A London office rooftop, 11 May 1941. Three middle-aged men and a young woman look out over the city. They are on fire-spotting duty. If they see a fire or falling incendiary, they report it. The office belongs to Faber & Faber, and one of the middle-aged men is T.S. Eliot. The young woman is Iris, twenty-two, an Oxford graduate and a civil servant with His Majesty’s Treasury. She also has literary aspirations.
Nothing happens. The night before, a Saturday, they watched as some 3000 Londoners died under German bombs. They don’t yet know it, but that was the worst of it. The Battle of Britain is all but over. The night drags on. They wait, expectant. Still nothing happens. Then they hear it. The distant drone of an approaching engine. Suddenly the plane is upon them, ‘bursting forth onto a stage-set city, floodlit by a full, chandelier moon’. It is a bomber, but one of their own, a Wellington, badly wounded, its right engine glowing bright across the black sky. On the roof, Eliot is transfixed. Painted on the fuselage of the plane, clearly visible to the watchers, is a white dove. Inspiration flashes in his eyes.
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
As the poet watches the dove trailing its tongues of fire across London, Iris watches the poet. So this is how it happens, she thinks: ‘I saw the fox shiver into life. I saw its eyes light up under the moon. I saw its nose lift to the night sky. I’m on to your little game.’
This dramatic sketch of the master in his inspired moment is the bold first move in Steven Carroll’s latest period romance, A World of Other People, a sequel to The Lost Life (2009). Both books are about poetry, inspiration and love. Both feature T.S. Eliot as a central character.
Literary reanimations of this kind have been very much in vogue these last fifteen years. Think of Colm Tóibín’s Henry James in The Master (2004), Julian Barnes’s Arthur Conan Doyle in Arthur & George (2005) or Michael Cunningham’s Virginia Woolf in The Hours (1998), to name three notable examples. And it’s true that Carroll’s T.S. Eliot novels share in the sense of nostalgic intimacy characteristic of this popular genre, which is really a kind of highbrow extension of historical fiction. But Carroll also attempts something more unusual. There is more driving this project than mere biographical voyeurism. In the same way that The Lost Life dramatises and elaborates ‘Burnt Norton’, the first poem in Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943), A World of Other People dramatises the last, ‘Little Gidding’, the poem that set a crown upon a lifetime’s achievement, a literary landmark looming from the war-time rubble of the London it transfigures so keenly.
Of all Eliot’s poems, ‘Little Gidding’ is perhaps the richest, the most suggestive in its narrative possibilities. No other Quartet has so many trace elements of the time and place of its composition:
Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Eliot later explained these lines:
During the Blitz the accumulated debris was suspended in the London air for hours after a bombing. Then it would slowly descend and cover one’s sleeves and coat with a fine white ash. I often experienced this effect during long night hours on the roof.
And this is the world in which Iris lives and works:
The times will fall upon her, like ash in the air. Thunder and silence will ring alike in her ears. And firecrackers will fall to earth and she will watch them fall and watch where they fall because that is what she is there for.
As Iris makes her way along London’s ‘disfigured’ streets toward the offices of Faber & Faber, we hear echoes of Eliot’s earlier poetry. ‘The dead were so many they haven’t been counted,’ she thinks, recalling Eliot’s line ‘I had not thought death had undone so many.’ And there are references, direct and hidden, to many other writers of the period: Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley and Iris Murdoch, who in 1942 was 22 years old and working at the Treasury, just like Carroll’s heroine.
Inside the wounded plane, Jim, an Australian pilot in Bomber Command, struggles to get his damaged craft home. The plane crashes. Jim is the sole survivor, but emotionally he’s a wreck. The fiery last moments of his traumatic night flight are wiped from his memory. A year later, Jim and Iris meet in a park. Still struggling with the psychological trauma of his final mission, Jim is alone on a bench, weeping. Iris asks if he is all right.
Where has he heard that voice before? From the moment he hears it he knows that something has shifted. In a world gone wrong, something feels suddenly right. Impossibly right.
