twentieth century

Above All, Foreign.

"Meanwhile, he stands there. Slowly, deliberately, like a magician, he takes a single book out of his briefcase and places it on the reading-desk. As he does this, his eyes move over the faces of the class. His lips curve in a faint but bold smile. Some of them smile back at him. George finds this frank confrontation extraordinarily exhilarating. He draws strength from these smiles, these bright young eyes. For him, this is one of the peak moments of the day. he feels brilliant, vital, challenging, slightly mysterious and, above all, foreign. 

Professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), 1960s. From  Harvard Psych Dept. website .

Professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), 1960s. From Harvard Psych Dept. website.

His neat dark clothes, his white dress shirt and tie (the only tie in the room) are uncompromisingly alien from the aggressively virile informality of the young male students. Most of these wear sneakers and garterless white wool socks; jeans in cold weather and in warm weather shorts (the thigh-clinging Bermuda type; the more becoming short ones aren't considered quite decent). If it is really warm, they'll roll up their sleeves and sometimes leave their shirts provocatively unbuttoned to show curly chest-hair and a Christopher medal. They look as if they were ready at any minute to switch from studying to ditch-digging or gang-fighting. They seem like mere clumsy kids in contrast with the girls; for these have all outgrown their teenage phase of Capri pants, sloppy shirts and giant heads of teased-up hair. They are mature women, and they come to class as if dressed for a highly respectable party." (46)

 

Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. London: Meuthen & Co., Ltd, 1964.

 

Kids these days! A thoughtful and scornful observation of early '60s students. Made me think of Take Ivy, the highly idealized style book by Teruyoshi Hayashida. The distinction between professor and student is the pearl in the oyster here, reinforcing our nostalgic ideas about Berkeley, the American '60s, etc. Also: the word "garterless."

Bengal Lancer

"Wilson stood gloomily by his bed in the Bedford Hotel and contemplated his cummerbund, which lay uncoiled and ruffled like an angry snake; the small hotel room was hot with the conflict between them. Through the wall he could hear Harris cleaning his teeth for the fifth time that day. Harris believed in dental hygiene. 'It's cleaning my teeth before and after every meal that's kept me so well in this bloody climate,' he would say, raising his pale exhausted face over an orange squash. Now he was gargling; it sounded like a noise in the pipes.

Wilson sat down on the edge of his bed and rested. He had left his door open for coolness, and across the passage he could see into the bathroom. The Indian with the turban was sitting on the side of the bath fully dressed; he stared inscrutably back at Wilson and bowed. 'Just a moment sir,' he called, 'If you would care to step in here...' Wilson angrily shut the door. Then he had another try with the cummerbund.

Film still from   The Lives of a Bengal Lancer  , 1935.

Film still from The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, 1935.

He had once seen a film--was it Bengal Lancer?--in which the cummerbund was superbly disciplined. A turbaned native held the coil and an immaculate officer spun like a top, so that the cummerbund encircled him smoothly, tightly. Another servant stood by with iced drinks, and a punkah swayed in the background. Apparently these things were better managed in India. However, with one more effort Wilson did get the wretched thing wrapped around him. It was too tight and it was badly creased, and the tuck-in came too near the front, so that it was not hidden by the jacket. He contemplated his image with melancholy in what was left of the mirror." (61)

 

Greene, GrahamThe Heart of the Matter. Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1962 [1948].

 

I like thinking of Wilson having watched many movies about Brits abroad in the great Empire and imagining how lovely and well-put-together and not-at-all-sweaty his life would be. The cummerbund, a British trope of Indian origin, is here representative of all of the struggles coiling around him, unavoidable but completely unmanageable.

Un-Prim

"'Oh, I see all right, James. I see perfectly.' This time her voice was flat. She wore a sort of arty get-up of multi-coloured shirt, skirt with fringed hem and pocket, low-heeled shoes, and wooden beads. The smoke from her cigarette curled up, blue and ashy in a sunbeam, round her bare forearm.

Elaine de Kooning, 1950s. Detail from a portrait of the de Koonings by Rudy Burckhardt. In the  permanent collection  at the Guild Hall.

Elaine de Kooning, 1950s. Detail from a portrait of the de Koonings by Rudy Burckhardt. In the permanent collection at the Guild Hall.

...

'...What the hell do you take me for? It isn't as if you didn't know what I've had to put up with, all these last weeks. It's intolerable, absolutely intolerable. I won't stand for it. You must have known how I've been feeling.'

She went on like this while Dixon looked her in the eyes. His panic mounted in sincerity and volume. Her body moved jerkily about; her head bobbed from side to side on its rather long neck, shaking the wooden beads about on the multi-coloured shirt. He found himself thinking that the whole arty get-up seemed oddly at variance with the way she was acting. People who wore clothes of that sort oughtn't to mind things of this sort, certainly not as much as Margaret clearly minded this thing. It was surely wrong to dress, and to behave most of the time, in a way that was so un-prim when you were really so proper all of the time." (76-77)

 

Amis, Kingsley. Lucky Jim. London: Penguin, 1972 [1954].

