Novels have been appearing in the last decade or so in which one or more of the characters are actual historical figures, often themselves writers, appearing in propria persona, not considerately disguised and renamed, as Horace Skimpole was in Bleak House, for example. Perhaps the most notorious instance in recent years is Virginia Woolf in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998), made even more memorable by Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose in the film thereof. Cunningham, who would appear to have known when he was onto a good thing, deployed Walt Whitman similarly in his novel Specimen Days (2005).To give this development a local habitation and a name, we need go no further than Ashley Hay’s The Body in the Clouds (2010) to find the historical Lieutenant William Dawes, after whom Dawes Point in Sydney is named, playing a considerable role.
In Miles Franklin Award winner Steven Carroll’s ninth and most recent novel, A World of Other People, T.S. Eliot and his poetry, particularly ‘Little Gidding’ (1942), from Four Quartets, play significant roles, the poet as a fire-watcher at the end of the Blitz in London during World War II, the poem seeming to derive from that experience. Eliot’s epiphanic extrapolation from the rooftop experience is quietly contested by Iris, a fellow fire-watcher, the novel’s heroine (and she is a heroine, not simply a protagonist) and a spokeswoman for the realism of experience, as of literature. Eliot inscribes a copy of ‘Little Gidding’ ‘To Iris, who was there’, as she indeed was.
A third figure who both is and is not there – recalling The Waste Land’s ‘Who is the third who walks always beside you? … What is that sound high in the air / Murmur of maternal lamentation’ – is Jim from Essendon, Victoria, pilot of a disabled Wellington with a dove painted on its side, which flies over Iris and Eliot’s rooftop, actually the roof of Faber and Faber, in Bloomsbury. For Eliot, ‘The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror …’ A rose plays a crucial role in Carroll’s novel, as it does in Eliot’s poem and thus, perchance, for Carroll as for Eliot:
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Possibly all shall be well for Iris, too. In the novel’s last paragraph, ‘She crosses into St James’s Park. The sun has stayed strong. I’m back, it says, I’m back. And she looks up into the glaring light and nods.’ Surely that, too, is an epiphany, and surely indebted to Eliot.
Iris is a fledgling writer, university-educated, up to date in her reading. She is familiar with Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and has a copy of Finnegans Wake, a mere two years after its publication, ‘though she’s inclined to agree with Mrs Woolf, who thinks it’s all tricks and smoke and mirrors’. Iris and Eliot would appear to be made for one another. Jim has read philosophy at the University of London. After his death, Iris finds in his desk drawer a copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, a ‘slim bound volume’ like her copy of ‘Little Gidding’, with the inevitable proposition underscored: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.’
Those familiar with Four Quartets merely because they were forced to study them at university may fail to realise how excited Eliot’s contemporaries were by them; people queued outside West End bookshops on the morning of the publication of each quartet. Jim attends Eliot’s reading of ‘Little Gidding’ at St Stephen’s, South Kensington, which was Iris’s church and where she met Eliot. He offers a convincing account of Eliot’s reading voice:
Jim wonders how on earth anybody gets a voice like that, because nobody could be born with it. This is Eliot’s ‘poet’s voice’. A voice, it occurs to Jim, that is the equivalent of his three-piece suit. It is a deadpan voice. An unemotional voice. An above-it-all voice. One that does not involve itself in the emotions that poetry springs from … The idea being, Jim assumes, that an audience will listen to the poetry free of the distraction of the poet’s voice.
Anyone familiar with Eliot’s critical prose as well as his poetry will note that Carroll has done his homework and that, in a manner of which Eliot would approve, has kept his research invisible, unlike some novels that emerge from university creative writing schools and all too publicly declare their indebtedness in supplementary essays and bibliographies. It seems at times as if universities cannot trust, or indeed believe in, the imagination.
Jim, utterly spent, makes his way to the ‘village’ of Little Gidding, which is near his RAF base. Exhausted, he goes to sleep and dies in the snow. Iris, after his death, is permitted to examine his barracks room, where she finds a photograph of Jim and his Wellington – and the dove. As Christina Stead said of Goethe’s famous last words (‘More light’) when visiting his occluded room, ‘Everything is real.’ Perhaps Iris would oppose that sentiment to Eliot’s otherworldly extrapolations.
Yet it was Eliot w ho spoke, in ‘Little Gidding’, of ‘the common word exact without vulgarity, / The formal word precise but not pedantic’. This is the lesson that Eliot and ‘Little Gidding’ have taught Steven Carroll, and it is a lesson well learned.