FOCUS – January 1935
At the beginning of the month Gordon and I returned from Deyá. Almost the strangest part about getting back was the silliness of women’s hats in England, and after the hats the irrelevance of the things most people say. At first I felt very scornful. But after a day or two I was being — apparently — just as irrelevant as everyone else (in speech not in hats). I realized that it was inevitable. In Deyá, where people lead their own different lives in the same way, it is possible to say real things all the time and still be consistent with seriousness and unseriousness. But in London, where people lead their different lives in such a variety of ways, it is necessary to make a few outside adjustments. The main thing, I decided, is for me to make up my mind that a little of what I do has no connection with my life at all, and to make that little even smaller if I can and to lead my real life according to Deyá clarity. Having come to this decision, I find that everything adjusts itself very well.
I have written four novels in the last six years but none of them have sold. I am now trying to think of another and wondering whether it is possible to make a novel worthwhile anyhow, and, if not, why is there no other saleable form in which I could put the things I want to write? Or even an interesting, straightforward story would be nice to do if I could think of one. In order to earn my living I have been writing newspaper articles as usual, and trying to reconcile them with sincerity. When I fail I put them under a different name. And all the time I am thinking about poems.
Gordon and I are in a new home. We both really like it. Every time I go into my room something warm happens inside me. I am slightly understanding now what people mean when they say, ‘You ought to be able to write in lovely surroundings like these.’ Only they call it ‘inspiration’, while my feeling is just that everything in my room is the result of something in me. They generally mean ‘views’. But I don’t mean ‘views’ because we are in a basement flat and all I can see from my window is a brick wall and the halves of three trees.
Gordon has, on the wall of his room, a very unpleasant-looking plaster mask. It is of a ‘hypnotising’ face, the eyes are horrible, and the whole thing is very clever and done by a friend of ours named Raymond Briton Riviere. Gordon likes it very much, in the same way as he likes ghost stories — and also because it goes well with his wallpaper. When it arrived here the women who ‘does’ for us said darkly, ‘You ain’t gowna put that thing in her room, are you?’ ‘So’ Gordon said, ‘I’m not. But why shouldn’t I?’ And Mrs. Roberts said, ‘You ask your physician, an”e’ll tell yer why yer shouldn’t.’ She meant that, as I am going to have a child in March, my baby might arrive looking like the face if I myself looked at it too much. I am tired of being pregnant. Six months is a long time. But one is thinking in terms of time when one decides to have a baby.
We have just moved house, and, in moving, I in particular found myself made aware, very positively, of an uncertain state of mind maintained through uncertain enthusiasms. I have just discarded many such enthusiasms — the chronium-and-glass enthusiasm in a table and two nervous-looking lamp’s, the Rupert Brooke enthusiasm in a plaster cast of the godling’s head, the bagatelle-game enthusiasm in all its grotesque apparatus/the cage-bird enthusiasm in the exaggerated revulsion with which the mere smell of bird-food at the back of a cupboard fills me, and the interior-decoration enthusiasm in a dozen nice plain practical objects unhandsomely smeared with paint.
The new flat shows that this history of enthusiasms persists and with it a sense of the most frightful ineptness for carrying them out. For example, it irritates me to realize that carpet-layers lay carpets so much better than I; I would enjoy laying a carpet really well. Enthusiasm roars on with an insane confidence that I can do each new job with great efficiency. And the completed chaos of the first job does not deter me in my optimism about the next. Anything new, with appealing potentalities of efficiency or beauty, distracts me in its direction. It is distressing to be unable to find that one thing from which I cannot, and do not wish to be, distracted.
I have been trying to plan a new novel, and my mind is full of untidy wisps of engaging material. How fine to write a wise, beautiful, true novel about wise, beautiful, true people; or how superior to produce some pretty little absurdity for social effect, a trifling, futilely elegant sort of thing shored up with woodcuts and printed on rough-edged paper; or how tantalizing to write a lot of sharp satire of utter insincerity simply because the writing would be fun. And I feel dissatisfied with my fumbling, uncertain mind which I cannot discipline to indicate the only novel which it has any right to produce.
And all the time journalism goes on. That, at least, is unaffected, penny-in-the-slot rubbish. It is good for me, since my affectations and irrelevancies are pared away.