 

You are how you dress! Or should be, anyway, right?

Minnets mekanismer

Rapporter Ulla Strängberg: Jag är lite nervös inför mötet med Doris Lessing. Som många har sagt att hon är lite kärv och svår intervjuad. ...alltså är jag förberedd till tänderna när jag står där lite för tidigt utanför hennes hus i ett av raderna av likadana i West Hampstead inom västra London. Jag hade tänkt mig att det här programmet skulle handla om minnets mekanismer. En 84-åriga författare som skrivit i 70 år med ett 20-tal romaner bakom sig och minst lika mycket annat. Som skrivit så mycket om sitt liv och även i fiktiv form gestaltat minnena från uppväxten i Afrika. Var ska man börja, då?

Portrait of Doris Lessing by Ida Karr, late 1950s. In the  National Portrait Gallery , London. Does she have a run in her stocking? I would love that.

Portrait of Doris Lessing by Ida Karr, late 1950s. In the National Portrait Gallery, London. Does she have a run in her stocking? I would love that.

'En scen: jag har på mig en aftonklänning av svart sammet som jag hade sytt på eftermiddagen. Det var bomullssammet. Inom ett år skulle jag fingra på den och förkasta den. Den var skuren i den tidens klassiska modell: ryggen bar ner till midjan, med nackband och djup u-ringning framtill, sned runt höfterna och med mjuk vidd nertill. En man som är mycket äldre än pojkarna på sportklubben sitter på armstödet till den fåtölj och studera mig med ett leende som jag är för ung för att tolka som ett sorgsätt leende från en åldrande kvinnoälskare. Dansmusiken dunkar från balrummet och jag är rastlös och redan halvt börjat dansa, längtar efter att ge mig hänge. Han säger,

-Vem är din kavaljé ikväll? 

-Den och den, säger jag.

-Den där klänningen är bortslösad på en pojke som han, säger han med ett bittert leende. Han snurrar mig runt med manlig auktoritet, och förvandlas med ett andetag till en annan människa.

-Har du behå? 

-Nej.

-Trosor?

-Ja, det är klart, säger jag indignerat. 

-Du har en perfekt figur, förkunnar han. Men det är synd att ditt högre bröst hänger en halvcentimeter längre ner än den andra.

-Det överlever jag nog. 

-Säkerligen.

Det här lilla minnet skulle kunna jämföras med de fotografier av sitt unga jag, som kvinnor placerar där alla kan ser dom. Det de säger med det är "inbilla inte för en sekund att jag är den gamla haggan som du ser sitter här i den här fåtöljen, för det är jag inte alls. Det där är mitt verkliga jag.' [same Under My Skin excerpt in English here]

Doris Lessing in 2006. Photo: Martin Cleaver, AP. From  here .

Doris Lessing in 2006. Photo: Martin Cleaver, AP. From here.

...

US: Do you remember your black velvet dress?

DL: Yes. 

US: Must have been beautiful.

DL: It was, and I made it! I used to make my evening dresses. 

US: Your mother had a sewing machine.

DL: Yes, I used to...make sure I had a sewing machine. Um, I put this into my...I've just finished four short novels, which...and I put the making of evening dresses, much changed, into that. Because, you see, we used to make our clothes, because it isn't like now where there's so much...there's so many cheap clothes around. So it was, um, well it was enjoyable making clothes. Very! I don't do it now, of course.

Doris Lessing minns mycket väl sin svarta sammetsklänning som hon hade på balerna i Salisbury, i dåvarande Syd Rhodesia, där familjen hade slagit sig ner. Om det livet har hon berättat i sin självbiografi, Efter utbrottet från farmen, när hon bara var femton år. Familjen hade flyttat till Syd Rhodesia från Persian för att söka lyckan som majsfarmare. Men Doris bröt sig loss, och gick som alltid sin egen väg. Klänningen är ett slags symbol för frigörelsen, som är lustigt nog återvänt till igen i den kommande bok med fyra lång noveller. 

 

Doris Lessing, maker/consumer. From a great Swedish public radio piece on memory in remembrance of Lessing, who died November 17, 2013. Haven't read any of her work (!), but just happened to pick up the Penguin edition of "Five" (1960) in a thrift store in Uppsala a few weeks ago. Maybe the next English-language book on the pile?

This memorial to Lessing caught my ear when Strängberg asks herself, Lessing has written so much about memory, so "where do I begin?"...and promptly quotes a passage about a dress. Clothing and memory! Inextricable. Youth and age, memory, attraction...all in a piece of cotton velvet. I almost don't believe that Lessing made a velvet dress in one afternoon...but it fits the tone of the passage. Have a listen!