Yes, it is love. This is the ‘midwinter spring’ called forth in the opening movement of ‘Little Gidding’, a union fired by the ‘heart’s heat’, an unforeseen blossoming in the midst of death. Their time together is time suspended, a time apart from wartime, a brightness snatched from the ‘dark time of the year’. They walk through the ravaged city with a sense of something miraculous having drawn them together, something uncovenanted.
You get the idea. Iris’s voice leads Jim’s wasted spirit back into the world of the living. But then there is a misunderstanding. They fight. Jim loses the voice. Hangs up on it, in fact.
Winter has come and the air is bitterly cold. Surely it will snow soon. Perhaps tonight.
Indeed. The bright centre closes over. Time passes. It is now December of 1942. We find Jim on his way to a small church in South Kensington to hear Eliot reading from a new poem, just published. Jim doesn’t like poetry, but Iris does. She has very modern literary tastes. She keeps a copy of Finnegans Wake by her bed. Jim is hoping to bump into her ‘accidentally-on-purpose’, hoping he might hear her voice one more time. He doesn’t. What he hears is ‘Little Gidding’. He hears the poet’s words, the dove, the flames, the incandescent terror, and suddenly it all comes back. He realises, somehow, that Eliot saw his plane go down:
That was my kite. We died that night, but at least we were alive enough to die in that flaming moment. Were you? Were you ever? Will I ever be again? They are dead now. They are gone. They have crossed over. And here we are, you and I, one and the same. In a world of other people. Neither alive nor dead, but walking a dead patrol through that no-man’s-land in between.
It is time for Jim to join his crew.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
In a kind of Hitchcockean anagnorisis, Jim remembers crawling free of the wrecked Wellington. One of his crew is hammering at the perspex nose dome, trapped, begging for Jim to save him. And Jim knows he might have, if he had not panicked. He turns his back. The plane explodes, while Eliot drones on. Mad with shame, Jim rushes out into the snow, dying later that night of hypothermia.
From here, if we follow Eliot’s scheme of cosmic return, where to ‘to make an end is to make a beginning’, we find ourselves back where we started. Jim’s body is recovered. Iris is informed. She is distraught, for a time. She pieces together his final movements and she guesses that Eliot’s poem must have been the trigger. More than anything, she is impressed by the this demonstration of the ‘power of words’. She decides to dedicate her life to writing. And so it turns out that the brief prologue which opened the book was actually written by Iris, and is her first published story.
The image of the dove on the side of a bomber is a good one – so good that readers may wonder if that is how it really happened, if that is how the real Eliot found his inspiration.
Though Eliot was famously reluctant to discuss the sources for his highly allusive poetry, many have now been disclosed. We know, for instance, that ‘daunsinge, signifying matrimonie’ from ‘East Coker’ is from a sixteenth-century text by Sir Thomas Elyot, who lived for a time in the town of East Coker. We know that the ‘place of disaffection’ described in ‘Burnt Norton’ is the entrance to the Gloucester Road tube station. And we know that Eliot really was a fire-spotter in World War Two and that he did see the worst of the London Blitz from the roof of Faber & Faber.
The third of the Quartets, ‘Dry Salvages’, was published in February 1941. Eliot immediately began work on the fourth poem of the sequence, named for a place he had visited five years before, Little Gidding, a small Anglican community in Huntingdonshire. He recognised that this was not only the last but the ultimate, the culmination, in which, to quote one of his biographers, Peter Ackroyd, ‘the themes and textures of the preceding three parts would be gathered together in a final statement’.
Here is the first draft, sent to John Hayward in July 1941, taken from Helen Gardner’s The Composition of ‘Four Quartets’ (1978):
The dove descending breaks the air
With breath of crepitative fire
Of which the tongues declare
The cumulation of desire,
Expectancy, hope, doubt, despair.
Beneath those never resting feet
All aspirations end and meet.
The dove is already there, so Carroll’s date – 11 May 1941 – is eerily plausible.
It was not until August 1942, after a year’s delay, that Eliot set to work on the poem again. It was by far the most difficult of the sequence to compose, and he went through at least five drafts. The dove, however, endured. In Ackroyd’s words, Eliot knew the verse was right and left it alone. So yes, then, a bomber seen from a London rooftop, even without the unlikely nose art, might have been the inspiration for the poem’s incendiary fourth movement, its fearsome and resplendent invocation of the Christian God of Love.
