[ilds] "painted in smoke and lightning flashes"

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Wed May 5 07:10:37 PDT 2010

These are finely drawn associations, Sumantra:

>         The balcony itself is symbolic - in the novel, Justine is
>         described going out in the evening on to a balcony to look at
>         the lighted city of Alexandria while she quotes from Cavafy.
>         Would you say that balconies and large windows occupied an
>         evocative space in the leisured world between the two World
>         Wars - I am thinking also of the mixed world of high Bengali
>         culture and British colonialism in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta)
>         during the early twentieth century in India, associated with
>         the landed family of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, the large
>         mansions in Kolkata and the rural setting of Tagore's school
>         at Santiniketan located in the vicinity of Kolkata; and the
>         aestheticism which went with the poetry, the dance dramas and
>         the paintings belonging to that era.

Balcony portraits such as these are eloquent, little essays in 
perspective, suggesting far more than they show.

Bruce senses something Keatsian there in the photo, as do I. The 
photograph is a frozen moment from a lost world and a lost time. What 
happened then, just then, in the mind of the photographer and the subject?

A certain sort of poems--the poems of Hardy or Cavafy come to mind--and 
certain novels of Lawrence Durrell, carry the same promptings. /Ubi sunt/?

>         The Photograph (Hardy)
>         The flame crept up the portrait line by line
>         As it lay on the coals in the silence of night's profound,
>         And over the arm's incline,
>         And along the marge of the silkwork superfine,
>         And gnawed at the delicate bosom's defenceless round.
>         Then I vented a cry of hurt, and averted my eyes;
>         The spectacle was one that I could not bear,
>         To my deep and sad surprise;
>         But, compelled to heed, I again looked furtive-wise
>         Till the flame had eaten her breasts, and mouth, and hair.
>         "Thank God, she is out of it now!" I said at last,
>         In a great relief of heart when the thing was done
>         That had set my soul aghast,
>         And nothing was left of the picture unsheathed from the past
>         But the ashen ghost of the card it had figured on.
>         She was a woman long hid amid packs of years,
>         She might have been living or dead; she was lost to my sight,
>         And the deed that had nigh drawn tears
>         Was done in a casual clearance of life's arrears;
>         But I felt as if I had put her to death that night! . . .
>         * * *
>         -- Well; she knew nothing thereof did she survive,
>         And suffered nothing if numbered among the dead;
>         Yet--yet--if on earth alive
>         Did she feel a smart, and with vague strange anguish strive?
>         If in heaven, did she smile at me sadly and shake her head?

>         The Afternoon Sun (Cavafy)
>         This room, how well I know it.
>         Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
>         as offices. The whole house has become
>         an office building for agents, merchants, companies.
>         This room, how familiar it is.
>         Here, near the door, was the couch,
>         a Turkish carpet in front of it.
>         Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
>         On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
>         In the middle the table where he wrote,
>         and the three big wicker chairs.
>         Beside the window was the bed
>         where we made love so many times.
>         They must still be around somewhere, those old things.
>         Beside the window was the bed;
>         the afternoon sun fell across half of it.
>         ...One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
>         for a week only... And then—
>         that week became forever.
>         Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

With old pictures and poems of lost people and lost places in mind, I 
think here, quite opportunely, of the second movement of /Balthazar/, 
with Darley's /ekphrases/ upon Keats' "faded flashlight" photographs. 
Or, later within the same novel, Darley's speculations upon the 
photographs enlarged for the investigation:

>     Blown up to such enormous size the pictures suggested a new
>     art-form, more macabre than anything a Goya could imagine. This
>     was a new iconography--painted in smoke and lightning flashes.

Keats the poet gave our tradition its most singular adverb, "still." 
That single, crucial word can evoke a spatial quality, as does the photo 
of Anna. At the same time, with greatest effect, "still" prompts us to 
meditate upon the remembrance of things past, and the tenuous, 
perishable film-like tissue of those memories. "/They must still be 
around somewhere, those old things/."

An experiment: if you have access to an electronic text of /Justine/ or 
/Balthazar/, run a search for Durrell's "still" moments. The results 
will surprise.

Better, if you have Durrell's books "still knocking about" the house, 
try jotting down all of the instances. You will perhaps need more than 
one piece of paper.


>         In the Evening
>         Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard
>         It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway—
>         the experience of years makes that clear.
>         Even so, Fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly.
>         It was soon over, that wonderful life.
>         Yet how strong the scents were,
>         what a magnificent bed we lay in,
>         what pleasure we gave our bodies.
>         An echo from my days given to sensuality,
>         an echo from those days came back to me,
>         something of the fire of the young life we shared:
>         I picked up a letter again,
>         and I read it over and over till the light faded away.
>         Then, sad, I went out on to the balcony,
>         went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
>         something of this city I love,
>         a little movement in the street and the shops.

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

More information about the ILDS mailing list