I used to find it almost impossible to start a book and not finish it. You want to know how it turns out, right? You don’t want to miss out on what may turn into a wonderful read. Well, my new rule is that bad books don’t get better.
Did I just say ‘bad?’ Surely I didn’t mean Eyeless in Gaza, by that great writer Aldous Huxley, that I put aside the other day after eighty pages or so. It may very well be a great book, about serious things, but the characters weren’t coming alive for me. Maybe I’m a terrible reader. Maybe Huxley is best at comic types, when he can be ironic, and arch, and erudite, and clever.
Then I almost put down E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread after the first chapter: A train station, a departure, the whole cast shouting last-minute instructions and waving goodbye, all the characters flung at you at once like so many tennis balls. My instinct was to duck and cover. But once we got to Italy things improved, and it turned out to be an interesting read, full of the sort of cultural collisions that Forster is so adept at seeing and showing.
The Bloomsbury crowd, like all northern Europeans, loved the south, Greece and Spain and especially, it seems, Italy, and not only for the wine and sunshine and the Roman ruins but also for the romance of Byron, his Childe Harold, and for the casual and sometimes exasperating way of life. Bloody natives.
Here’s Bloomsbury in a nutshell: a search for new modes of expression in fiction, post-Impressionism, free love, unconventional marriages, and the Mediterranean.
They hated finding out that Germans liked to travel south, too. Forster goes out of his way to make fun of Germans twice in Where Angels Fear without even bothering to show us how they’re worse than the English. Bad form, Forster.
If you lined up all the Italy-inspired books that northern Europeans have written, you would have a lot of books. Those were Germanic tribes who used to sack Rome, and the Germanic artists have traditionally felt pulled the same way. In prose you find it in sprightly nonsense like From the Life of a Good-For-Nothing by Eichendorff as well as in Mann’s more serious Death in Venice.
Here’s an historical what if: If the Germans had stayed in Germany, would Virginia Woolf have lived to write more novels? It’s not inconceivable. Things got bad for Woolf in the winter of ‘40/’41, and by the end of March she couldn’t take it any more. Understandable under the influence of an English winter. But the Mediterranean was part of Fortress Europe by then.
Sure seems like I had some point to make about Bloomsbury and Italy, but I’ve been laboring under a mild flu for a few days and I’m damned if I can remember what it was. Had it when I sat down. Something about how different things were, more Bohemian, and how much light there was, and how the Bloomsberries were inspired by a world something like what they wanted to do in the arts, and in their own world.