Whiteness, Part 1
Daniel Davis Wood reviews Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak
What are the uses of white space in prose? A paragraph break prompts a renewal of focus; it asserts, in advance, the significance of some element of a scene or sequence. A section break swallows time, disrupting chronology in ways that sometimes take a leap to another moment and sometimes pause the unfolding action, withdrawing from the flow of things. Chapter breaks combine these effects while also opening up a refuge, a place to rest, offering readers an opportunity to catch their breath and take stock of events before proceeding.
But what about a space that both shatter a tract of prose and encompass its shards? What about those spaces that break a text into fragments and then encase each one in its own carapace of silence? The text appears as a series of disjointed, discrete segments of prose, but the whiteness that runs through it is also a force for its integrity. Its lacunae devour the words that would forge clear connections between its segments — by explication, by causality — and for that reason they become, collectively, the locus of the unity of the prose, the silence from which readers might extract connective threads.
Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak is a case in point. It doesn’t answer any of these questions about white space, but it does force its readers to grapple with them. The novel takes the form of a journal spanning several years. Which years? It’s not easy to say. Each entry is time-stamped with no more than a date and month; only from real-time references to the death of W.G. Sebald can we infer that the journal opens in late 2000. It is written by a man who has taken to solitude, in a house near the Quantock Hills in Somerset, apparently to immerse himself in the natural world and so to recover from a recent breakdown. He is circumspect about his mental health, and indeed about the prior conditions of his life. He makes references to difficulties with his parents, alluding to a history of mistreatment and rancour: “Five months ago”, he writes on June 17 in his first year at the house, “Mother refused to let me go to Father’s funeral, for fear of what I might say about him to family friends.” But the problem seems to have been his relationship with her, not with him: “Mother made me seek perfection”, he writes several months later. “Anything less and she was dismissive of me, furious in her disappointment. I had to be good, very good to justify the cost to her of my being her son.” And after a year in the house, he is able to confess, plainly and simply: “My mother’s anger burns inside me, burns my insides.”
There are other troubles, other raw wounds, that tug at the narrator’s thoughts but do not receive his attention, by an act of his will. He makes opaque references to a marriage gone sour — he married “years ago”, he says, “when too young to deal with love”, before abandoning his wife “without an explanation” — and now he feels that the life he led before his breakdown is wholly irrecoverable. “I’m perpetually confused these days, when, for dozens of years, I used to be so self-assured”, he reflects. “Richness [has] reversed to internal desolation.” His solitude is therefore a means of both self-salvation and self-flagellation, as much a restorative as a scourge of the soul, so that he resigns himself to its more difficult aspects: “Accept the solitude, I tell myself, if that’s how things currently must be.” But acceptance doesn’t come easily. It’s a type of labour that demands dedication, commitment, even as it risks returning him to the very troubles he hopes to escape.
Still, it’s worth asking: why this? Why does the narrator’s response to his breakdown involve retreating to the Quantock Hills — where, “years ago”, a family friend had joined him on “a mid-summer walk” — and then embarking on an “undertaking”, clearing the land and restoring the house? The narrator poses these questions to himself. Why this, he asks, this “expense of time and money on a property I do not own[?] … Why am I doing this?” On July 14, six months after arriving at the house, he gestures towards a sort of answer: “It might be working”, he writes, “this attempt at a nature-cure.” With that line, he alludes to the work of Richard Mabey, whose Nature Cure (2005) is a more straightforwardly autobiographical account of a similar recovery from breakdown. But he doesn’t attempt to hide his affinity with Mabey; elsewhere, he refers to Mabey by name, and at one point he seems to invoke Mabey’s own prose when he observes a pair of buzzards, watching them “wheel and glide” through the sky, and describes them as “almost touching wings, flying in formation — pilots pushing their body-planes through showground aerobatics”. Compare that passage to Mabey’s unforgettable description of a pair of kites as they join a larger flock:
[T]hey lifted up, flexed, soared, two taut crossbows against the leafless ridge-woods. … I watched one close to as it turned into the wind. It raised its wings… and gathered the air in, folded it into itself. … Suddenly the air was full of kites, a shifting mesh of flight-lines that stretched as far as I could see. … These birds were daredevilling, taking their flight skills to the edge. … They were exalted, falling out of the sky like peregrines, skimming the fields, stooping, spiralling, stalling, their forked tails fine-tuning their balance so effortlessly that it looked as if they were juggling the wind.
Still, for all its superficial resonances with Nature Cure, Ash Before Oak strikes off in a substantially different direction. A fundamental article of faith for Mabey is that an immersion in the natural world is good, in and of itself, and all the more so when combined with an effort to pay attention to the varieties of nature’s abundance, to bear witness to the distinctions of innumerable natural wonders and to patiently catalogue them. This notion is one that the narrator of Ash Before Oak toys with, ponders, but finally discards, disgruntled, displeased with it. “Discover that burdock is the name of the cabbage-leaved plant I’ve been trying to eradicate from my wood”, he writes in March of his first year, signalling that naming nature — providing evidence of having paid attention to its wonders — will likewise become part of his project of recovery. But six weeks later, when he takes note of the “lesser spotted woodpecker”, he feels the frustrations of his urge to name:
Reciting the names of birds and plants is such a British thing to do.
Irritated by my grip on convention.
Only just started this nature-naming business, after thirty years in London, and already tempted to stop.
