The ad for Switzerland dropped out of the newspaper and lay around on the table for a week or two before I noticed the headline: “Switzerland – the land of…”
OK. Hit the pause button. What word do you think comes next? It must be a good word, a word that hits all our buttons and makes us want to go to Switzerland during the summer. I mean this is a slogan paid for by the Swiss Tourist Board, obviously to a top agency. Hip ad writers. Megabucks in print costs. It’s got to be the right word. Yep, there’s a hint. Just one word. A word that will hit all your buttons.
Well, we’ll come to that in a minute. Now what about the shop that sells “pre-loved clothes”? I don’t know about you but that got me thinking too. Was that going to make me feel good? I mean the way my mind works is this: those clothes were once loved so I guess that means the love has gone, is dead. These clothes are rejected clothes – once loved, then spurned. They’re orphans looking for decent foster parents; they’re pets that have outlived their Xmas present appeal. I mean, these clothes were once chosen, once bought, for good cash, by jerks. Do I have the same taste as these jerks? Hell no. Get me out of here. I’m sorry clothes. Lots of sympathy and all that but I don’t want jerk-sweat to come in contact with my skin. I mean, you’ve heard of transplant organs infiltrating their previous owner’s personality into the new body. Who knows? Jerk sweat might just work in the same way. You put on these clothes and soon you’re throwing away your entire wardrobe – all those clothes you once fell in love with. You become a clothes jerk – and the shop just takes it all in and tries to find a new home for these rejects, these pre-loved dresses. And, I know this is crazy but, have you noticed: all these pre-loved clothes have been rejected by women. What’s the conclusion here? Maybe, it’s time to move on.
And, I don’t know about you but I get these blog thingies that tell me how to write novels. One of them started by saying “Make sure your main character is likeable…” Likeable? Why? “Because you want your readers to engage and identify with them.” Jesus. Is it just me? Forget Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar. Shakespeare, you got it wrong.
And this all connects (don’t ask me how) with E.M.Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, the grey-backed, yellowy pages of which accompanied me on a two hour train ride – and there isn’t an attractive person in the entire book. And, let’s face it, the story just doesn’t follow the right rules. If Vonnegut were drawing the story line it would be two waves – think sound waves – that cross over half way. One of the lines is for major characters and the other is for minor characters. It is about a pre-loved woman whose husband has died on her. She goes to Italy. She is a woman of strong emotions. She is a water balloon of love that breaks over the genial young man who greets her one day as she is walking around a provincial town. Love hurtles into marriage, boredom, baby and death. That’s where we are at the midpoint of this tale. What follows is even more tragedy. But Forster is not interested in making us feel the tragedy. He is interested in mocking everyone – except, interestingly, the young Italian man, who having been set up as a primitive target for our condescension becomes, not grand, but merely human. At one point the fate of the baby is discussed and the options for it are either to go to England where it will not be loved but will be properly brought up or left in Italy where it will not be brought up properly but will be loved. This story is interesting because Forster is using it simply to place a mirror in front of his English readers, showing them how monstrous their attitudes and assumptions are. Later of course he wrote A Passage to India where it was an Indian doctor who was the victim of the engrained culture of the English characters.
And because he is really mocking his characters, and his readers? Did his first readers feel uncomfortable?
As I was reading, and enjoying this book – because it is well written and well observed – I saw it as a form of time travel. 107 years ago it was published (the second time in a matter of weeks that that number has appeared in these columns). 1905. So if we take 1903-4 as being the period of the story, we find all international communications taking place by telegraph and frequent letters. There are no cars. And yet in many other respects it is modern. The characters are tourists in Italy enjoying the culture, the paintings, the history, the architecture.
But interestingly, summer is the season not to travel to Italy – much too hot of course. And though the characters are in Italy during this off season (then) there is no comment on how awfully hot it must have been in the clothes they wore (no slopping around in shorts and t-shirt!).
Travel, summer, our thoughts tend to Switzerland – because the message of the ad writer has wormed its way into our unconscious. Of course. How sweet that word sounds. “Come to Switzerland – the land of …water” – Hah! Water! Sheer genius! Only a Swiss would think of it.