Even if we have no direct evidence to confirm the source, such a reading, once you see it, seems obvious. There have of course been others to link the dove with the image of a bomber. Lyndall Gordon, for instance, writes: ‘Superimposed upon the bomber is the dove of the Holy Spirit.’ Barbara Everett writes that the ‘spirit of love, like a dark war-machine, comes bringing fire.’ But as with all the other covert sources, though we might discover their existence, the precise nature of their relation to Eliot remains enigmatic, a matter for interpretation and something that defies interpretation. The original implication, the literal, factual meaning of the source material, is all but obliterated in Eliot’s ‘impersonal’ poetic method.
Though Carroll clearly knows Eliot with some intimacy, the picture we get in A World of Other People is a conventional one:
Prim voice, precise words, but all, he senses, sitting on top of messy emotions. Yes, that’s it. All those messy emotions swirling about underneath, only ever alluded to, but there, all the same.
And the voice Carroll gives the character of Eliot is equally familiar:
‘The truth is,’ he says, in a voice like a poet at a lectern, ‘I’m not interested in theories I once held. Especially twenty years ago.’
Compare this with the voice of the compound ghost in the second movement of ‘Little Gidding’, who may have aspects of W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, but is an idealisation of the wisdom the ‘aged eagle’ – the poet’s former self – had attained:
And he: ‘I am not eager to rehearse
My thought and theory which you have forgotten’
These manoeuvres capture Eliot’s triteness, his parodistic and self-conscious mundaneness, without the poetry he makes from it. But of course Carroll makes no claim to be a poet. His project, it would seem, is first to arrange what sources he can, biographical and literary, then to speculate and fictionalise on the ‘acute personal reminiscence’ that might conceivably lie beneath the poem and its concrete parts. To this, he attaches a fictional love story. But is that all? And if it represents a sufficient aim, is there some critical project at work that is necessary to its understanding or interesting in itself?
Readers familiar with Carroll’s work may recall this passage from The Gift of Speed (2004), the second of his ‘Glenroy’ novels:
He has seen turf once. Seen the entrancing green and the sparkling white lines of turf. Seen the white picket fences and the deep green clubrooms of a ground where they play cricket as it is played in books. But only once. Michael bowls in tennis shoes. Everybody does. And as Michael stands before these boots, contemplating the difference between boots and tennis shoes, he becomes increasingly aware that there is an entirely other world of cricket out there, just waiting to be played.
Notice that gesture of expansion, to a world beyond the given shape and surface relations of the story. Such vague extensions of meaning are a sort of calling card in Carroll’s fiction. That familiar clipped style – with all those fragments of sentences, too smooth, really, to be called fragments, more like sea glass – is taken a step further in A World of Other People. Fluent evocations of the wartime atmosphere are mixed liberally with a terse period patter – ‘whatnots’ and ‘wall jobs’ – in order to register authenticity. We notice the rhythmical music of his accumulated repetitions, his use of assonance and alliteration. His scenes, lit by that bright, cool, midwinter sun, have a hard-edged precision. And his treatment of the couple has a refreshing cleanliness. If their relationship is not the renewal of a Pentecostal fire, it does at least suggest relief and the promise of liberation.
What in the Glenroy novels seems like quintessential suburban realism is transformed in the Eliot novels into what might be called an Instagram modernism. It has a high-contrast clarity, but with a soothing, vintage quality:
There is no war here. Never has been. The hallway, the house, the gardens in which the house sits and the wide tree-lined street outside acknowledge a different history observe a different measure of time. And so the you who stares back from the mirror is unchanged.
Everything is suggestive of Eliot, his blanched generalities and tokens. Absent, however, is his magisterial eloquence, his pellucid negativity. Yet there is that quiet insistence, that movement in slow motion, like the thickened lentor of blood.