‘Our readers,’ said the editor of a London paper to me the other day, ‘are not interested in Schopenhauer.’ I said that I didn’t suppose that they were, that if he read on he would see that the sketch I was trying to sell him was a simple social sketch, that the name of the philosopher merely ocurred as a tag on which to hang simple things. ‘Then hang ’em on simple tags,’ he said ‘And, incidentally, get, a new ‘e for your typewriter, and make your MSS neater, and cut out your nonsense about sea-birds being like flecks of white ash — they’re like nothing of the sort.’ All a very good thing. But the hysteria goes on. Robert has been at me about that ‘e’ for a long time.
Honor and I have separate rooms. This seems the right way, being volitionally together and not fatalistically together. I want to spend a great deal of time in her room. When it was ‘our’ room I frequently wanted to get out of it. It is, for us, an entirely new and quite specific togetherness: we are now chaps, and not ‘a couple’.
As I got on to a bus the other day a small middle-aged woman in a black fur-coat got on behind me and followed me down the centre of the bus, looking for a seat. I was moving without undue deliberation and was about to sit down when this woman said to me in a tone of extreme indignation and hostility, ‘Can’t you sit down!’ As I took my seat, being altogether at a loss for words, I only said, ‘I beg your pardon!’ with cold ironic politeness. Looking rather unhappy but still defiant, she passed on in front of me and took an empty seat. She said no more and I said no more hut, as is usual at such times, I began to think of the things I would have preferred to have said in order to express my resentment. I am sorry to say that the one which elaborated with the greatest satisfaction was in the form of an apology for not having known that she had bought the bus.
fterwards I was filled with remorse, for it occurred to me that I had on this occasion acted, or wished to act, just as I ought not to have done — that I had certainly in a small way denied the Holy Ghost. Naturally I felt myself, as soon as the woman had spoken, to be the object of an attack of automatic sympathy from the other people in the bus; and the woman of course was equally the object a of a silent communal indignation. She had refused to check her little explosion of impatience; she had failed to observe those trivial decencies of public contact which do so much to keep people strangers in this metropolis of lonely people. I was an unoffending person and her rudeness had been altogether without justification. I ought therefore to have recognised her independence of character and her comparative originality of manner; I ought to have respected her momentary courage in making a little irrational protest against the contagion of gregarious affability which has spread over the majority of Londoners like a sleeping-sickness. I ought to have taken the nearest vacant seat to her, raised my hat and proclaimed: ‘Madam,’ I salute you, a bulwark of incivility against the dreadful encroachment of complacent politeness which threatens public intercourse. We are getting so polite that we shall soon mean nothing we say and say nothing we want to and eventually perish through sheer failure of definition. You fell rude and you were rude. How many of these people here have the courage to do likewise? You have my sincerest admiration.’ Or I could have said. more economically, ‘Go to hell.’ Whereupon, either she would have been rude again or we should have struck up a friendship. In either case I could not but have rejoiced. I could have made a friend of such a woman. I see her now with considerable regret — sitting by herself, haughty and pale-faced and miserable, rather hastily powdered, plump and ungainly but somehow self-reliant and positive as she sheltered herself in her black fur-coat against the impotently outraged other people, the people with whom I could not have made friends.
Christmas and New-Year were marked at Deyá by a lavish inter-donation of silks, special fineries — and buttons: mostly old gold or silver buttons, some plain, some jewelled, some enamelled. But also ancient buttons of nacre, lustre, spotted china, glass and so on. Now comes the wearing of buttons, and the problem of finding or making clothes fit to sew the buttons on. A way out has been found in many cases: the buttons now figure as tie-pins, cuff-links, hat-ornaments, shoe-buckles, brooches. The chief sartorial event with me this month is another collarless house-jacket, like the one I have which was made out of a home-woven skirt that belonged to the priest’s mother’s mother and is called after her. This second jacket is also made out of a h-w-s. of a nice grey-blue. A question arose after the trying-on what buttons? And I found to my surprise that by a strange coincidente, though I had been foremost in the recent button-giving crisis, nobody had given me any buttons. I had a large number of other rich and beautiful presents, including – from Maisie — a most handsome antique signet-ring (bloodstone, with an intaglio of a pig, 9 cock a cloud and some turnips), but no, no buttons. However, Rosa the modista mode me happy with three celluloid buttons which had belonged to her abuelos.
