Saturday, September 15, 2007

Back to IT

I signal this review of the book IT by Joseph Roach only as a pretext for spreading the word about another book.

The subject of Roach's book is that “secular magic”, or charisma, that few have and the rest of us are drawn by. He traces it back to post-Restoration England after the long yawn of the Puritan ascendency. I've got no idea about that, but the origin of the coinage is here given as Elinor Glyn, whose book It and Other Stories was published in 1927, though according to this site, IT dates back to her novel, The Man and the Moment.

In fact, the inventor of IT was that hoary of man of Empire, Rudyard Kipling. He did it in one of his most technically brilliant stories, Mrs Bathurst, published in 1904 in the collection Traffics and Discoveries.

I won't try to retell the tale; even the original is difficult enough to grasp, like capturing champaigne bubbles. Suffice to say that it involves the crazed pursuit of a man, Vickery, after a woman, Mrs Bathurst. It is not conventionally heroic. We are distanced from Vickery's story in that it is told within another, which is itself within the framing narrative. I think this is Kipling's way of putting into literary structure the impossibility of knowing what's going on in another person's head. Yet the attempt to know is worth the effort; he attaches with a stroke here and there an aura of tragic grandeur to this man we barely glimpse.

The source of this grandeur is, in part, Mrs Bathurst herself. Here is the main passage about her, and the origin of IT.

Said Pyscroft suddenly:
'How many women have you been intimate with all over the world, Pritch?'
Pritchard blushed plum-colour to the short hairs of his seventeen-inch neck.
''Undreds,' said Pyecroft. 'So've I. How many of 'em can you remember in your own mind, settin' aside the first - an' per'aps the last - an' one more?'
'Few, wonderful few, now I tax myself,' said Sergeant Pritchard relievedly.
'An' how many times might you 'av been at Auckland?'
'One - two,' he began - 'why, I can't make it more than three times in ten years. But I can remember every time that I ever saw Mrs B.'
'So can I - an' I've only ever been to Auckland twice - how she stood an' what she was sayin' and what she looked like. That's the secret. 'Tisn't beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It's just It. Some women'll stay in a man's memory if they once walk down a street, but most of 'em you can live with a month on end, an' next commission you'd be put to it to certify whether they talked in their sleep or not, as one might say.'
'Ah!' said Hooper. 'That's more the idea. I've known just two women of that nature.'
'An' it was no fault o' theirs?' asked Pritchard.
'None whatever. I know that!'
'An if a man gets stuck with that kind of woman, Mr Hooper?' Pritchard went on.
'He goes crazy - or just saves himself' was the slow answer.
[I added the bold. Italics as in original]

Wonderful story. Read it at least three times.

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