of Parliament, that diary of a carriage tour kept by a young lady who visited the field of Waterloo in the 1820s, may serve, dear sir or madam, to inflate your over-estimate of your own forebears, but I do assure you that wigs, flowered waistcoats, and shoe-buckles were often inseparable from pompous mediocrity, and that bonnet and shawl were no less often the ornaments of skittish inanity; and, further, that dullness is often hereditary. Ancestor worship, when examined, is sometimes found to be an inflation of nincompoops.
 I though this was a little harsh, particularly when large sections of this book seemed a little dull.

The more interesting chapters and sections are those devoted to his remembrances of the writers he knew during the 1930s, and for the most part - provided he admired their literary talent - he is generous with his recollections, concentrating particularly on appearance and manner. He gives brief references to writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Rose Macaulay, and far longer ones to Hugh Walpole (whose writing he didn't admire), E.M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf, amongst others. This book may therefore be of some interest to those who wish to read first hand accounts of the personal characteristics of the better-known literary figures of the 1930s, or the story of how Kilvert's Diary came to be published, and what it meant for the village of Clyro. Fortunately, there is an index at the back of Plomer's book (at least in the Penguin edition) so that this can be done without any need to wade through the entire book.

1 comment:

  1. "When her guests were awash with champagne and with gin,
    She was recklessly sober, as sharp as a pin..."

    "It is the function of creative people to perceive relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expressions that seem utterly different, and to be able to Connect the seemingly Unconnected".

    These two quotations by William Plomer tell the creativity of the author himself.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...