Tom Deveson was educated at local schools in Bedford and at Cambridge, where he won the university prize for English. He then taught full-time in south London primary schools for 30 years. Now he reviews fiction for The Sunday Times, puts on Shakespeare plays with large groups of ten-year-olds, teaches musicianship to A-level students at the Centre for Young Musicians and enjoys playing with his grandchildren. Below Tom discusses Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution.
Tom Deveson on Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell
I first read Pictures from an Institution about 45 years ago when I was fifteen, but I can't count the number of times I've read it since. I bought the orange Penguin edition in a second-hand shop for half a crown, and from the opening phrase – 'Half the campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe' - I was slightly baffled and entirely hooked.
This was plainly going to be a book with jokes, metaphors and allusions, a book that expected you to be thoughtful, curious, imaginative and receptive, prepared to look things up, to allow words to linger in your mind and grow in meaning. Today I was reading it again and laughing out loud as I walked through the streets of Peckham, grateful for its power to stir feelings of great complexity, for its inexhaustibly rich blend of wit and poetry.
It can't really be categorized. It's neither a novel nor a satire - though it might have turned into either - and it's not really much like its second cousin, Mary McCarthy's contemporaneous The Groves of Academe, which truly is both. Jarrell called it simply a 'prose book'; others have called it a performance. It's about a year at a fictional progressive American college for women, but it doesn't follow a chronological scheme. Instead it cuts from parties to classes to conversations, moving gracefully between memories, aphorisms and deeper reflections.
Nothing much happens. The narrative voice tells us about the place and its people; the episodes and anecdotes make a set of sketches rather than a plot. The students have little impact because the focus is on their teachers. Some readers have found the tone off-putting - the narrator is perhaps too tasteful, too clever, too right about others being wrong. But he is also vulnerable, moved by what happens to people and their hopes and fears, even in this smug and self-enclosed campus, by the fragility of existence, and by the fact that sometimes a song or a poem or a painting can be said to have 'pushed back the boundaries of the world'.
The jokes never stop and they're about anything and everything. The wife of the professor of sociology is 'like the woman children make from Tinker-Toy sets... when cabbages are embarrassed about the facts of life, they tell their little cabbages that they found them under Mrs Whittaker'. The college president 'crooned his speeches' and, when talking to the narrator's young friend Constance, 'was as informal and democratic with her as though the United Nations were going to give him an award for it'. He was 'so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins'.
But, as the title suggests, the book also has serious purposes. It's partly about the tensions between people and their social and professional setting, partly (as so often with Jarrell) about the painful fact that changing from child to adult also involves a transition from the infinitely potential to the merely factual. The influence of Jarrell's friend Hannah Arendt can be felt here, as he shows – with anger and humour - how the acceptance of bureaucracy and reductionist philosophies can lead to a false sense of what it means to be human.
Even the visiting novelist Gertrude Bacon - it's hard to think of her as entirely distinct from Mary McCarthy - is limited in this way. Her ferociously exact and funny judgements of how people behave are achieved by ignoring - by not knowing or wanting to know - how they feel. But Jarrell allows his characters to outlive his own barbed dismissals. Flo Whittaker and her husband always think of the public good – Jerrold's arm at a party describes a curve that 'seemed to have been taken from some graph, or table, in a study called Vector-Diagrams of Good-Fellowship' and Flo 'oversaw it [the universe] with systematic benevolence'. Yet, 'if I were a town, there is no one I should rather have by me in a disaster' and - even more disturbingly truthful – 'to someone I am Flo'.
The narrator is like Jarrell in many ways. He's a poet, he 'knows Auden by heart, practically', he loves music and sport and his favourite country is not Germany but German. As story-teller, he's sometimes too omniscient - he knows what happens in other people's houses when he's not there - but he's not morally obtrusive. If he sometimes seems less concerned with the other characters than with his own ability to describe them outrageously, his pleasure in his audience's pleasure is contagious. And as in Jarrell's poems, the presence of death is never far away. There's a passage where he and his wife pick up Constance in their car. They feel like a youngish couple going out to dinner, but once she's with them, they see 'stretching before us a short, safe, uneventful pathway to the grave'. No wonder Robert Lowell called Jarrell 'the most heartbreaking English poet of his generation'.
To Gertrude, clever people are bad and good people are stupid; they are neither loveable nor interesting, and when she describes them 'she can be witty without even lying'. She adores Swift, except for his indulgence towards the Houyhnhnms. Yet even she, with all her dismissive stock in trade – 'many a bite has lain awake all night longing to be Gertrude's bark' - brings her third husband lemonade when he's sick. Jarrell knows that sometimes it's rational to be irrational.
Her opposite is the composer-in-residence, Gottfried Rosenbaum. He's 'famous - anyway, famous in Europe', as one student says, a pupil of Schoenberg, an exile from Nazism, a man of passive sadness and humane wit. He looks like an orang outan with 'that animal's fixed, sorrowful, bottomless stare'. When he speaks French, 'he seemed a cloud that had divorced a textbook of geometry to marry Guillaume Apollinaire'. He customizes Auden's famous line: 'We must love one another and die'. He uses the slogan 'when the state has withered away' with numberless ironic inflections. He tells jokes in order to tell the truth. His ambition is 'to be unjust to Austria'. He's one of my favourite characters in modern fiction.
Over five decades the book has helped form the landscape of my mind. It's because of Pictures from an Institution that we have Vermeer's 'Girl With a Red Hat' hanging on our front room wall. It's the book that first sent me off to read Marianne Moore and Hölderlin, Saint-Simon and Rilke, Chekhov and Grimm's 'Märchen', to listen to Schumann's 'Dichterliebe', Mahler's songs and Berg's 'Lyric Suite'.
It's one of the very small number of novels - Mann's Doktor Faustus is another - that describes imaginary pieces of music so that you can hear them in your head. Dr Rosenbaum's setting of Robert Frost's 'The Witch of Coös' has 'the most idiomatic writing for skeleton that I've ever heard', with an ostinato figure that's 'half glissando xylophones and half violinists hitting their soundboxes with their bows'. Even more wonderfully, his celebration of the memory of Bach has a tone row of the notes B-A-C-H, these inverted and then transposed. The four movements use instruments exclusively beginning with the same four letters. Bugle, bass-viol, bassoon, basset-horn, bombardon, bass-drum, bagpipe, baritone and a violinist with only his bow are succeeded on stage by an Alphorn and an accordion.
To imagine something like that and then to tell us about it is - using a phrase from the book's penultimate page - to be 'visited by an angel'. The half crown I invested in 1963 has become a golden treasure.