It’s worth dwelling on the significance of Carroll’s prose style. If we treat it as the product of a deep, ongoing engagement with Eliot, an engagement that goes back to the beginning of Carroll’s career and informs all his published novels, it begins to look decidedly weird, and more interesting. It is a style
where every word is at home
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together
So clear and careful is the prose in A World of Other People that it produces a kind of dreamy dollhouse effect, a toy theatre, a meticulously reconstructed model London with a T.S. Eliot doll at its centre, ventriloquially recognisable, albeit speaking in squeaks and stammers. There is also a sense of stillness, a sense of intimacy: a kind of prosaic equivalent to the Quartets and their air of a closed or self-contained world. The influence of Eliot seems, in this light, to elevate everything Carroll has written before. What had looked like a ponderous saga, the Glenroy novels, now seems to yield well-turned aphorisms and weighty lines. The striving toward an unobtrusive formality becomes a moving thing with its own dignity.
Carroll has said that he is interested in writing about writing. Here we can see here just how influenced by Eliot his ideas on that subject have been, and where he departs. Like ‘Little Gidding’, A World of Other People is in part a meditation on how we might represent the ineffable, whether the depth and particularity of basic human affects, or the experience of revelation, or an approach on the sublime might be realised. In particular, Carroll is interested in the difficulties that come with a writing that is encompassing, a writing that signifies, suggests and instantiates. Here he appeals directly to Eliot:
Eliot never says what the emotions are, but you know they’re there. And Jim concedes that all that buttoned-up reserve and restraint, all the precisely this and precisely that, impart a certain tension to the poem. The emotions, like the murky currents beneath the still surface of a stream, threatening to break through at any moment.
Against Eliot and his precise correlatives, Carroll sets his budding writer, Iris, who demands ‘the messy, anarchic truth on the other side of metre and rhyme’. She decides she can’t admire Eliot’s way of writing, those ‘cold, lifeless, thin-lipped prayers’. Forget the artifice, forget the ‘totem and symbol’; she wants to write about ‘how it really was’. In this appeal to truth and reality, and in Iris’s ultimate desire to re-tell the story of the dove from behind the blood-smeared perspex, from Jim’s point of view, Carroll is invoking Iris’s namesake, Iris Murdoch. In particular, Carroll seems to be recalling the passionate denunciation of Eliot in Murdoch’s brilliant essay, ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited’ (1959), which is also a defence of the imaginative novel:
Prose literature can reveal an aspect of the world which no other art can reveal, and the discipline required for this revelation is par excellence the discipline of this art. And in the case of the novel, the most important thing to be thus revealed, not necessarily the only thing, but incomparably the most important thing, is that other people exist.
Indeed, it would seem Carroll’s rather cumbersome title is not an Eliot reference after all, but a Murdoch reference, perhaps from The Nice and the Good (1968):
She would give ease to his too long wandering heart, and then he would live more fully in the world of other people, more able, because more happy, to give them his full attention.
As with Murdoch’s character John Ducane, so with Iris. Her not-quite-platonic encounter with Jim enables her once more to live among other people. And yet it is Eliot who convinces her of the ‘power of words’. It is his poem that makes Jim’s lonely heart burst. Against both Iris and Eliot, Jim prefers actions over words. He keeps a copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) in a drawer, its last sentence underlined three times: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.’ But what he silences in himself ultimately kills him.
All Carroll’s books, in one way or another, can be seen to be about writing, about the challenge of writing. Can he write about suburbia in the mode of a meditative lyricism, which will not be unmediated realism and yet will draw no attention to itself? Can he write the poems of T.S. Eliot as unravelled narratives, as prose stories of heartfelt actuality, yet retain the tesserae of what fed into the originals?
Here is another passage from The Gift of Speed:
The commentators are calm, then shrill, then calm again as they find the words that will become pictures in people’s minds. They must find words that correspond with the facts (batsman, bowler, ball, pitch, grass, sky, sun), and when they do, when the facts and the words correspond, pictures are created in the minds of the listeners; pictures that, in the end, will be more lasting and more meaningful than the photographs of the events that Michael will see in the morning newspapers. Years from now when Michael recalls this game, it will be the word-pictures currently being created on the radio that he will remember.
