This week I’ve been thinking about what goes on behind the scenes of things. There’s been the Edward Snowden/Stephen Lawrence bugging stories running on in the press, and on a much lighter note I’ve been watching Scandal (about a political fixer), which has replaced a certain epic fantasy drama as my conflicted- inner-monologue programme of choice. My conflicted-inner-monologue goes thusly: “Why am I watching this? Its fluffy drivel…I’m not watching this…I have to wait how long for the next episode?” ad infinitum until the end of the series, followed by googling to see what happens in the next series & how long I’ll have to wait before its screened. Anyway, my psychological torments aside, I’ve branched out a bit this week by making a diary one of the choices, rather than sticking purely to fiction. Jeanette Winterson once said: “There’s no such thing as autobiography, there’s only art and lies” so I think a diary fits into this category and isn’t so out of place in a blog about fiction. Both the diary and the novel are told from the point of view of someone in the background of another’s fame, bound up in their domestic life and the intimacy that necessarily entails; behind the scenes of their public life.
Firstly, sister of William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journal (my copy Oxford World’s Classics, 2002). William and Dorothy were separated as children but once reunited as adults they lived together in the Lake District, even after his marriage, until her death. They were incredibly close (weirdly close, rumours of incest continue to this day) and she is thought to have been his muse. Coleridge and De Quincey both rated her writing and her intellect. Certainly Dorothy had a big influence on her brother’s writing; she was his scribe, as Wordsworth became ill in the through the physical act of writing, so it’s not too much of a stretch to assert that if it wasn’t for her we probably wouldn’t have Worsdworth’s poems, either in terms of their inspiration or the words on the page. The diary details the minutiae of their life together, but she writes very little about what she feels, only what she sees. While at times this can make the writing a bit limited, at other times her powerful observations are beautiful, as this famous passage from “Thursday 15th April 1802” shows:
“When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the sea had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and above them; some rested their heads upon these stones, as on a pillow, for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway.”
Guess which monumentally famous poem that inspired? Yup, if it wasn’t for Dorothy, Wordsworth would never have “wandered lonely as a cloud”. Some of you may think that’s no bad thing, and I have to confess I would be amongst you – I am really not one for the Romantic poets at all. But even if you don’t like the poetry, Dorothy’s diary is still worth a look as firstly, it’s not Romantic poetry so it’s very different, and secondly, she’s a brilliant nature writer. She has great feeling for the Lake District, and if you’ve ever been there you’ll find yourself transported back through her writing. Here she is writing not about the Lakes, but on a rare trip away (to Calais, to see Wordsworth’s French mistress and his daughter), gazing back towards England:
“We had delightful walks after the heat of the day was passed away – seeing far off in the west the coast of England like a cloud crested with Dover castle, which was but like the summit of the cloud – the evening star and the glory of the sky. The reflections in the water were more beautiful than the sky itself, purple waves brighter than precious stones, for ever melting away upon the sands. The fort, a wooden building, at the entrance of the harbour at Calais, when the evening twilight was coming on, and we could not see anything of the building but its shape, which was far more distinct than in perfect daylight, seemed to be reared upon pillars of ebony, between which pillars the sea was seen in the most beautiful colours that can be conceived. Nothing in romance was ever half so beautiful.”
Finally, she’s worth reading for the small domestic scenes that remind us all that even great poets have to eat. “I went and sate with W & walked backwards and forwards in the Orchard till dinner time – he read me his poem. I broiled beefsteaks.” I love that – the orchard, the declaiming of poetry, all very idyllic and impressive, followed by the mundane detail of what happened next. Poetry, then beefsteaks. It’s not just Wordsworth we see in this light. On “Monday Morning 1 September 1800” Dorothy documents “I broiled Coleridge a mutton chop which he ate in bed.” Another time she has letters from the great poet and mutton chop consumer: “very melancholy letters, he had been very ill in his bowels”. (I’m not a doctor but I’d suggest being a massive opium addict is not the best for one’s melancholia or one’s bowels). There’s plenty to Dorothy’s short journals, and while the feeling of getting behind the scenes of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poetry is enticing, her writing stands on its own as an intriguing observation of the natural world and early nineteenth century domestic life.
