The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky believed the impoverished gentry was “the class which is almost solely responsible for the emergence of literature everywhere”. Think of the many literary terms needed to catch the infinite varieties of this experience of loss: dirge, threnody, memoir, eulogy, lament, panegyric, epitaph, elegy, plaint, and so on. One of the most perfect examples over the last century was Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, recreating the fading ruling class of Sicily. He was formally Prince of the tiny island of Lampedusa, but in reality a middle-ranking member of the aristocracy, sitting around the cafés of Palermo until in later life he produced his first book, a masterpiece. Today desperate Africans seeking a better life by crossing the Mediterranean often come ashore on his island.
This essay appears in the April edition of Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
The declining classes produce writers, even if they don’t always write on their own background. Sartre and Solzhenitsyn came from the displaced upper middle classes of Alsace and the Ukraine respectively. Camus emerged from the beleaguered white French colony of Algeria, and George Orwell from a genteel lower-middle-class family in social decline after serving in India. Yeats came from the small Protestant ascendancy in Ireland that was under intense pressure during his lifetime. In his memoirs he revived the folk saying: “Things reveal themselves passing away.” What was once taken for granted now had to be spelt out explicitly to keep it alive in the imagination of one’s race, in order to compensate for its loss of influence in reality. Certain plant species have a final burst of efflorescence before they fade away. People looked back on the Indian summer of the Edwardian age before the cataclysm of the First World War blew it away. In contrast those heralds of modernity, Darwin, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, combined to delineate a sharp break from what had gone before, making possible the emergence of an avant garde.
There are of course many examples which question the Brodsky thesis. The novel began in the eighteenth century as an exemplar of the middle class’s rise to importance, as novels like Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe attest. This development in turn produced a group of country gentry in decline, like the squire in Tom Jones, unable to adapt to the commercial ways of the new classes. The family anxieties of some of Jane Austen’s characters are occasioned by the threat of slipping out of respectable status, to which they can regain access by marrying into it.
Those on the make, like the title characters in The Man of Property and The Great Gatsby, and Jonah in our literature, have been treated ambiguously at best. The new men who were the heroes of utopian novels, such as social realist literature in the Soviet Union, believed they represented the emerging wave of the future, with the rest consigned to the dustbin of history, but these novels were never convincing, works of fiction in more senses than one. Literature is essentially about the remembrance of things past, or as the title of Proust’s classic can be rendered, “searching again for times lost”—some overtones have been lost in translation.
Not just individuals and social groups, but whole societies were sometimes in the process of dissolution. The “Old South” of the United States produced a fabulous literature of regret, precisely because its way of life (for those in charge) was so leisurely, and its reconstruction so resisted. A school of writers arose to chronicle its life of gorgeous extravagant decay, from the popular Gone with the Wind to the searing stories of William Faulkner, who revealed that the dark secret of the traditional South was not just slavery, but the sexual exploitation of young black women. Eugene O’Neill’s wonderful titles, such as Desire under the Elms and The Long Day’s Journey into Night, capture the prevailing mood of wistful longing. The tradition has continued with John Berendt’s 1990s novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, set in Savannah, where grandees mix easily with eccentrics and the down-at-heel. Some years ago a tornado devastated the coastal region from Savannah to Charleston, leaving its people without electricity for days. As the delicacies in their freezers would have degenerated, the old families took them out and organised continuous day-and-night seafood parties on their verandas in the old style till the goodies ran out.
The disappearance of the Austro-Hungarian empire was lamented in the novel The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth, though as an impoverished Jew from remote Galicia he might have been expected to welcome its collapse. But he later wrote: “My strongest experience was the war, and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.” It was what came after, with the fanatics of Right and Left between the wars, which made the old ways attractive to many like him. Another unlikely memorialist of that empire, in a magnificent three-volume reminiscence, was Gregor von Rezzori, whose family, of remote Italian ancestry, were high civil servants of the Austrians who ended up in Czernowitz in Bukovina in the borderlands of Eastern Europe. This region had been so devastated by the intrusions of the Russian, Ottoman and Austrian empires that its upper classes had adopted prestigious German customs (like student duelling, hunting and baronial architecture) in the absence of a distinctive local culture.