This articulates Carroll’s own method and ambition. The search for correspondence between what is and what says creates clear imagining, the embodiment of what happens. But it also demarcates the limits of his interest in prose, or rather it marks the limit of his interest in the ‘power of words’. On what ground, then, do Carroll’s ideas about Eliot and about writing stand, in light of Eliot’s scepticism about a plain ground of meaning? Like Craig Raine, a poet who, as a critic and Faber editor, thinks of himself as having shares in Eliot, Carroll seems particularly interested in the practical question of how Eliot managed (to use Raine’s word) his mystical materials, how he conjured essence out of concrete. Consider the opening movement of ‘Burnt Norton’:
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
In the opening chapter of The Lost Life, Carroll replays this scene for us in prose, almost as though he were visiting the site, poking about, trying different angles, measuring the distances, seeing how one might pull off this trick of the lotus in real life. It is the same with his Eliot and Iris on the roof watching the dove. You feel Carroll hovering above the scene, dropping in the bomber like a balsa wood model on invisible fishing line. Is there enough light? Will the sublime appear? How to produce the ‘intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible’ in these set-pieces? How to paint a word-picture that brings forth eternity from the particularities of time and place?
Carroll’s method is to grind everything exceedingly small. He writes about enclosed situations. In this way, he is able to effect moments of expansion by pointing, with a flourish, toward the world outside the toy theatre, beyond the pasteboards, hinting at people who are not so makeshift, who have dimensions that exceed narrative meaning.
In the final scenes of A World of Other People, Iris is sorting through Jim’s personal effects. She discovers a picture of his parents back in Australia. She suddenly recognises them as people like her, but people who inhabit a world beyond her own, with a house and a garden like any others, and yet not like any others:
And with that exclamation, that burst of sudden understanding, the whole picture acquires an actuality and an intimacy that takes her by surprise. Like suddenly ‘getting’ a line of poetry that you’ve only ever half thought about before.
And just as suddenly, we realise why Carroll’s London feels so small and so enclosed: this London has the exact imaginative dimensions of Glenroy. He has arrived where he started.
Eliot could do desolation better than anyone. Four Quartets, in its austere donnish way, has moments of blistering banality. There is a wonderful sense of humanity, of ordinary human frailty, and even, in his wry depiction of the poet’s persona, of ordinary human absurdity in those famously discursive passages that run like old rope through the middle parts of ‘Dry Salvages’ and ‘East Coker’. It is the same prosy register, though without the ceremonial nods and winks, that Eliot developed in his work for the theatre, which belongs to roughly the same creative period as his work on Four Quartets – one derived from his belief that the ‘language of poetic drama is the language which people would speak today if they could speak in poetry’. You can understand how Carroll, who has, with considerable grace, accepted the drab and the quotidian as his birthright and his métier, would feel an affinity with this powerful commitment the commonplace.
And yet Eliot’s project in the Quartets is ultimately transcendental. Its theme is the struggle to rise above the agonies of mundane experience, the frustrations of mere appearance, into a poetic realm consonant, though not coincident, with his religious conversion. One of Eliot’s most impressive achievements in Four Quartets is that he makes it easy for us to accompany him on his quest for religious illumination. The poetry does not insist on any dogmatically specific grammar of assent. The poignant and honest thing about the Quartets is the way its religious vision is agnostically expressed. It is written through implicitly Christian iconography, but the reader does not face the thundering canon of an Anglo-Catholic convert.
Like everyone else, Carroll is excited by the exalted climax of ‘Little Gidding’, even without any particular interest in its Christian orthodoxy, or even its spiritual context. He wants the melodrama of illumination, the enlargement, relief from ordinary failure. Beyond his feeling for the poetic symbolism, however, Carroll reacts against the paradoxical in Eliot’s poetry. He cannot admit, with Hugh Kenner, that Eliot’s poem is not about the Holy Ghost or the power of prayer. Eliot, argues Kenner,
has so disciplined the procedures for securing ‘an air of meaning rather than meaning itself’ that – in his later work at least – the spectacle of their operation can itself imply meaning of a still more austere kind … Coherence is obtained by exploiting the sounds of the words and the implications concealed in their sounds.
