Sunday Salon: Seasonal Reads
Posted December 16, 2007on:
One of the books I received for my birthday was The Penguin Books of Summer Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel. I’d spotted it during a regular store browse and found it attractive because many of the authors — Daphne Du Maurier, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Taylor, A.B. Yehoshua, Alice Munro, Julio Cortázar — were ones in whom I’d long been interested but had yet to try.
Like J.S. Peyton, I typically read short stories collections/anthologies from beginning to end (including the introduction). This time, too, I changed tactics and decided to jump around after I realised I wasn’t inclined to start things off with the omnipresent Atwood. I chose Daphne du Maurier’s “The Pool”.
I was never invested in the idea of “summer stories” having lived so long on an island where changes in season were measured by the volume of rainfall. Beaches were pleasant all year round and I had the freedom wander out by the harbour, smelling flowers, idling on the jetty, writing in my journal, reading or daydreaming under trees on regular weekend breaks. Summers were about travelling abroad, summer camps and, later on, the obligatory summer jobs. Still, I was intrigued by the idea of reading summery fare during winter, especially since this year things have returned to “normal”: there are several inches of snow outside my window with no signs that it will let up. Last year, this time, I was still wearing sneakers and my spring/fall coat.
Maurier’s story yielded a palpable contrast. Two children, Deborah and Roger, are staying with their grandparents in the country. Their house is right by a forest, a place with which Deborah holds an intense and compelling bond that is part love, part fear, part reverence. She is able to be wholly absorbed by it for hours at a time, imbuing in every fern and tree, dead or alive, with thoughts and motivations. Not even croquet clips suffer from imaginative neglect.
“Hurry,” shouted Roger, and she threw the clip into the corner, then quickly returned when she was halfway to the pitch, because she knew the clip was lying apart from its fellows, and she might wake in the night and remember it. The clip would turn malevolent, and haunt her. She replaced him on the floor with two others, and now she was absolved and the summer house at peace.
That constant, active regard for others extends in more substantial ways to her younger brother and grandparents. She is ever balancing her needs with Rogers, indulging his requests to play cricket or build a tree house with terms that limit as much as possible any intrusion on her personal time, and leaves Roger perfectly satisfied. She thinks about her grandparents’ lifestyles a lot, concerned and somewhat repelled by their quiet routine, curious about whether they are truly content with their lot, and whether their dull plodding on to the end is an unavoidable fate for everyone. What are other lives like? Then there are moments when, plans foiled, feelings slighted, she is sulky and ill-tempered. Her pagan interactions with the forest also reveal a self-absorption one usually relates to childhood.
Maurier draws a distinct line between Deborah’s powerful imagination and her age, a young girl about to transition into adolescence. In fact, a pool at the deepest point in the forest Deborah can reach, is suggestively presented as reversion to the earliest parts of childhood, or rather to a more primordial consciousness; a state in which one could invest a place with so much importance that one invented rituals, such as bowing, or raising a hand in salute to the trees, and truly believe that there was a secret world at the pool’s bottom where a woman stood at the gate, allowing in whom she will.
The forest is not the only mystery or fascinating element. The children’s interactions with the grandparents offer their own questions. The relationship seems congenial enough, but Deborah is the favourite, at least of her grandfather. Roger has an anxious, earnest, loving regard for his grandfather which is not returned. He dreads his appearance but, if the grandfather is there, he then yearns to impress him. But the grandfather is indifferent, generally, and if kisses are to be given it is Deborah who will receive them. At the story’s end it is interesting to note that when Deborah has her first period — restricted to bed after a hallucinatory night time visit to the forest ended with a dive into the weed entangled pond — Roger gains a promotion of sorts in the household as the go-between between her and her grandparents, and is notably more relaxed.
“The Pool” has many passages that, together, envelop you into an almost stuffy summer atmosphere. Below is one of my favourite passages, a favourite because it bears a faint similarity to my own remembered feelings towards nature on days when I sat with a book under a tall, old, dark tree, breathing in and looking out on the sea.
…Deborah made for the trees fringing the lawn, and once in the shrouded wood felt herself safe. She walked softly along the alleyway to the pool. The late sun sent shafts of light between the trees and on to the alleyway, and a myriad insects webbed their way in the beams, ascending and descending like angels on Jacob’s ladder. But were they insects, wondered Deborah, or particles of dust, or even split fragments of light itself, beaten out and scattered by the sun?
It was very quiet. The woods were made for secrecy. They did not recognize her as the garden did. They did not care that for a whole year she could be at school, or at Hunstanton, or in London. The woods would never miss her: they had their own dark, passionate life.
Deborah came to the opening where the pool lay, with the five alleyways branching from it, and she stood a moment before advancing to the brink, because this was holy ground and required atonement. She crossed her hands on her breast and shut her eyes. Then she kicked off her shoes. “Mother of all things wild, do with me what you will,” she said aloud. The sound of her own voice gave her a slight shock. Then she went down on her knees and touched the ground three times with her forehead.