These were societies in a gradual slow burn. But when instant catastrophe comes, such as a revolution or a holocaust, the literary impulse, like most other activities, dries up, as most energies are devoted to immediate survival. The English, French and Russian revolutions did not themselves produce a great deal of memorable literature, either of those revolutions or of the societies that had been destroyed. In England the two great poets Milton and Marvell were on the revolutionary side. But Marvell’s “Horatian Ode”, ostensibly in praise of Cromwell, provides a sympathetic glimpse of the other perspective, as the Stuart King Charles I acts with great dignity at his execution, a glimpse of a noble way of life about to be extinguished by the Puritan mob. In his book Former People, Douglas Smith reveals that the Russian aristocracy had been rendered so impotent by their loss of self-belief they were unable to comprehend, much less resist, the horror unleashed on their country by the Bolsheviks, modern heirs of the English and French regicides. It was left to writers like Solzhenitsyn who later in his career composed the “Red Wheel” sequence, including August 1914, to try to imaginatively reconstruct the Russian implosion, which had destroyed, and still destroys, his people.
Similarly the genocides carried out by Hitler and Stalin were too much to comprehend as they happened, but some time later produced the great, stripped-down retrospective concentration-camp imaginings of Levi, Borowski, Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and others. In addition, one of the most fruitful things to attempt after the deluge was to recreate in literature the teeming distinctive ghetto and shtetl life of East European Jewry, to keep it alive in that form, as a homage to its past inhabitants, now that it had disappeared in reality. Foremost among these literary recreations were Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories based on his home territory, Warsaw’s Krochmalna Street, and his moving autobiography Lost in America. Many historians have also been part of this factual restoration, such as Theo Richmond’s Konin, and the books of Eva Hoffman. This was essential since, as the tough-minded Simone Weil once pointed out, whole cultures and their languages have during the course of history disappeared in their entirety, without leaving even a literary trace.
European society in Australia, being new, would have been expected to produce a literature of rising success. But our first important novelists, Henry Kingsley, Marcus Clarke and Rolf Boldrewood, came from gentry families in decline. It is remarkable how many writers in Australia came from fading families and groups. The Lawson, Rudd and Baynton families were failed selectors, and Furphy and Rudd were failed small farmers themselves. Boldrewood and Mrs Aeneas Gunn were involved in failed squatting ventures, and Henry Handel Richardson and Mary Grant Bruce came from Victorian country families in financial decline from medicine and squatting. In many of these cases the writers arrested the families’ decline by making a reasonable living from their literary endeavours. But Marcus Clarke and the journalist “The Vagabond” (John Stanley James) ended up like the down-and-outs they wrote about.
A greater shock to the system than dropping down the classes was to drop from a status system based on rank and gentility into a class system based on employment and money. This transition was happening between 1750 and 1850, the time Australia was being settled by Europeans, and produced a group of distressed gentlewomen and gentlemen down on their luck, but “keeping up appearances”. A convincing portrait of the shabby genteel in Australian literature is found in Louis Stone’s Jonah. Mr Grimes is a former bank manager who has lost his job. His wife with her “cold aristocratic features” is known ironically by the neighbours as “The Duchess”:
She had picked on this obscure suburb of working men to hide her shame, but she never forgot that she had married a bank manager, and she never forgave Dad for lowering her pride to the dust. She was born with the love of the finer things that makes poverty tragic. She kept a box full of the tokens of the past—a scarf of Maltese lace, yellow with age …
The moving and pathetic habits of Lawson’s drover’s wife, such as gazing at the fashion plates of the Young Ladies’ Journal and dressing up to go for a walk through the lonely bush on Sundays, are memories of a companionable society which she plainly needs but which is no longer available.
