As a reminder, every Monday, I post an excerpt from my grandmother’s unpublished manuscript. So here is Beatrice Allen Page’s Landscape With Figures:
“Having just re-read my old copy of The Return of the Native with as much absorption as when I read it in my teens, I’ve begun wondering why all my life I’ve mostly preferred novels with a rural setting to those with an urban setting. I used to think it was because living in big cities as I’ve done most of my life, reading a story with a background or nature gave me a vicarious outing into the country.
It’s not really that simple, of course. It’s rather that in novels with an urban background, I seldom see the characters so vividly. IT’s like stepping into an elevator stuffed with people, or celebrating New Year’s Eve in Times Square. You can’t separate any individual out clearly enough to get to know him or her. Even if there are only two characters coming together in a novel laid in a city, I seem to be aware of all the sounds and confusion and frenetic pace of life in the background. Something of the environment rubs off on the characters, giving the impression that they talk and move in a jerky, nervous way and without relating to each other. Their lives are so hemmed in by tall buildings and rushing subways and congested traffic, that there’s hardly any room for them to breathe, let alone make a gesture or take a step freely.
On the contrary, when you look at a person or persons within a specious framework of nature, such as Hardy’s Wessex moors, you see them whole or at least with more clarity and in perspective to the world around them. You become more aware of the design or meaning of their relationships as they meet and pass or meet and touch and become inextricably involved with one another. They may change as the seasons of the landscape change but still you have the conviction you’ve had an insight into the essential person. A lot has been written about authors projecting or disguising themselves in their fictional characters, consciously or unconsciously. I wonder if the environment in which an author sets his or her characters isn’t just as revealing. Hardy’s men and women live out their lives on the bleak moors not only because Hardy was familiar with that setting, but because a lonely tract of wasteland was representative of his own belief in a universe indifferent to human beings.
If Hardy’s characters do not so much relate to the background as stand out against it like moving three-dimensional characters against a permanent backdrop, Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and Cathy seem to merge with the wild Yorkshire moors, to be so much a part of them it’s as if the moors created them. The isolation and harshness of the landscape must have had a lot to do with shaping Emily’s reserved but unflinching nature which enabled her, for instance, to handle her ferocious bulldog, Keeper, with such fearlessness.
My mind suddenly jumps now to a scene in War and Peace, played out in this case not so much against the earth as against the sky. Prince Audrey lies dying on the battlefield, gazing up at the sky. Napoleon rides by with two adjutants, says a few words and rides on. The prince knew it was Napoleon, his hero, but as he gazed up into “high, faraway, everlasting sky” everything that engrossed Napoleon himself seemed “such a small insignificant creature” in comparison with that lofty blue sky with the clouds floating across it. You can’t help feeling that Tolstoi was expressing through Prince Audrey (at least at a certain time of his life or in a certain mood) his own conviction that when all is said and done, all or passionate human interests and pursuits make only a miniscule imprint on the enormous backdrop of the whole creation.
And now I think of that scene in Dr. Zhivago which I remember seemed to me to indicate Pasternak must feel a deep and harmonious relationship with the whole macrocosm. The scene occurs toward the end of the novel. Lara is recalling, after Yurii’s death, all that their love had meant and been.
…I’ve just looked up the passage again which I’d marked in my copy” ‘Never, never, even in their moments of richest and wildest happiness, were they unaware of the sublime joy in the total design of the universe, a feeling that they themselves were a part of that whole, an element in the beauty of the cosmos. This unity with the whole was the breath of life to them. And the elevation of man above the rest of nature, the modern coddling and worshiping of man, never appealed to them.’
Later. Now I think of some writers who use time as if it were a spatial background. Proust, for instance, and Tolstoi and Sigrid Undset – all the authors of sagas and chronicles seem to treat time as the fourth dimension of space. As a matter of fact, we all use so many words that apply to both space and time such as ‘length,’ ‘span,’ ‘near,’ ‘distant,’ e.g., a ‘distant’ country, a ‘distant’ ancestor.
I suppose certain writers appeal strongly for me for the same reason that the old Chinese landscape painters do when they place the human figure the size of a pin or less in an awesome scene of rivers and mountains and mist rising beyond the mountains. They seem to put us in a proper relationship with the universe.”