Friday, 1 April 2016

Jacob Wrestling by James Mortmain



published 1920

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA


I am a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness

Even a broken heart doesn't warrant a waste of good paper

Floating out to us came the sound of a girl’s voice singing

Your sister’ll be wearing that drink as a hat

Long prayers are like nagging

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink

It was an elemental of course

So many derelict iron bedsteads

And of course there’s eternity

It was like being drowned in the ghost of water


 
Jacob Wrestling 2

commentary: With its mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry, Jacob Wrestling has been endlessly discussed by critics, and it helped change our expectations of novels. It is one of the forerunners of post-war literature, Mortmain a link in a chain of writers who have been obsessed by form. He was overtaken by writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce – but then he carried his methods further in his later work Enigmatism. And his daughter Cassandra Mortmain went on to write her own novels, which achieved as least as much cult success as her father’s.

Jacob is wrestling with an angel in his dreams - the third dream is the most difficult to understand in the book. But the passage above is part of the notorious ladder chapter: it is printed to look like a ladder, a sentence for every rung.

Some people believe it’s the description of a mystical experience, and that although the sentences seem so unconnected, each rung leads to the next.

Other people claim that the sentences are just random ones from a favourite book.

Again we turn to leading literary theorist Ardnassac Zapot. In a paper for the International Conference of Theoretical Critics (ICTC), he says 
There was no possible successor to Jacob Wrestling. God may have created other worlds, but he didn’t go on adding to this one. The text is what we have, and is what we must work with.
As we said about Enigmatism in that earlier post (as it happens, exactly three years ago today) we worry that we’re missing the point, that we’re not clever enough. But today, I think we have got the point.

Links on the blog: Mortmain has his own connection with this book, and of course Enigmatism is here. In a certain sense, Jacob’s Wrestling is contemporaneous with Fleur Talbot’s Warrender Chase, and with Wonder Boys by Grady Tripp.

See also: date-related entry

The angel is from PerryPhotography, the flowers from a fashion magazine. With thanks also to BNS for help with the theory.



















20 comments:

  1. A very timely post indeed, Moira!! Both thoughtful and inspired.

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    1. Thank you Margot! I'm sure you were suitably thought-provoked...

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  2. Thanks for that Moira - having fish today, are we? :)

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  3. Moira, I like the idea of reading a "mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry," as I have in some of the early classics. Is the entire book in verse form or from one chapter?

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    1. You would have a hard time tracking this one down Prashant - both "Jacob Wrestling" and its author 'James Mortmain' only exist in Dodie Smith's novel I CAPTURE THE CASTLE. There is of course a long and honourable tradition when it comes to citing fictitious books (for my money Jorge Luis Borges did it best).

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    2. Prashant, you were caught by my gentle prank! As Sergio says, it's a book much mentioned in I Capture the Castle, which is one of my favourite books of all time. I hope you will forgive me the joke.
      Sergio, I am always fascinated by fictitious books - though I probably wouldn't dare try to create one by JLB from his magical libraries. But I do have some other ideas for fictitious books for the future....

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    3. Sergio, thanks for the eye-opener! I just didn't see it. Three out of five times I'm slow on the uptake.

      Moira, no cause for forgiveness — I enjoyed the joke. Next April I keep an eye on the date! I have not given fictitious books any thought. I take it they are fabricated by real authors and woven into their narratives.

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    4. Yes, trust no-one Prashant! The idea of authors inventing fake books is a weird one, really, you wonder why they don't just write the book they have gone to so much trouble to imagine...

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  4. My favourite 'citing fictitious books' moment comes in Michael Crichton's THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. The whole book is presented as a true tale, and at the end of the book there is an enormous bibliography containing scientific papers and books. Not one of them is real. It must have taken Crichton hours and hours of work for a joke that only the most obsessive reader might even notice!

    I had a dream once where I found an omnibus edition of Harriet Vane's MURDER BY DEGREES, THE FOUNTAIN-PEN MYSTERY, DEATH IN THE POT and DEATH 'TWIXT WIND AND WATER. I had paid for the damn thing, left the shop, and was just perusing my find when I woke up. My main feelings as I lay there in bed were of enormous irritation that I had chosen that moment to wake up.

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  5. Thinking about it, if I can't get the Harriet Vane book, I might settle for some of Jason King's thriller novels. As you may or may not remember, King was played by Peter Wyngarde in DEPARTMENT S and JASON KING, and the script writers used to mention his opus including DEAD DAMES DON'T...DON'T LOOK NOW BUT YOUR CLUTCH IS SLIPPING...PEOPLE IN GLASS HOUSES SHOULDN'T!...or THE LADY IS WILLING.

    But what about the book from the HANCOCK'S HALF-HOUR episode THE MISSING PAGE? LADY DON'T FALL BACKWARDS by Darcy Soto has gritty detective Johnny Oxford investigating the murder of 26 secretaries from the U.N. As Hancock himself said "This is red hot, this is....As soon as I've finished this I'll recommend they ban it!"

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    1. Some great ideas! Or one of the Jessica Fletcher tomes from Murder She wrote. Harriet Vane was on my shortlist in fact - Death Twixt Wind and Water with Wilfred and the mill. The others sound familiar but is Death in the Pot real (so to speak)? What a maddening dream!

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  6. DEATH IN THE POT is the book that Vane is writing when she is arrested for the murder of her lover in STRONG POISON. The title apparently comes from a bit in the Bible where Elisha purifies some poisoned stew. The murder in the Vane book is by arsenic poisoning, which counts against her. Presumably the publicity from the trial would boost sales enormously, so it wasn't only an unreal book, it was a bestselling unreal book.

    I've never seen the omnibus Vane edition in my dreams again, although I have had similar dreams involving other wonderful books which vanish into the ether as soon as I wake up...

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    1. That is really specialist knowledge, I am really impressed. Oh for an omnibus of Vane books...

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  7. It is good that I came to this late. I am easily taken in and would never have spotted that it was fake, even though it certainly sounded especially weird.

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    1. Saved yourself. I would not want to embarrass anyone - I think when I was very young and insecure I would have been mortified at not realizing something was fake.

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  8. I am late coming to the party here. As soon as I read 'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,' I knew, but it didn't at all spoil the fun. There are lots of fictitious books in A Dance to the Music of Time - I am rather surprised you've never blogged about those books - or have you?

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    1. Thanks Chrissie - yes, any true fan can never not spot that line. (My daughter made me a Kindle cover featuring the book, with the first line on the front and the last line on the back. Yes I know, lucky to have her.)
      Way way back I did a couple of entries on the first book, and thought I would carry on through them, but never have. (Partly because I got shouted at by some member of the Powell society...) Not as many clothes as I was expecting in fact. I do LOVE the series, and hadn't thought of the many invented books but yes. The narrator's study of Aubrey, is it? And X Trapnel. And Sad Majors, the wartime reminiscences. Oh what great books they are...

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  9. Lovely about the Kindle cover!
    Yes, I don't recall many clothes in DANCE, except of course Mrs Widmerpool's bridge coat.
    There was a wonderful bookshop in Oxford - sadly gone - which had a tromp- d'oeil wall of fictional books.
    Wasn't it Burton that Nick was writing about? And is it Profiles in String that ends up in the canal? It is all so clever and moving.

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    1. Yes of course, I knew Aubrey wasn't quite right, and thought of Thomas Browne (it's funny the writers who clump together in one's head, isn't it?)but didn't get to Burton!
      Oh Profiles in String, and the wicked Pamela, it's all so brilliant and memorable. I must read again...

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