If Eliot has not written about other people, neither has he written, strictly speaking, about God. Carroll attempts to untangle this paradox by putting it through the worn conventions of narrative fiction. He has no clue to the way symbolisme itself is made to whisper an implicit spirituality. He has written a tender if somewhat bland story of doomed love, of recognisable desires and fears (especially fears), of human anxieties, confusions and misunderstandings, using all the messy materials of naturalism. But he has set it against the structural achievement, the musicality and the soaring formal intensity of high modernism, at the point where Eliot’s poetry of symbolist effects arrives at the edge of a negative theology.
This is where Carroll’s project starts to look rather paltry. It is intent on making Eliot’s abstract truth more accessible – something comprehensible to a postmodern, brown-rice, quasi-Buddhist sensibility. Carroll is most comfortable with Eliot’s discursive prosiness, and he is prepared to rest there, to accept what Kenner calls the ‘false truce’ of ‘Dry Salvages’. Satisfaction with one’s own capacity for insight: this is the position of his heroine, Iris. She admires Eliot for risking drabness, for testing the limits of what a poet can do. But in that grey grinding precision and raspingly scrupulous delivery, she sees only the drabness extended. The modernist symbolisme is sheared away. Her wish, and it is the same as Carroll’s, is to produce art in strictly human terms, using only the materials of time, place and tale.
Carroll’s stylistic or aesthetic homage is ultimately trumped by indignation. ‘That was my plane!’ cries Jim, resentfully. ‘There are times in the final Quartet,’ E.M. Forster observed, ‘when Eliot reaches for a loftiness that cuts him off from the impact of others’ feelings.’ In the shameful image of Jim’s navigator, Smith, eyes wide with disbelief as Jim abandons him to Eliot’s symbolic flames, it is as though Carroll would, with Forster, go out of his way to correct the ethical fault in Eliot. It is as if the vision of the love that moves the sun and the stars were a repellent thing, and fires and roses had no right to be part of that vision.
While Carroll admires the lofty rhetoric and admires Eliot’s ability to conjure it. He would rather see it confined to the grass:
For he has seen turf once, has seen entrancing green,
And seen thereon the sparkling white lines,
Seen the white picket fences and seen the deep green
Clubrooms of a ground where cricket is played,
as it is played in books.
He has seen another world of cricket
A world out there, waiting to be played.
This, again, is the ‘false truce’ of ‘Dry Salvages’: the contented evocation of rhetorical sublimities in the midst of neatly trimmed banalities. This is Eliot as Eliot, parodying himself like the great modernist that he is. Whereof we cannot speak we can only embody, and failing that, anticipating that, send ourselves up.
If Jim is the bomber with its dove icon – its logo and its logos – he is also the bomb that lands in Iris’ heart: ‘Not all bombs go off immediately. Some lie in wait in the rubble for their moment.’ And so with Jim, who waits in St James park for a whole year before: ‘BOOM. That’s not the pub, that’s her heart, the heart that knew all along.’
So Jim, this resurrected death, this falling incendiary, also walks a dead patrol. He is ‘the spirit unappeased and peregrine’. He died in the Wellington, or even earlier, when he ‘left his body on a foreign shore’ in Essendon. He simply did not know it until he heard the poem. He is, or might be, the dead man Eliot encounters where three districts meet, at the column of smoke: ‘What the dead had no speech for when living they can tell you being dead.’ Jim redeems the present for Iris. As a ‘symbol perfected in death’, he opens her eyes to possibility and futurity. He discloses a sense of time to come, after the war, a sense that was closed to so many of London’s residents at that dark period of history.
But the more one pursues these conflations of spirit and character in A World of Other People the sadder it all seems. There is a romantic feebleness to the psychological mechanism. Iris breaks with Jim because she feels herself bound by Fate to another man, a man she doesn’t love but is nevertheless pledged to. Just as suddenly – so many suddenlys – she is disenthralled of this false rapture, asserting herself as what Murdoch would call a ‘free character’. And it is love that does it: a love that returns in the wake of Jim’s death to illuminate the future. The spectral cartoons return meekly to their graves. There is peace in England. But what on earth or above is this ‘love’? Somehow, we are still in the dream. We have only dreamed that we are awake. The world is still all words – if not the totems of modernism, then the laws and tables of naturalism. We are imprisoned in a romantic dream, a dream of romance, a grid of storytelling, populated now by deluded inmates who go around insisting on their independence. Eliot’s transcendental offer has been rejected, returned to sender.