Work, slow. I have only written letters, and of these few to friends. One short poem, after seven versions (and recourse to Laura). Another, shorter still, after five. I find it increasingly difficult to get the proper end to a poem: starting is easy. Two of the letters were to people who wanted to reprint things of mine, of no value, in educational text-books, also of no value. I replied in the first case, yes, on condition that they sent me a copy of Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (which Laura wanted) in any cheap edition, and to the other, yes, on condition that they sent me a copy of Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius (which I wanted) in the Loeb Library. No reply. As though I had offended the educational publishing system by introducing the barter principle.
The press restarted work after a year’s inactivity. We printed Laura’s Second Leaf. Laura has an ‘open wrist’ so could not do the inking or pulling. Karl took her place. This is the first time we have done all the composition ourselves.
The best and cheapest fuel for stoves we find is pinyol (the crushed olive-pips and skins after all the oil has been squeezed out) mixed with wood to keep it going properly. When this is red-hot ash it is excellent for my brazier — I don’t like a whole stove, only to keep my feet warm. We get the pinyol from our own olives.
Objects I have brought up from the sea include a construction representing a crow’s nest in a tree on a blasted heath (cork, heath; olive-stick, tree; bamboo-root, nest) and a sea-worked corn-cob of graceful shape. From elsewhere I pilfered a little round olive-wood box, a small iron cannon-ball (two inches in diameter), sixteen orangewood lace-bobbins, and two almondwood spindles. Laura has an idea for making the bobbins into a design on the face of the Mesquida (dining-room, where Mesquida’s still-life hangs) fire-place.
I came back to Deyá in the last month. I typed a little, I read a little, I helped a little at the printing and I got a cat. From Canellun, or rather from Laura, or rather from Alice. Or, better said, the kitten got me, for she is obviously nicer than I. Her name is Lily Heartbreak —, Alice is Alice Heartbreak. She is a very handsome tabby, and treats me well: from time to time I am allowed to play with her, and to give her food and milk. Lily is only seven weeks old. She likes sweet biscuits, good company, cigarette-smoke and also to sit purring on my shoulders when I’m typing. We like each other. The humble, youthful meaning of Lily and me is that comradeship is much better than so-called love. We agree that life is a very difficult business, and so is youth, and think it safer not to make more life than can be helped. But I am very afraid that Lily will one day go looking for life, or life will come looking for her in the shape of one of the great male neighbour. cats. She won’t be inspired by anything more than curiosity, and when her curiosity is satisfied it will be as before. But better not to be even curious. As Honor said, and as I said: ‘Life is a difficult business!’
A few days ago I took a little walk with Robert. To Calabat, to get some bitter oranges, for marmalade. It was a nice walk. Because there was lots of snow. And I was very busy to ‘pretend’. That happens so: When I see some snow-covered mountains, I pretend to be in Switzerland or Canada or somewhat like that. Seeing a blowing almond-tree I believe to be in spring; and the view of a leafless fig-tree makes me fancy winter, that’s quite the truth. I hate to do so. I think it is pretty ungrateful against Mallorca. But somehow I am forced to do it.
Well, we got our oranges, and a whole basket full, and we were pleased, and so was the madonna of Calabat, for she likes pesetas. And we passed into the chimney-chamber. It smelt lovely there of burning olive-wood. The amo of the finca was there too. He is a pretty old man, with the wise-looking face of an old he-mouse. I glanced fascinated at the curls coming out of his nostrils and at the little extra beard, which grew on the top of his nose. His both hands are crippled from rheumatism. I wondered, did he mind much not working.
And he told us a nice story about the last raid of the Moors. Some hundred and twenty-five years ago. His grandfather was then a little boy and a shepherd in the finca Son-Beltran. One day, he had to get some bread; and on his way, he saw a lot of Moors hopping among the pines. He ran for his life, alarmed the family, who were just sitting down to eat their tortilla. And so they could rescue them-selves in the big tower which belonged to the finca.