A similar decline is strikingly evident in the four Australian autobiographies written by George Johnston, Hal Porter, Graham McInnes and Donald Horne of life between the two world wars, as their families desperately hung on to the memory of a more gracious past. More recently Patrick White, Martin Boyd and Judith Wright memorialised the upper-class families they were not fully at home with. Boyd documented the fading Melbourne gentry which had been overrun by social changes, as Patrick White did with the Sydney equivalent in some of his novels, for example Elizabeth Hunter in The Eye of the Storm.
People in pre-literate societies recite the heroic past of their race in sagas, epic poetry and folk songs as a mnemonic, so that their ancestral voices may continue to speak to them. During his visit to Australia some decades ago, Salman Rushdie said that in India there were few myths because people still believe in their religions. Myths are what’s left over when people cease to believe. If these mysteries were to be revealed they would lose much of their power.
Whole races have declined and gone underground. As it shrank the Celtic race perpetuated itself in cycles like the Arthurian myths. Many races believed their defeated Once and Future King (Arthur, Cadwallader, Fionn, Barbarossa) had gone underground with his host and would one day reappear in a national emergency to redeem his race again. The society, poetry, myths and language of Gaelic Ireland gradually diminished over the centuries. These have been partly retrieved by Frank O’Connor in his translations of Gaelic poetry, Kings, Lords and Commons (1961), and more comprehensively by Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella in Poems of the Dispossessed (1981). Yeats adapted an old Gaelic poem, “Kilcash”, to resurrect the notion of the “great house” in the countryside, once the centre of district life, now derelict:
I came upon a great house in the middle of the night,
Its open lighted doorway and its windows all alight,
And all my friends were there and made me welcome too;
But I woke in an old ruin that the winds howled through …
The lovers and the dancers are beaten in the clay,
And the tall men and the swordsmen and the horsemen, where are they?
And there is an old beggar wandering in his pride—
His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified.
The Gael is still losing power. Les Murray wrote of the Gaelic-speaking Governor Macquarie: “Your cause grew literary as it died”. John Shaw Neilson, by a miraculous throwback, preserved something of his Scots Gaelic culture in his poetry. As Aboriginal culture fragmented over the decades, white poets imagined the supposed decline of the Aboriginal race—William Sharp’s poem “The Last Aboriginal” was popular in the nineteenth century. One Aborigine, Peter from Victoria’s Western District, expressed the same thought himself: death was now gathering up his race. Les Murray believes that in time to come the Aboriginal presence will remain as a strain in the consciousness of Australians, just as the Celtic one does in the British Isles.
“Things reveal themselves passing away” is more than nostalgia for the past. It is different from the longueurs the characters in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard suffer as, consumed by the gnawing feeling that life is passing them by, they yearn for a lively metropolitan life not available to them. Nor is it the common perception that we are lesser people than those who have gone before, our form of ancestor worship.
In writings on rural England, for example, each generation believed attractive country ways had faded away in the fifty years before the present. People now lament motorways cutting through the meadows, and small farms being amalgamated into larger domains, with the patchwork of hedgerows ripped up. But after the Second World War, people lamented the recent decline of old rural customs, admiring books such as The Wheelwright’s Shop and Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay. In the early twentieth century the poet Edward Thomas and his London colleagues who went on Sunday tramps in the countryside had similar regrets. They looked back to Gilbert White, just as Thomas Hardy a generation earlier memorialised fading village customs, such as wife markets, and Wordsworth earlier still.
The countryside wasn’t going into terminal decline just before one’s own time—that was only one side of the picture. Cultures are always in the process of evolving and regenerating, retaining some habits, gradually relinquishing others, and simultaneously replacing them with new ones. Lampedusa understood this complex process when he wrote, “For things to remain the same everything must change.”
Patrick Morgan’s most recent book is The Vandemonian Trail (Connor Court)