What is at stake here? What except the risk of aesthetic failure, of getting the tone or image wrong? Yes, there is audacity in Glenroy’s famous son taking on Thomas Stearns Eliot. It is not that his speculations outrun his ability, nor that the clever arrangement of the pieces over-extend the smallness of the story. But it is hard not to wish the whole thing had been done without dragging in Eliot. There is nothing particularly virtuosic in Carroll’s dramatic employment of the pope of Russell Square. As a character Eliot is stiffly drawn. The story might have been told without directly invoking the grandest and most enigmatic persona in modern literature. We could have had, if not the poem without the prince, then at least the yarn without the poet. We didn’t need T.S. Eliot as an advertising device.
Eliot was deeply concerned with how we relate the old and the new, how we approach tradition. But taking that too literally is apt to make hack journalists or tame pedants of us all. To put Eliot’s poetry and plays in a narrative context is to position him for an audience who may be filled with doubt about his work. ‘We may wonder why he felt impelled to live among such imageries,’ writes Kenner, ‘but the speculation is null.’ Still, if there must be speculation, why not bring Eliot to Glenroy? Think of Jeanette Winterson’s oblique approach to the Quartets in Sexing the Cherry (1989). Why cut Tom and London down to souvenir size?
‘For me,’ explains Carroll in an interview, ‘it’s a kind of literary tourism. It gets me out of the suburbs.’ Indeed, there is something very tourist-like in the way he swans around Little Gidding, popping his head in at the small chapel, sniffing at the damp and the gloom: oh, look, there’s the tombstone, and there’s the pig-sty! It’s like a map, thinks Jim. True, as a tourist Carroll takes his time. He doubles back, revisits. He is a superior kind of tourist. His Lonely Planet is well thumbed, but he leaves it in the hotel room out of respect. Of course, this only makes him more obviously a tourist, rather than a true pilgrim with nothing to hide.
There are many interesting things in the way Carroll reads Eliot, but the central conceit, beyond the remarkable neatness of the arrangement, is aggravating. Even in a market saturated with these imaginative re-entries into the lives of dead artists, it has a kind of bluff hubris, a blindness to the absurdity of it all. It seems naive beyond belief. You feel that it could only have been written by someone to whom Eliot was, in the end, a blank book. A reader from that ‘Little Germany’ that calls itself Essendon, or Brunswick, or Glenroy. Where the ‘sky is wide, the garden and the lawn broad. The world, beyond the borders of the photograph, going on and on and on.’ And on and on he goes, undeterred.
Considered as a novel, as a work of imaginative art, A World of Other People is in no way convincing. The detail of its miniature scenic compositions is formidable, but there is no breadth. The characters are cardboard, even though they are cut with a better kind of homemade niftiness. The story shows the stiffness of its origin as a formal exercise. Worst of all, it’s so boring. The end really is in the beginning, so there aren’t many reasons to read on. Surprises along the way are few.
As a critical reading of ‘Little Gidding’, however – the greatest work of the greatest poet in English of the twentieth century – it has a lot more going for it. Not that the reading is radical. You can hear the echo of those who would see in the Quartets an attempt by Eliot to preserve the power of modernism as form of humanist romanticism, a glass of prosy palaver, putting the formal aesthetics of symbolisme to ends simpler and more humane, without having to admit that the formal techniques have been lavished on anything more than a bit of aesthetic sublimity. You tend to think that Carroll would agree with Barbara Everett, who sees it all as a thing about poetry. So bugger that whereof we cannot speak. Fire, roses, oneness. Let the spirit of Glenroy reign and Australian realism have its dun-coloured way with T.S. Eliot. Still, to be fair, A World of Other People, along with The Lost Life, looks forward to its successor, to its ‘East Coker’ or its ‘Dry Salvages’. Perhaps as a quartet these novels will offer more than the sum of their parts. For Carroll, there is only the trying.
A World of Other People
by Steven Carroll
Published April, 2013