She drew from her garter a dear little dagger …
- In the Tennessee Country: A Novel by Peter Taylor
Chatto, 226 pp, £14.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6253 8
Perhaps only new countries can have a real past, peopled with genuine ghosts and filled with authentic records. Or it is countries other than one’s own that are so endowed? Any place that peoples the mind and compels the imagination is not likely to be our own: that past and place are founded, for our own self-preservation, on some variety of Larkin’s ‘forgotten boredom’. And only the best writers can deliberately reveal their own past as a foreign country, where things are differently done.
I had not encountered the Tennessee novelist Peter Taylor before, and this book came as something of a revelation. As a writer he has the gift, which seems both wholly natural and yet to go with a very conscious discipline and decorum, of putting the reader calmly inside his world in his first few sentences. That itself is a gift from the past, as in Jane Austen or Trollope, which some writers of the present can learn to make use of without seeming to be at all artificial, or to be going beyond themselves. Peter Taylor’s voice appears to be as inevitably his own, and yet as much at home with past generations, as Turgenev’s or Aksakov’s, both of whom were endowing what amounted to a new country with the taste and feel of an older literary civility, like Siegfried Sassoon’s in his imaginary memoirs or, if it comes to that, L.P. Hartley’s – he who coined that now famous phrase about the foreignness of the past, as his opening for The Go-Between. All these writers seem at ease with their past selves in a densely social and not strongly individualised sense. At the same time that past can create for literature a self and a voice unlike any other.
‘In the Tennessee country of my forebears it was not uncommon for a man of good character suddenly to disappear.’ Taylor’s first sentence possesses all that old art of settling us down, making us feel at home. The man who disappears is Cousin Aubrey – Aubrey Tucker Bradshaw – the natural son of a maternal great-uncle, whose acquaintance the author first makes on a special funeral train, bearing the body of his grandfather, a celebrated senator, from Washington back home to Nashville, Tennessee. Peter Taylor’s grandfather was in fact, as we learn from the sleeve of the novel, a legendary figure in his own lifetime, a much revered governor of the state, and later a senator. But the wholly fictional spell of the novel is not disturbed for a moment by any of these similarities: indeed, the more obvious the equivalence between the real Peter Taylor and Bradshaw the son, husband and art historian of the novel, the more effectively the novel realises itself as an immaculate piece of fiction, and a subtly unpretentious work of art.
The phenomenon of Cousin Aubrey provides what plot is needed; and at the same time his status as a man of mystery – though in the family he is seen as merely outlandish, even absurd – makes a perfect contrast with the intimacy the reader immediately feels with the narrator’s other relatives, and with the general tenor of his perceptions. As a young man Aubrey has his place as the Governor’s dogsbody, hiring carriages, taking a hand at cards, and squiring the Governor’s daughters on their shopping expeditions downtown. In a Gatsby-like manner he seizes every opportunity and odd moment for self-improvement – he was often discovered by the narrator’s mother, a serious miss of 14, reading ‘something profound and arcane’ on a chair near the door of the Governor’s suite.
Vol. 17 No. 2 · 26 January 1995
I was delighted to read John Bayley’s very positive review of Peter Taylor’s latest novel In the Tennessee Country (LRB, 12 January). The novel’s opening sentence, as quoted by Bayley, is: ‘In the Tennessee country of my forebears, it was not uncommon for a man of good character suddenly to disappear.’ This, to me, is a truly memorable sentence, so much so that it sent me hastily to my shelves to a treasured collection of Peter Taylor’s short stories entitled The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court where I found a well remembered story, ‘Cousin Aubrey’. This story begins: ‘In the Tennessee country of my forebears, it was not uncommon for a man of good character suddenly to disappear.’
Vol. 17 No. 3 · 9 February 1995
It was not a spirited young lady who ‘sighed for a canter after cattle’, as John Bayley asserts in his review of Peter Taylor’s novel (LRB, 12 January), but a young man who had lost his lady love in a cattle stampede. I cannot recall who wrote the monologue but it was usually recited by a young man in white tie and tails appearing in a revue (I performed it myself at army camps during the war). The opening lines are:
It’s all very well to write revues
To carry umbrellas and keep dry shoes
To say what everyone’s saying here
And wear what everyone else must wear.
But tonight I’m sick of the whole affair
I want free life and I want fresh air …
The young man goes on to relate how much he loved Lasca, though it turns out that she was damn jealous too!
Once when I made her jealous for fun
At something I’d whispered or looked or done
One Sunday in San Antonio
To a glorious girl from the Alamo
She drew from her garter a dear little dagger
And, sting of a wasp, it made me stagger.
However, Lasca is very contrite, binds the wound with her neckerchief and throws herself on top of the reciter to save his life when they are hiding behind the corpse of his horse during a cattle stampede. The monologue ends:
And half of my heart lies buried there
In Texas down by the Rio Grande.
Vol. 17 No. 5 · 9 March 1995
May I just add a supplement to Kevin Laffan’s letter (Letters, 9 February) about the poem ‘Lasca’? It was written by a minor poet named Duprez late last century, and was very popular as a recitation piece, not only in the last war, as performed by Mr Laffan, but long before that. It may have been heard in the trenches during the Great War, since it was issued on an acoustically recorded disc, on the Zonophone label. Judging from the catalogue number (X-41042) it was probably first issued in single-sided form in 1910. My own double-sided copy (where ‘Lasca’ is backed up by ‘Gunga Din’, catalogue no X-41043), issued in Australia on the same label in a pressing made by the Gramophone Co of Sydney, must date from 1920 or after. Inappropriately for ‘Lasca’, though suitably enough for ‘Gunga Din’, the reciter, Lyn Harding, uses quite a marked Northern accent.
Incidentally, it is not certain in the poem that they are sheltering behind the corpse of the horse during the stampede. The reciter proposes the action of dismounting, and shooting the horse in order to do so, but before he can act, the horse stumbles and throws them off. It is in this exposed position that Lasca makes her sacrifice for her lover.
In John Bayley’s review of Peter Taylor’s novel there is discussion of the relative merits of the variants in the line: ‘She drew from her bosom / garter a dear little dagger.’ On the record the reciter definitely says ‘garter’. It is also evident that the final lines Laffan quotes in his letter are variant from the recorded version. In that version the poem ends with a question:
I gouged out a grave a few feet deep,
And there in earth’s arms I laid her to sleep.
And I wonder why I do not care
For things that are, like the things that were:
Does half my heart lie buried there,
In Texas, down by the Rio Grande?
English Department, University of Sheffield