Saturday, 29 August 2009

The Salutation - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Warner finished her 1927 novel, Mr Fortune’s Maggot, with an envoy: ‘My poor Timothy, good-bye! I do not know what will become of you.’ She was clearly very fond of her protagonist. The novel was clearly complete in itself. Yet Timothy Fortune was left a self exile from paradise. It worried her. Indeed, it worried her so much that five years later she sat down and wrote The Salutation.

This novella is a powerful piece of writing. Where the novel had the search for happiness as one of its themes, this self-consciously has the search for sorrow as a central theme. Timothy Fortune, after wandering half the world by taking temporary jobs on ships, makes his way to the pampas of South America (the location never becomes more specific than that).

There, he wanders, much as Beckett’s tramps wandered. He is lost in a metaphysical haze, going on despite knowing that he cannot go on. Looking for a place to die, he finds a place to live. Fevered by infection and exposure to the sun, he fetches up in a large estate house known as The Salutation. Like the rest of the novel the name, and the place itself, is so layered with symbolism (perhaps much of it unconscious) that it would take a book to unpack it all.

Timothy Fortune finds hospitality and healing, but it is not without cost. For as he heals, he remembers his past and the sorrow returns. And he dreams. He dreams of misfortune at the hands of a young boy, grandson to the widow who owns The Salutation. Waking, he supposes, to find he is at the beginning of his dream.

This is a densely written, rich, glorious, and beautiful piece of writing. At the same time it is free of all affectation. There is no attempt by Warner to show off her cleverness, her wonderful use of language and imagery. They are there, clear for all to see, but they are integral to the story, in service of telling us what happened.

The Salutation was the title work of a collection, and like most of her collections of shorter work, is now difficult to find. However, Mr Fortune’s Maggot and The Salutation have now been collected into a single volume as one of the New York Review Books Classics series. Well worth getting hold of.