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John Waters' Role Models: Part Five

by John Waters
26 November 2010, 6:41pm

And so it is that we reach the end of John Waters' eulogising of his literary heroes. In the fifth and final part of the excerpts from his new book Role Models, the famous director talks about Ivy Compton-Burnett's Darkness and Day. If you missed them, here are parts one, two, three and four.

John Waters - Role Models

- Part Five.

Want to go further in your advanced search for snobbish, elitist, literary wit? Of course you do, but I should warn you, you'll have to work for it. Try reading any novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett. She was English, looked exactly like the illustration on the Old Maid card, never had sex even once, and wrote twenty dark, hilarious, evil little novels between the years 1911 and 1969. Pick any one of them. They're all pretty much the same. Little actual action, almost no description, and endless pages of hermetically sealed, stylized, sharp, cruel, venomous Edwardian dialogue. "Once you pick up a Compton-Burnett," Ivy commented about her own books, "it's hard not to put them down again."

Since Darkness and Day has been called "one of her strangest novels," I guess I'll recommend you start with this one. She wrote it in 1951, when she was sixty-seven years old. It is her insanely inventive revision of Oedipus Rex. A family returns from exile to reveal the deep secrets of their accidental incestuous marriage only to learn that their innocent truths cause even more complicated shame. Ivy Compton-Burnett was obsessed with the exact meaning of language, and she hated describing anything that wasn't included in what her characters actually said. She would paint a verbal picture of the people in her books but once and only once (usually when they are first introduced) and you'd better remember it, because often there are thirty pages of dialogue before someone else is identified again. When readers finally reach these tiny islands of rest between speeches, they steady their eyes, take a deep breath, and plunge back into Ivy's turbulent whirlpool of language. No wonder a critic called Miss Compton-Burnett "a writer's writer." Her dialogue constantly deconstructs what her characters actually mean to say. Once you get the rhythm, the sparkle, the subtle nuances of family dominance in her character's words, you will feel superior to other people and how they struggle to speak in real life.

Sure, you'll get lost reading Darkness and Day, maybe hypnotized, probably even bored. But as soon as you realize you aren't concentrating, not paying enough attention, BANG! A great line will hit you right between the eyes and give you the intellectual shivers. You certainly can't skim this book. One editor complained after reading long passages of dialogue, and having to turn back page after page to figure out who was saying what to whom, that the author had forgotten to write that one of the characters was speaking on the telephone. Ivy grumpily admitted he was correct and added two words to the text to explain: "He said."

The monstrously intelligent and all-knowing children in Darkness and Day speak like no other children in the history of youth. "Do you remember your Uncle?" a relative asks his nieces Rose and Viola. "You used to be younger," Rose says with steely reasoning. "That is true," the uncle answers, "and I feel as young as I did." "People do feel younger than they are," she quickly responds. "They don't get used to a new age, before they get to the next one. I feel I am nine, and I have been ten for a week. I am in my eleventh year." "I don't often think as much as that," her sister Viola comments. "I always think," answers Rose with a vengeance.

Simple truths are told in the book in bafflingly elegant ways. "You can't help what happens in your mind," one character comments. When the family worries about a scandal, a member logically surmises, "People don't forget things, unless they do." After the housekeeper catches little Rose reading in bed past her bedtime, she scolds, "Dear, dear! I did not see you hide that book." "Well if you had, it wouldn't have been hidden," Rose answers without flinching. Even something as simple as saying good morning can be tortuously debated. When the children don't answer, the teacher makes another attempt. "Well, I will try to do better. Good morning to you both again." "We don't say things like 'good morning,' " Rose answers, "we don't see what use it is." "Well, perhaps you are not old enough to realize that," the teacher tries to argue. "We don't want to be old," Rose answers back, "people don't really know much more. They only learn to seem to." When the children have so tortured their teacher that she quits after only two days' work, she tries to put her frustration into words. "The use of patience is not to encourage people without proper feeling to be intolerable," she says, but the children are unmoved. As their governess discovers a mean prank the children have pulled involving the teacher's chair, she tries to discipline them. "The thing that occurs to me, is too bad to be true." "Then it can't be true," Rose answers, ever the debater. "I don't dare ask about it," the governess proclaims. "Then there is the end of the matter," the children declare with intellectual victory.

And on death, Ms. Compton-Burnett's writing can be just plain brutal. After the children in Darkness and Day are told of a passing in the family, they are asked to "run upstairs and forget what is sad. Just remember the happy part of it." "What is the happy part?" wonders Viola. "There is none," answers Rose. "Why do people talk as if they are glad when someone is dead? I think it must mean there is a little gladness somewhere."

Right up to the end of her life, Ivy Compton-Burnett's irritable, nitpicking, obsessive love of words never ceased. According to the great biography Ivy, by Hilary Spurling, an old friend came to visit Ivy and she woke up from a catnap and snapped, "I'm not tired, I'm sleepy. They are different things. And I'm surprised that you should say tired when you mean sleepy." That Ivy! She was a real laff-riot. Her last spoken words before death? "Leave me alone." I have to. I have all twenty of her novels and I've read nineteen. If I read the one that is left there will be no more Ivy Compton-Burnett for me and I will probably have to die myself.

Role Models by John Waters is published by Beautiful Books on 2 December 2010. John will be signing copies of Role Models at Waterstones, Piccadilly, London at 1pm on Saturday 4th December.

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