The Moors came in, but all they got was some clothes and the tortilla at the table. And Jaacub ibn Algebra, the noble chieftain of the pirates, was deeply depressed, being unable to catch one single, miserable slave. He stroke his black beard and (for keeping his prestige) he muttered in French: ‘Tant de bruit pour une omelette!’ Looking at his fellow-Moors, who were eating the tortilla. This became later a very famous proverb in the whole French-speaking world. Disappointed, they left the island, sailed back to Algiers, and reformed themselves, becoming very useful members of human society as carpet-traders, beachcombers, dragomans and models for coffee- and cigarette-advertisements.
The last day of the month we all went to Palma and it was a very brisk day, and we went from shop to shop shedding good-humour and receiving good-humour; and I had a present of nice tea-cups, and Laura had two records of Mallorcan boleros which she is going to learn to dance to, and Robert had some huntsman’s velvet trousers.
Honor and Gordon left Deyá on the verge of the new year; and it was the day Money the cat died. Alice (her mother) and I were, in a major sense (in a minor sense it was pneumonia), responsible between us for Money’s death. Alice is a great disallower of things, I am a great allower of things; Money was neither exactly one thing nor the other. She had no strong objections, such as Alice has, but many small complaints — a habit of gentle complaint which fell just short of my aptitude for being highly pleased with things in a highly suspicious way. What I mean to say is that Alice and I really sacrificed Money to our economic mysticism. I relied too much on Alice to correct my emotional extravagances, and Alice relied too much on me to correct her emotional miserlinesses. We never troubled to work out between us the correct balance of emotional expenditure, and the result was Money, but also Money’s death. Of course I felt dreadful. And as’ we were putting Money in her grave by the Torrent (Honor and Gordon and Isabel and Sebastian- were there, but not Robert, I forget why) Alice walked away, out of the garden and into the road. and lay down and howled. Honor’s and Gordon’s going made a still deeper economic punctuation: they were going back to London, to the general indeterminate situation of life-at-thought’s-bay. That is, it was a pretty reckoning time for everybody. And Maisie left soon afterwards, which made another related punctuation: a feeling of precariousness about everything but the safe exceptions — the Scotch contribution to the super-economic laws. Two of the safe exceptions are the fur caps we measured my head for — birthday-presents-to-be from Maisie. These arrived noteworthily — one black astrakhan, one white broadtail with creamy velvet top. Karl says I wear them agressively, but this is because he doesn’t understand about safe exceptions. Karl is so full of fears.
This going-to-London is a ticklish business. We expect, and everyone expects, that sooner or later we’ll be going for an early visit to that late heretofore, London. We have tricked John and Lucie into thinking about the exact rooms for us in their Place House, for example — for nearly a year now. But the question ‘When London?’ is like Ghosts. Mrs. McCormack says about ghosts: ‘When you’re dead you’re dead.’ I might say: ‘When you’re in Deyá you’re in Deyá’ if like Mrs. McCormack I didn’t believe in ghosts. Naturally I believe in ghosts, which is to say: ‘When you’re alive you’re alive’; which is to say: ‘Things happen slowly.’ Life is the slow business of reaching a place, and one is always a little or much ahead of oneself, and as one is behind oneself one is one or more ghosts in those previous places. And London as we know is the latest Previous Place. The question for me is not about visiting John and Lucie and Honor and Gordon and Maisie and James and the whole Few, but about visiting my own ghosts. And the way it works out is that I wouldn’t stir an inch to visit any ghosts of mine. They must be all on the way here by now, and it would upset them to meet me going one way, and they going another. When it’s clearly a question of visiting the whole Few, it won’t take long to decide, but it must still be a question of ghosts because this London-talk has been going on for a long time now. Speaking of ghosts, I ought to say that Maisie and I saw one, coming back from the Village one night. We were just at the point where the road turns out of the Village into itself — just past where it smells from Don Bernardo’s drains. There was no moon. Suddenly a clatter came clattering toward us, and a thing on a horse, in a white cloak and large black flop-hat, went studiously by. We turned to watch it: it flew up toward the Estanco steps, whirling round there in theatrical brilliance, then seemed to fly up over the steps. All we know about it is that somebody died up on the Puig that night.
In the early part of the month we had the beginning of artichokes, and the Medora explained how to get the best tastes from them; this seems to have mostly to do with cutting them in sharp ways. The rest of the month I forgot about artichokes and finally finished off the first EPILOGUE volume, which has now gone to a publisher, who is considering. EPILOGUE has also mostly to do with cutting things in sharp ways; and there are still artichokes, and all kind of knives, from sharp to precise, but as the cutting gets more precise you can do without knives— things merely behave neatly.
