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Posts Tagged ‘Ivy Compton-Burnett’

A Thing That Ends in Dying

June 5, 2014 | by

ivy compton burnett

Ivy Compton-Burnett

Happy birthday to Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, who wrote dialogue so witty, lively, and fluent it makes Aaron Sorkin look like—uh—well, you get the idea—I’m sure one of them would be savvy enough to fill in the blank. “She was very, very clever,” Rebecca West said of Compton-Burnett in her 1981 Art of Fiction interview. “You’d have to be very tasteless not to see she had something unique to give her age.”

Here, in the way of proof positive, is the beginning of The Present and the Past, her 1953 novel, which starts with a lot of winsome talk about poultry, death, and cake.

“Oh, dear, oh, dear!” said Henry Clare.

His sister glanced in his direction.

“They are pecking the sick one. They are angry because it is ill.”

“Perhaps it is because they are anxious,” said Megan, looking at the hens in the hope of discerning this feeling.

“It will soon be dead,” said Henry, sitting on a log with his hands on his knees. “It must be having death-pangs now.”

Another member of the family was giving his attention to the fowls. He was earnestly thrusting cake through the wire for their entertainment. When he dropped a piece he picked it up and put it into his own mouth, as though it had been rendered unfit for poultry’s consumption. His elders appeared to view his attitude either in indifference or sympathy.

“What are death-pangs like?” said Henry, in another tone.

“I don’t know,” said his sister, keeping her eyes from the sufferer of them. “And I don’t think the hen is having them. It seems not to know anything.”

Henry was a tall, solid boy of eight, with rough, dark hair, pale, wide eyes, formless, infantine features, and something vulnerable about him that seemed inconsistent with himself. His sister, a year younger and smaller for her age, had narrower, deeper eyes, a regular, oval face, sudden, nervous movements, and something resistant in her that was again at variance with what was beneath.

Tobias at three had small, dark, busy eyes, a fluffy, colourless head, a face that changed with the weeks and evinced an uncertain charm, and a withdrawn expression consistent with his absorption in his own interests. He was still pushing crumbs through the wire when his shoulder was grasped by a hand above him.

“Wasting your cake on the hens! You know you were to eat it yourself.”

Toby continued his task as though unaware of interruption.

“Couldn’t one of you others have stopped him?”

The latter also seemed unaware of any break.

“Don’t do that,” said the nursemaid, seizing Toby’s arm so that he dropped the cake. “Didn’t you hear me speak?”

Toby still seemed not to do so. He retrieved the cake, took a bite himself and resumed his work.

“Don’t eat it now,” said Eliza. “Give it all to the hens.”

Toby followed the injunction, and she waited until the cake was gone.

“Now if I give you another piece, will you eat it?”

“Can we have another piece too?” said the other children, appearing to notice her for the first time.

She distributed the cake, and Toby turned to the wire, but when she pulled him away, stood eating contentedly.

“Soon be better now,” he said, with reference to the hen and his dealings with it.

“It didn’t get any cake,” said Henry. “The others had it all. They took it and then pecked the sick one. Oh, dear, oh, dear!”

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Staff Picks: Papa, Pig Earth

July 30, 2010 | by

What we’ve been reading this week.

  • I wrapped up A Farewell to Arms just in time to enjoy the Hemingway look-alikes at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Florida. Kudos to Charles Bicht, Papa 2010. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner
  • First published in 1935—but set in the 1880s—A House and Its Head is a late, obsidian instance of Victorian Survivor Literature. It concerns a tyrannical father, his idle grown children, and the young second wife he brings home to them. Imagine The Way of All Flesh written by a woman under the influence of Oscar Wilde. What I and everyone else especially like about Ivy Compton-Burnett is her dialogue. Her characters make asides, they soliloquize, they turn epigrams, and yet the effect isn't exactly stagey. (As Oscar liked to say, “Art doesn’t imitate life; life imitates Shakespeare, as best it can.”) —Lorin Stein

  • I visited Cuba for the first time in January. On Revolution Day, July 26, I read about Fidel Castro’s surprise appearance in public and the rest of the coverage of the holiday I could find. Unsatisfied, I found and read “Cuba—A Way Forward,” the riveting, deeply distressing report from Daniel Wilkinson, Deputy Director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch and Nik Steinberg, a researcher there, in the New York Review of Books. It makes me desperately sad to think about the amazing people I met in Havana that have almost no chance of reading Yoani Sánchez’s incredible blog, even though they live in Havana, as she does. Wilkinson and Steinberg are forceful and eloquent on the reality of the political situation in Cuba: “It is hard to think of a US policy with a longer track record of failure. The embargo has caused much hardship to the Cuban people but done nothing to loosen the Castros’ hold on power. Instead it has provided the Cuban government an excuse for the country’s problems.” —Caitlin Roper

  • I’ve been following the debate surrounding Odyssey, Andrew Wylie’s latest venture in publishing e-books with Amazon. As an observer, I find it upsetting that the publishing world is squabbling over backlist e-book rights. But do I blame them? The pie is shrinking for everyone. Except Amazon. —Thessaly La Force

  • I’ve been reading Pig Earth, John Berger’s cycle of stories, essays, and poems about peasant life in the Savoyard village where Berger settled with his family in the mid-seventies. This cycle is also a study in oral tradition, and of life in a place where nobody has any secrets. It is also—according to Wikipedia—a novel. But I’ll keep you posted. —L. S.

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