Before I discuss the second book here’s a picture of the Lake District (or at least one lake in the district) to keep you going. This is a long post, I’m sorry…
Secondly, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber, 2010). Yes, it’s a well-known and much debated story told from the point of view of a dog. If that sounds like a premise that would make you want to poke your own eyes out, stay with me. It’s not a novel I would have read either, except it’s by Andrew O’Hagan, who is a terrific writer, and who dealt with the dark side of fame and its repercussions on the famous so brilliantly in his 2003 novel Personality. If you thought the dog thing sounded like quite a fun and original way of telling the story, well, you were right, and I shouldn’t be so jaded and blinkered. Maf (there’s no way I’m writing that title out in full again)tells the story of Marilyn’s last few years through the eyes of her Bichon Maltese dog, Mafia Honey, given to her by Frank Sinatra. Except it sort of doesn’t. Marilyn was placed under intense scrutiny and yet still remained an enigma, and Maf doesn’t seek to change this. By the end of the novel she is still a mystery, O’Hagan doesn’t have a “Marilyn theory” to put forward. Instead, through Maf, we take a look at Hollywood, and to wider extent the USA, on the brink of change, as the Golden Age of the 1950s fades and the momentum for immense change in the 1960s builds.
“There was a neon halo over Times Square. The puddles were lighted pink and the bulbs made a cartoon beauty of Midtown, pulling shadows and poor men out of the alleys…bright commerce took advantage of the dark, the changes in colour feeling like events…in the middle of all those twinkles, you might wonder if people even had a chance of spending their lives wisely.”
It’s a comedy in the main though, and there’s plenty of whimsy which plays with the unusual point of view but never overdoes it:
“We usually hate cats, not for the typical reasons, but because they show an exclusive preference for poetry over prose. No cat ever spoke for long in the warmth of good prose. A dog’s biggest talent, though, is for absorbing everything of interest – we absorb the best of what is known to our owners and we retain the thoughts of those we meet.”
This psychic device means Maf is able to speak with knowledge on a wide range topics, particularly philosophy. Apparently most dogs are socialists, and Maf particularly loves Trotsky. This I felt was the weakness of the novel; Maf is an engaging and unique voice, but a little pompous. Generally this doesn’t stop him from being likeable, but at times I felt the philosophising and intellectual name-dropping could have done with a more heavy-handed edit. Still, the descriptions of Marilyn are sympathetic and delicate:
“She found it hard. Many of the old bids for independence had fallen short. She was tired. When she hugged me, her comforter, her guardian, I felt a weight of disappointment about her, as if the stands she had taken in life, and in love, had only revealed her personal shortcomings and the impossibility of respect.”
While Marilyn struggles, Maf is her constant companion and goes everywhere wither, meaning we learn about Sinatra’s temper tantrums, JFK’s shoes, George Cukor’s interior design… When he accompanies her to Lee Strasberg’s famous actor’s studio to learn about method acting, Maf takes on board all the techniques:
“I reached inwards. All the way in. I recalled some humiliation I once suffered at the hands of Evelyn Waugh and a croquet ball. I must have been the merest puppy and was pootling on the lawn […] Evelyn was making a point, a facetious point, naturally, about the ugliness of George Eliot, and when I tried to correct him along Latin principles he knocked a croquet ball across the lawn at vicious speed and it struck me in the centre of my infant forehead…I used it to deepen my performance on the table at the back of Jack’s Bar.”
The great Strasberg takes notice and asks someone to fetch the dog some water. A method acting dog – brilliant. Along the way there are other light comic touches – rats with Brooklyn accents, an Old English Sheepdog who speaks like Boris Johnson (only more coherent), the fact that Lady from Lady and the Tramp is the dog of his dreams, and he congratulates himself on seeing beyond her typecasting as the love interest: “If only she had met me things would be different.” Over the years many people seem to have felt that way about tragic Marilyn, but she wasn’t saved, and the book isn’t so funny as to downplay this part of the story. Marilyn comes across as vulnerable and damaged, and her little dog, like so many others around her, can only watch her self-destruct. Maf is an original take on a behind the scenes story, one that respectfully leaves the same questions unanswered as to why Marilyn’s life ended the way it did.
Originally I planned to write “the scenes” on a piece of paper and photograph the books behind it (fnar fnar) but I decided against this marvellous visual pun and instead opted to photograph them with a picture of the peerless Sir Humphrey Appleby (Sir Nigel Hawthorne) from Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister, master manipulator of behind the scenes political power wielding: