Too Close to the Bone

Allon White: Fragments of an Autobiography

Faust, despairing of all philosophies, may yet drain a marsh or rescue some acres from the sea.

Edward Dowden

Passionate art, the drowner of dykes ...

W.B. Yeats

I suppose this is my biography, my life. Fragments of memory. Perhaps even a memorial. Except that I don’t believe in biographies and advise you to be especially sceptical about this one, written, one has to say, under the stress of illness and in extreme haste. Self-perception is distorted enough in the healthy, God knows what it is like in those gripped by terminal illness. Don’t ask me: I’m terminally ill.

I am 36 years old, a teacher of literature, and I am dying of leukaemia. I have fought the thing for two years, I have had two bone-marrow transplants from my sister and more chemotherapy than anyone should ever have to endure. But it seems I am losing the battle now. Flaccid, diseased cells are swarming and swelling inside my bones and I have little time left. Of course I’ve waited too long before writing this and now it is late, probably too late. Like beginning to write at twilight with no lamp as the darkness falls. And there is no light now. There was some a little while ago and I should have written then. I also had some within me, a deep blue light the colour of Iris which now and then I could see far inside my body and which glowed and gave me great comfort. But it is really dark now, my blue light has deserted me and it is getting very late.

An Old Novel

Several things still puzzle me. I will tell you about the novel and you will have to see what you think – I know that a central knot of my life and unconscious world is tied up in that abortive fiction, but I cannot quite touch it myself. Perhaps the roots of my illness are there in that early attempt to write a novel. Certainly it now seems like it, years later.

It was when I was breaking up with my first wife. One night I was in my room in Norwich (I had been teaching away from home at the University there) and, pained beyond endurance by the break-up, I suddenly began to write – in extremis, you might say (it seems it takes cataclysm to get me to write anything other than scholarly articles). I began to write fast and fluently, pages of the stuff, and though my eyes were full of tears and I normally write with pedantic care and exquisite self-consciousness, this time a coherent story sprang from the end of my pen already-formed, the fictional names and the narrative all in place without my conscious mind having any idea that all this had been waiting inside me. In fact, this story, or another story of which this was a strange and displaced version, had been waiting thirty years for its expression, but I was not to discover that until much later. At the time, all I knew was this plangent ecstasy of automatic writing in which a clear, sad story poured out of me, one which I had never known was there.

Even now, as I resume the story for you, new connections come to mind, but they will have to wait a while. The plot was a double-braid: one strand was set in the 17th century during the Civil War and concerned an obsessive, self-absorbed mystic called Nicodemus; the other strand was set in the late 1950s in Sardinia and concerned a hydraulics engineer called Lucas Arnow employed by the Ford Foundation to drain the malarial swamps of the Sardinian coast as part of the world-wide effort after the last war to eradicate malaria. God knows where these names and characters came from, but they wrote themselves immediately onto the pages in front of me and I was surprised to meet them. I knew immediately that they were dissociated and egoistic bits of myself split by time and place, but they were also bizarre and unexpected, complete strangers to me. I didn’t even know I knew about the Ford Foundation project, but evidently I did because it is perfectly accurate – I must have read it somewhere and ‘forgotten’. I think this kind of forgetfulness, this false forgetfulness where things are lost but not destroyed, hidden but perhaps not for ever, is what this unconventional biography means by ‘memory’. Not so much memories as things forgotten and found again. Remembrance.

Anyway, Nicodemus, my 17th-century religious fanatic, was making his way from the Midlands to the Fens – to Ely, in fact, because he had a vision that the fenland marshes were the place of salvation. He had concocted a bizarre and idiosyncratic theology, rather like the wonderful Miller in The Cheese and the Worms, but in his case it was marshland, and particularly the reeds, which played the central part. The reed is one of the symbols of the Passion, for, on the Cross, Christ had been tendered a vinegar-soaked sponge on the end of a reed. The reed also represents the Just, who dwell on the banks of the waters of Grace. And it represents the multitude of the lowly faithful (‘Can the rush grow up without mire? Can the flag grow without water?’). The Evangelists wrote with reeds upon papyrus, another kind of reed bearing the words of God. And the Red Sea (actually Yam Suph, the Reed Sea) had parted to lead the way to the Promised Land. From these and other scraps of insignificant material Nicodemus had stitched together his passionate, crazy faith, and it was now leading him on a pilgrimage, amidst the carnage of the Civil War, to Ely and the Great Fens.

His half of the story was thoroughly picaresque. It was farcical – a bit of a carnival I would say now, but I hadn’t read about Bakhtin and the carnivalesque in those days (it was 1977). Nicodemus gradually accumulated a motley gang of misfits and outcasts on his slow pilgrimage, including Widow Joan, a vast and wonderful creation, who, in one episode, shows her contempt for a local vicar (who has objected to their overnight stay in his parish) by baptising a huge, squealing pig in the village pond. I forget the other details of this 17th-century part of the plot, which essentially creaked and reeled from one improbable village adventure to another until Nicodemus, having lost all his friends and hangers-on, arrives alone at the Great Fen just outside Ely.

It is evening. Two things have happened which Nicodemus could not have known, and I am unsure whether they could have happened together historically, but they appeared together as the nemesis of his life in the novel. What he beholds when he at last gazes out over the marshland, the goal of months of wandering and years of fervent, private communion, is not the wilderness of the sacred marsh but a drainage channel straight as the arrow of God, leading to the horizon and surrounded by regular fields, ditches, dykes and every sign of new agriculture and hydraulic engineering. A Dutch landscape, in effect, humanised, orderly, patiently raised from the fenland broads by the Dutch engineer Vermeyden and now turning the lost Medieval world of the fowlers and fishermen into farmland.

The other thing which Nicodemus could not know about was the iconoclastic destruction of the Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral, the figures of the Saints and the Evangelists and the Virgin having been smashed and broken and hurled into the waters of the Fen years before. But with the draining of the Fen, the lowering of the waters and the shrinking of the peat beds, on that particular summer evening as Nicodemus falls to his knees at the collapse of his dream, the evening sunlight reveals the broken form of a cathedral statue nearby, half-submerged in the mud of a reed-ditch. Nicodemus does not recognise it for a statue, of course, ripped out from the Cathedral. He sees only the figure of Christ, and with this impoverished illusion (the Christ has only one arm and one eye, but Nicodemus does not notice this in his joy) the homely secular landscape of the new engineering is plunged back into a spurious Medieval enchantment. It is a moment of treacherous epiphany, at once plangent and ridiculous, returning the world briefly to the darkening, pathless wastelands of Nicodemus’s curious vision.

Set over against this Medieval and extraordinary mystic at the threshold of the New World, with its technical domination of the hidden places of the earth, there was the other half of the novel. This half concerned a modern Vermeyden figure, the modern hydraulics engineer Lucas Arnow working in Sardinia. I have never been to Sardinia. Come to that, it is only since my leukaemia began that I have developed a passionate interest in the 17th century. So I was breaking the first and elementary rule of the novelist – write about what you have experienced and know about. But then, someone inside me did know this strange fiction, with its names and settings and narratives. It came from my pen with thoughtless fluency. I felt a mere scribe, a copyist.

The second half of this novel which I scribbled out all through the night those years ago in Norwich has a horrid prescience about it now which hurts me to even think about. Lucas Arnow dies of the malaria which he has come to eradicate. He brings the cure to the local people but dies of the disease in the process. Now malaria isn’t leukaemia, but the more I begin to unravel this cathartic fiction of mine from the past, the more connections I feel and understand even if it is too late now. Malaria, leukaemia. My novelistic descriptions of Arnow’s physical suffering were entirely fanciful at that time, purely imaginary. But since then I have lived through them all. And now, like him, I am dying of a terrible disease. But it is too late now, of course. Too late altogether.

Lucas Arnow is a professional engineer draining the stagni, or foetid coastal marshes in which the malarial mosquitoes breed. For many years I have treasured a quotation from Walter Benjamin which may have helped spawn the character of Arnow or, more likely, contributed something further to a figure already compounded of many memories and unconscious sources: ‘The slightest carelessness in the digging of a ditch or the buttressing of a dam, the least bit of negligence or selfish behaviour on the part of an individual or group of men in the maintenance of the common hydraulic wealth, becomes, under unusual circumstances, the source of social evils and far-reaching social calamity. Consequently a life-giving river requires on pain of death a close and permanent solidarity.’ Lucas Arnow, never having heard of Walter Benjamin, is nevertheless on the side of the common hydraulic wealth. A man of modest and sincere social conscience, a man of technē, of the scientific rationalism and practical reason which were so much a part of Fifties optimism and post-war expansion, he works for the common good and with a revulsion against the evils of the marshland – its disease, its mire, its stagnant dangers. He believes strongly in clearing up mess. The foetid pools and malarial reedbeds of the marsh represent, for him, all that civilisation has had to struggle against in order to emerge from the primeval slime. It was the humble digger of irrigation channels, the builders of bridges and dams, who first released mankind from inundation, flood and chaos, not Noah. Human life only really began to flourish in the deltas and swamps of the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, in Kaneh, in the Holy Land of Cane and Tall Grasses when the mud and filth of the yearly floods were tamed with the measuring rod and the simple shovel. Nothing had really changed, according to Arnow’s way of thinking. It was still the sewers and ditches, the reservoirs, waterpipes and dams connected and hidden in one vast, intricate network beneath the earth, which held civilisation safe from chaos and disease: the common hydraulic wealth.

I must confess that there was little more to Lucas Arnow than this, and he appears a little small and dry when set beside the fanaticism and inner visionary power of Nicodemus. When I think of Lucas Arnow I see a worthy and anxious man with little humour and even less authority. Even now, by quoting Benjamin and so forth above, I have endowed him with more passion and cosmic vision than he had in the original fiction 11 years ago. Not a particularly attractive person to sustain half a novel – there is something rather abstract and programmatic about him. Indeed, in retrospect, I am astonished at the political symmetry and opposition of these two men, one at the beginning and one at the end (?) of the great arch of bourgeois science and technical control of the world. And what a gulf of time and space I put between Nicodemus the visionary anarchist and Lucas Arnow the progressive rationalist. Three centuries of history and half the length of Europe. This was not a consciously planned or controlled decision, and if I can discover now the links and distance between the two halves of this schizoid fiction then I think I shall have learned something important. Certainly, at the time, the two halves of the novel would not coalesce. They remained obdurately separate and opposed. It was the failure to integrate the two stories satisfactorily into one fiction which eventually prevented me from finishing it. Written in such rhapsodic haste, it just stayed as it was, resistant to any attempt at revision. Its incompleteness has haunted me ever since. Perhaps now, as I go on, I shall be able to finish with it. Finally.

What obsessed me at the time of writing, however, was not Arnow’s mind but his death alone. Very little else got sketched in. I called the unfinished novel Gifts and it began with Lucas receiving one of the workmen from the marsh into his office. The workman had discovered the rare plant Erba Sardoa, the Sardinian herb which, when administered as a poison, produces a horrible rictus upon the face of the victim who is convulsed with ‘sardonic’ laughter. This ‘gift’ (in German, this also means poison) which opens the novel is a portent of Lucas’s end. For he is poisoned, not so much by the malarial swamp, nor even by the interminable delays of machinery and parts which in Fifties Sardinia mimic the stagnation and decay of the marsh itself – though both these natural and institutional evils drain his strength and will. It is really within himself that the poison develops. His entirely laudable but quite limited petit-bourgeois sense of purpose and identity are no match for the miasmic forces welling up inside him. It is precisely the absence of magical vision and rage within him, or at least their deep and irrecoverable repression, which cankers his soul. His dykes and dams hold back more than the insidious destructive power of nature:

Soon, soon, through dykes of our content
The crumpling flood will force a rent
and, taller than a tree,
Hold sudden death before our eyes
Whose river dreams long hid the size
And vigours of the sea.

                 Auden, ‘A Summer Night’

Lucas’s death, which terminates his half of the story and which is paralleled by Nicodemus’s epiphany on the margin of the Great Fen, was the most intensely-wrought part of the novel. Lucas had been waiting all day for a vital piece of hydraulic equipment (a Bernoulli meter) to arrive from Rome. He is suffering a bad malarial attack, and throughout the long sultry day he drifts in and out of full consciousness, through hallucination, memory and daydream. He becomes superstitiously convinced that his own survival is bound up with the arrival of the Bernoulli meter from Rome. Time and again he asks about it. Towards nightfall he becomes more feverish and ill, and the friend who has been by his bedside in his villa, and his housekeeper, decide that he must be ferried across the bay to the doctor in Muravera (his villa is on a promontory across from the small town, close to the edge of the marsh but also looking out over the sea). The Bernoulli meter has not arrived. As darkness comes, he is carried out to the small fishing boat which also doubles as a local ferry and the boat sets out on the short journey across the bay to the town. Lucas dies before the boat has got half-way across. Strangely, I felt his death in metaphors of communication, a language too modern for Lucas, but that is how it came out:

The full text of this memoir is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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