domingo, outubro 29, 2017

Muriel Spark-ish Tartness: "Cold Comfort Farm" by Stella Gibbons



The first two-thirds of it are much funnier than the last third. Everything gets wrapped up incredibly neatly, which I suppose is the whole point, but it means there isn't a breath of air in the last pages, and you almost yearn for something to upset Flora's plans at the last minute. That said it's quite witty and clever throughout, and Stella Gibbons' sentence construction is a thing to behold: she kind of combines mid-twentieth century Muriel Spark-ish tartness with the flawless, rolling rhythm of the Victorian sentence (or something like that). I can't believe this was her first novel; it's so poised.

I did wonder why the novel is set 'in the near future' and why there's all the emphasis on flying and other kinds of technologies. Just to point up the primitiveness of Cold Comfort Farm?

I also wondered why all the emphasis on Mr. Mybug. I found his first conversation with Flora about Bramwell Bronte and his gin-swilling sisters the funniest part of the book, but it did strike me that you could remove his character completely from the book and not really make any fundamental difference to how it is constructed (apart from needing to find another husband for Rennet). I wondered was Gibbons making a certain point of contrasting the sanity and civilised values of the female author (i.e. Austen as a model for Flora to attempt to copy) with the irrationality and egotism and sex-obsessiveness of her male counterpart (Lawrence perhaps?). That's probably way over the top, but it did seem like Gibbons might have had a satirical axe to grind or perhaps somebody specific in mind in the Mybug scenes.

I think the novel gives a glimpse into the ambivalent attitude to Jews that existed in England in the 1930s. Increasing numbers of Jews fled from Germany to other nations as the Nazis and Hitler slowly gained power, beginning early on in that decade. During the 30s increasing restrictions were brought in to limit the numbers of immigrants in several nations, culminating in the Evian Conference of 1938 where both the US and the UK refused to take further substantial numbers of refugees. I think Gibbons' whiff of anti-Semitism was found throughout literature at that time and right up until the end of WW2, when the nightmare of the Holocaust was finally revealed.

I remember Lowry hinting at the same thing in "Under the Volcano" when he wrote about Hugh's experiences as a young man. D. H. Lawrence famously referred to 'Jews of the wrong sort' in one of his short stories and Evelyn Waugh certainly included anti-Semitic and racist views in his novels, although it's always hard to separate the voice of the author from those of their characters. However, Gibbons suggesting that Mayfair would become a slum containing 'Jew shops' in her near future was certainly not comfortable to read. I see such writing as a part of history and something that should remain unchanged in the text as a lesson to future generations, should they choose to look for it.

This book is a satire that takes broad but, at heart, very loving, swipes at many different stereotypes. Oddly however, at the end, I felt the least affection for Flora herself as she tied up her own loose ends. But then again, that may have been the intention of the author....

To me "Cold Comfort Farm", the farm itself, is the prototype of a cult sustained by the dominance and even charisma of a mad, ignorant central personage. Flora goes into the protocol, without any authority, but perhaps propped up by some unknown rights (or wrongs) due her. In any event her right to be there is not imposed nor sustained by legal compulsion, nor are her actions and remedies. The fact that she has a desire to change these people by merely interacting with them freely if not spontaneously is not reprehensible. And these are not just rural types living differently from urban types. Perhaps no one is forcing them to comply with Ada Doom, but no one is forcing them to change either. They are being offered possibilities that they did not seem to imagine possible, and in each case pursuing those possibilities seemed to enrich their lives, in ways they chose to follow up on. Offering those possibilities is hardly wrong on Flora's part. In the end this extends to Ada Doom herself. Like those who were offered a choice of change before her, Ada by her own choice chooses to behave differently. If the commune/cult had system of dispersed values, in which different individuals lived communally according to their own beliefs, they would probably not have been so easily deprogrammed.

This kind of issue of cultlike behaviour, however large or small the cult, seems to me to be one of the most fundamental issues of our time, and Stella Gibbons was a true, perhaps even science fictional, visionary in this respect, intuiting on a small scale some of the religious, political, and social consequences of cults and sects and factions etc. Particularly for second or third generational members who are born into an extreme environment of belief and behavior chosen by their parents.
It does have some similarities to "Emma", but Flora does not enjoy social or economic power like Emma, all Flora has at her disposal is "Persuasion".

As for the parody elements, probably they are very important, but this is just a well written, interesting, and fun book that stands perfectly well on its own two legs.

"Cold Comfort Farm" seems positive enough, and I don't know what Gibbons' intentions were, but the Farm does vividly present to readers what seems very much a cult. And she does seem to have a powerful fascination with powerful personae. Given how potent, almost all powerful, such people were becoming, and would become, (based on personal charisma), in the modern world, the Lenins and Hitlers and Huey Longs, I find that to be the most interesting thing about the book. Sort of like "1984" or "Brave New World" in a sense. And of course, there is the explosive growth of small scale charismatic cults such as those of Jim Jones, Charles Manson, or David Koresh (Waco Texas). In the USA they abound, and while we do not read about them much here, a brief Google search seems to indicate they are not that plentiful in Europe, based on the usual suspects of religion, political ideology or just plain old sex.

"Cold Comfort Farm" is a very minor classic that absolutely transcends its time, place or literary heritage and I enjoyed reading it, especially since I had never heard of it or Stella Gibbons or Mary Webb, BUT I found it lacking in the genuine literary depth that Poe, Lowry, and Camus brought to the table. For me its best claim to literary substance remains its look at the all too human dynamics of the Farm and how such places can continue to be during the modern world, which Gibbons highlighted nicely by setting it in a still more modern and higher tech world of the future with telepresence and extreme possible mobility (I think that kind of personal air travel was a commonplace and common dream of futurisms in the 30s).

I was thinking of Mary Poppins/Nanny McFee as well, sweeping in, sorting out and sweeping out again. I suppose I should have found Flora irritating but somehow, I didn't. I think the charm of her character made it impossible for you not to warm to her. She might be a busy-body with tremendous in sight beyond her years and a no-nonsense brisk way of dealing with everything but her actions were because she had a good heart, she cared. There were some lovely extracts, I particularly loved her description of finding each new love resembling the old one 'just like trying balloon after balloon at a bad party and finding they all had holes in and would not blow up properly' - what a weird but amazing analogy! I Flora would have made a perfect parson's wife having ample opportunity to 'sort out' the entire congregation and community. I found it a little irritating that a lot of the 'problems' seem to involve a lot of money being thrown a them and would have loved to have been present during the long conversation between Flora and Aunt Ada Doom but the line 'and did the Goat die?' was so delightfully bizarre, you got the gist that the family feud was not quite so terrible as she had been led to believe. Some of her observations of life were a bit cynical and bitter for someone still relatively young and I wondered if Stella had been let down in love. she certainly had no time for pretentiousness or for people who allowed themselves to wallow in self-pity, no matter how much they enjoyed it.

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