Sunday, August 12, 2007

Hotel de Dream

It's about 20years since I read White's roman à clef 'A Boy's Own Story', and this year's novel is also a fictionalised account of a young man's life. However, this time, instead of drawing back the curtain on the beginning of an adult life, White gives an account of the last days of Stephen Crane, author The Red Badge of Courage who died of tuberculosis in 1900 at the age of 28.
Crane left the US with his wife Cora, a brothel proprietor, settling in Sussex where they moved in the circles of H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad and Henry James. In the excerpt read for us this evening, Henry James comes to visit, and White has some fun with him in this cameo appearance.

As it happens I'm just finishing off a travel memoir of literary Sussex, The Rings of Saturn by W.G.Sebald. Sebald walked across East Anglia, with his physical journey being little more than a palimpsest for the literary and historical evocations drawn from this coastal area. Visiting the place where Conrad first set foot in England, we retrace that writer's life from his boyhood in Poland, through his life at sea. (BTW 2007 is the 150th anniversary of Conrad's birth.). The book roams even as far as China, as he traces the history of a train running near Southwold that had been built the Emperor of China. I was also fascinated by the figure of Roger Casement, one time detailer of abuses in the Belgian Congo, and later Irish revolutionary, convicted and ultimately hanged for treason.
The fragmentary nature of the memoir gives it the title, the rings of Saturn being composed of shards of rock from a once solid moon. Sometimes frustrated , sometimes enchanted by the accretion of all this detail, I never got a sense of the original body that he might be alluding to. The tide of history has smashed up all these bits of lives, but I don't recognise a before or after, simply an inexorable process.


  1. Anonymous11:47 pm

    Thanks for your insightful comments about Edinburgh, and all the wonderful pictures. I thought Edmund White was the best thing in the book festival. My main problem with L'Orfeo (which you write about in another post) is that the vocal soloists were for the most part rather weak; Montserrat Figueras (aka Mrs Jordi Savall)was painful.
    One criticism: you are mixing up Sussex and Suffolk. Sebald writes about the latter, which is a very different place. Very flat.
    Bon voyage

  2. Thank you and oh silly me for the Sussex/Suffolk thing. I don't remember much about the vocalists from the L'Orfeo - but they certainly weren't keeping me awake. I remember comparing notes with an American couple in a Fringe-queue last week. Their comments about L'Orfeo were completely in accord with mine.

    An interesting footnote: Crane had lived in Sussex County,New Jersey for a spell.

    More relevant to the bookfest though was Yann Martel's referencing of Sebald during his talk. I wonder if he has been actively researching literary precedents to the essay portion of his next book.