I have been reading some Walpoliana— Horace Walpole is my favourite Voltaire. He knew better than Voltaire how to divide the foolish from the sensible: by pointing out the foolish. Voltaire did it by pointing out the sensible — which is bound to make the sensible look niggardly: pointing things out makes them look niggardly. The foolish is niggardly with grace, while the sensible is niggardly, naturally, under protest. Thus when one is obliged to point out that one is a sensible person the result is an argument, which is not graceful, and the result of that, if one cares about grace, is that one retires haughtily to inscrutability, which is not sensible. The best way in controversial life is to try to agree only about what is plainly foolish, not what is plainly sensible. Then one soon stops talking and shows people the house. It does not matter for sensible house-things to be pointed out. People might easily say ‘How niggardly!’ But you can be sure that they’ll say ‘How lovely!’ And even if they said ‘How niggardly!’ you wouldn’t mind, because your own feeling about them is ‘How nice and niggardly!’ I have also been reading about George Sand and Lady Hester Stanhope, and the thing to note there is that where women are concerned anything praiseful said about them by people who know them is always taken at a discount. This is due to the historical habit of regarding women as private-life; every virtue or power above the domestic traits is a sort of lover’s or husband’s secret. Maisie is anxious for me to finish my book about Woman, and I shall, one day; but just now I am beginning a book about Women — Women as People. Maisie is also trying to find someone to com-mission the Dictionary of Related Meanings which I started last year. About books I ought also to say that I have begun attacking publishers in a comradely way about James’ poems. There is I think more luck in it like this than if James did what is called ‘approaching’, which has less of an atmosphere of lunch about, it: publishers like to feel that they do all their work debonairly at lunch. And this, indeed, is how it is really done, because they suspect their own office-mood — and why shouldn’t they?
Gelat has at last managed to sell the Moli, and to buy himself the great fuente belonging to it; which not only means making the light by water-power now but vast pipings of water to thirsty land at successful prices. We have had a lot of stimulating business secrets with him about this. It was a good event for my birthday month, and I also had some ear-rings from Robert, a chicken from Isabel. chocolates from Strenge, a telegram from Schwarz who was in Switzerland for the week, a large ensaimada from Gelat and the Medora, a lovely curly illuminated transcription of my poem Be Grave, Woman from Karl, which I have hung by my bed, and the yearly cable from Tom — we are birthday twins. And Alice did an involved special birthday visit: first to my bedroom, waiting to escort me to my workroom — where she sat looking at me officially for some time, then walked about the room unofficially not to be embarrassed by her own effusiveness, then rushed out to forget. There was a characteristic cable incident with my father: there had been no letter for months, so I had cabled, and he had cabled back that he was quite well. Another wait, and finally a letter arrived. He had been angry with me for my report of the Spanish revolution: apparently because I do not like Catalans and deplore the effect of communistic sentimentalities on the Spanish mind — which is merely to make them suicidally irritated with themselves, for the Spanish have no patience with concrete enthusiasms, they must always settle back in any case to the leisurely wealth of things left undone, unattempted, impersonally potential — I am an apologist for dying Spanish Capitalism.
I have written some poems for the book to follow on Poet A Lying Word which followed on Poems A Joking Word: Poetry A Faltering Word. Isabel has a good name for the minute thinkings I write into little books or on little papers. She sees a lot of it going on, and knows the difference between this and my writing out boldly on my block. She calls it ‘keeping accounts’. Catalina who serves the McCormacks said to her: ‘Ah, your senora, she knows a lot, doesn’t she? Ah, what your senora must know. Do you know how much that my senora knows a lot, but I can’t tell you what it is because I don’t know it myself.’
I must not forget little Nicholas, Alice’s son. Sons do not accept cathood very gratefully, but Nicholas has unreliable moments of bravery after which he is glad to be cat — this saves him from the ignominy of being coward. He is of course a tabby — black cats are cat all the time. But his fur has golden tinges of human heroism. In other words he is rather complex like all ordinary people, and vaguely interested in more things than is necessary, and we have a lot of pretentious conversation together.
Maisie has been hesitant about writing something focal; perhaps something is on the way, but I can’t hold up January any longer. Honor and Gordon came through without a tremor. James wasn’t sure just how personally to write, so he enlarged on one personal thing of unquestionable public interest. I have enlarged profusely on many things of unquestionable personal interest in order to demonstrate that there need be no distinction between what is personal and not if you are personal enough, not meaning to be greedy. From January FOCUS it will be easy for everyone to understand that the thing wanted is exactly that awkwardest kind of personal statement which is the easiest to write. Tom is so far away in America, and besides off to Jamaica for a bit with Julie for her health, so there has been nothing so far from him — Julie. I let Harold Edwards know about FOCUS, not with much hope that he would send a record every month, but in the certainty that he would at any rate be pleased that something like this was going on. John ‘Cullen is uncomfortable about himself; he said something about sending a letter about New Year vistas, but this may have been only a metaphorical sigh of retreat — vistas, in fact, imply retreat. But we shall see. John the First was of course pleased about FOCUS, but the thought of anything written is a prominent embarrassment for him; and still more for Lucie. But as focal prominence is perfectly equal to the taking-for-grantedness of daily living, the embarrassment of which John so nicely translates into eccentric casualness, he understands perhaps better than anyone else the forthright intimateness I mean; and he has written a little, and next month will write more. Of course I let Len and Jane, too, know about FOCUS but there has been silence between us for a long time. Now that I am working with Len on a Movement study for the next EPILOGUE there will be focal juxtaposition again, I hope.
It’s only the same difficulty as letter writing for me — I’m not very good at going back over things when I sit down to it. There have been lots of things lately — Snake to begin with. We met her first at Charlotte’s in the summer: one or two other new people were there and we were quite wrong about her: she doesn’t ever parole really well in a room-full. Somebody was talking about Snakes, and in a pause — she hadn’t spoken at all before — she said to her neighbour, ‘Have you ever held a snake in your hand?’ He said, ‘No, I don’t know that I have.’ ‘I have,’ she said significantly, and that was
all. So she was referred to as Snake: but more recently we’ve seen her a lot, more and more in fact. But even now that we know her well we call her by her outer name, but never refer to her except as Snake. And it’s too late to explain at this stage, or to ask if we may call her Snake without explanation.
She and Charlotte much admired Lucie’s jewellery, which is necklaces and bracelets of beads, old bobbin beads, coloured glass. lustred metally glass, metal of all sorts, nicely chosen and blended. They began a long time ago, were forgotten almost, but Charlotte wanted Lucie to make a real business of it, and started by buying necklace for Snake. Clasps are the difficulty, old ones of cut steel, paste, gilt, pinchbeck etc., are good but hard to find and often not suitable. I started thinking of making them of wire — copper, brass any easily manipulated stuff: this has led to a new industry, of wire jewellery which is already extending to include dangles and plaques of sheet metal, and can be used in conjunction with beads as well. It’s too soon to say more, or the thing will be worn out before anything has been made. I’m almost in Focal form now: do you think if I go on like this something near will result?
Smith didn’t realize he was indispensable: we had him back too soon from the vet: and he developed pneumonia, which is almost always fatal with cats. Anyhow, we decided the pain he was suffering did not justify the faint hope, and he was put in the lethal chamber. I don’t think we shall ever find another like him, even to look at — I’m glad I did a portrait of him, though it doesn’t show his face. But perhaps that’s no harm, because it wouldn’t have been really like him. I also have a drawing with a map of his markings.
All successful paintings for the last year I’ve done on the spot: when these are successful they go farther than those I’ve done from notes: on the spot it’s easy to forget what you’re doing, but away from it it’s difficult not to use clichés to fill up where you can’t remember. If I ever stop having to remember and forget I’ll let you know.
Trippet’s having her first bout of sex-life: as she’s a year old it must be expected, but she was supposed to wait till Fred, the bear, was old enough. He’s not old enough, but is very interested, always there, embarrassing the other Toms who come round, and spoiling everything — Trippet’s behaviour is so horrible that all our sympathy is with the bear. The successful cat seems to be a black and white which looks disappointing. All depends on a good throwback to Trip-pet’s Siamese mother’s family: we are in Menders hands.