“Naming, naming”, he complains towards the end of his first year: “Saying nothing”. A little later he is more blunt, more self-reproaching: “Evasion. I seek escape by concentrating on nature.” Evasion: exactly. This catalogue-oriented immersion in nature in fact amounts to the narrator’s relapse into evasive habits, as it comes a few months after he had already noted the bad faith of his urge to become so immersed, to observe, and to name:
With neat observations I make myself seem rational and urbane.
Far from true.
I’m vulnerable, sinking several times each day into sharp anxiety. Threatened by the tiny everyday.
Can’t begin to write what it actually feels like — even writing that I can’t do so is soberly expressed, declining the desperation that washes through me.
Yet it is “[c]ompulsive”, he admits, “this need to name things, so to give them meaning. I name birds and tools… while unable to find the words directly to nail a helpful thought about the personal feelings which most matter to me”. His only way out, he decides, is to revert to a state of being he noted during his first summer, a state of ignorance combined with alertness, from which he can explore a world without names. He does not need to learn to name; he needs to learn to see through names to perceive what they enshroud:
Decided that if I’m to continue regularly taking these notes, I should do so in my actual state of no-knowledge, and seek to describe with the eye-of-ignorance what a small tortoiseshell, and a goldfinch, and a leaf of cow parsley, and an adonis blue, the horseshoe vetch, etc.) looks like, what it is that I see, feel, smell.
He refers to this practice as learning “[t]o see without looking”. “I’ve always watched, always been on my guard”, he confesses, and “[m]ostly failed to see what I needed to”. He wants, now, not to immerse himself in the natural world as if it were external to him, but to become its avatar, to enact its behaviour in his own conduct: “My aim. … Acceptance. … Nature accepts the way things happen.” If he can be as nature is, he thinks, he may yet recover. He doesn’t need to take charge of nature; he needs to take his lead from it.
But the beauty of Ash Before Oak lies in the way that the success or failure of the narrator’s efforts can’t really be gauged from his words. It’s the white space between his diary entries, and the white space around them, that contains the fluctuations in his condition, even as it renders them invisible. He himself isn’t blind to this: “The days and weeks when I write nothing, this is when the hard stuff happens”, he says after two years in the house. “The little I do write is worthless.” Then, on the next page:
Too distraught to speak.
As the narrator’s minimalism tends towards summation or pure abstraction, the intense compressive power of the white space packs the words on the page with shadow versions of the words the narrator can’t bring himself to pin down. This compression is a feature of the novel from the start. Consider, for example, the narrator’s first entry for 2001, made on New Year’s Day. In its entirety, it reads:
Because he doesn’t elaborate, he doesn’t allow the reader to feel his hope, or his fear, or the combination of the two. He doesn’t explain or evoke these emotional states; he only notes them. Their causes, their qualities, their vicissitudes are all submerged in the reservoir of blankness that surrounds those words. To fully register the import of the words therefore requires the reader to do a lot of work, beginning with an acceptance of the notion that the white space is part of the writing — is, in fact, the expression of what is not expressed in ink. Likewise, the manifold experiences and phenomena that occur between the narrator’s entries are dissolved in the gutters of the pages. Following the entry for January 1, the next page offers an entry dated March 30. Where did those three months disappear to? “It is March, almost April, and I return to these notes”, the narrator writes. Why did he stop making them? What has happened to him in the meantime? What of the fluctuations of his emotions, his stability of mind, his sense of self? The next entry is dated April 16, six weeks later. It is followed by three entries made throughout May, four entries made throughout June, and nine entries made throughout July, two of which overrun the white space that extends beneath the others, in order to spill over onto a second page. The shortening of the gaps between entries, and the consumption by words of the spaces around each entry, speak of the narrator’s recovery as meaningfully as any phrase he harnesses to his pen.
More than that, the narrator marks his self-expression with emptiness at different scales. He carves smaller spaces into his journal entries, particularly when he mentions his interactions with other people — a landlord, a builder, a local woman — but withholds details and admits, almost offhand, that his solitude is not absolute: “People live near here as well as birds. I just don’t speak to them much.” And he drops significant events into surprising gaps: when he writes, in June, that his father’s funeral was “[f]ive months ago”, this is the first time he indicates that his father is recently deceased, even though he was making other entries in his journal at the time of his father’s death. He also circumscribes the entire book with a more expansive void, perceptible in those zones where a schism opens between his chosen form and his revelations. The first entry in his journal is dated Christmas Eve, 2000. But on October 26, 2001, he says he stands on “the eve of my move into the renovated half of the cottage, a year and two months since work began.” So the keeping of the journal does not match up neatly with his time in the house, though he gives no indication of his reasons for delaying the journal after moving into the house, nor his reasons for beginning the journal after spending two months in the house without it. Then, on August 22, 2001, he reveals that he first discovered the house “[t]wo years ago”, while visiting the area, and later, on November 8, he says he has been living “down here in Somerset” for the “last couple of years”, meaning that he began renovating the house eight or nine months after he’d already left London for the Quantock Hills. Those are months he doesn’t dwell on, doesn’t describe, except to say that he hoped to live close by the farmer whose house he rented during his first visit, as if, “in proximity, [her] country-wise contentment would somehow feed down to me.”
It doesn’t. The narrator suffers at least another two breakdowns in the course of Ash Before Oak. He also attempts suicide more than once, ending up institutionalised for a time, and he wilfully trashes his one meaningful relationship with another person in Somerset. Where does all of this finally leave him? It would be possible to say that the narrator ends up on the road to genuine recovery, because the novel concludes with him in a better condition than the torpor he suffers at the beginning. But this is mostly a function of the form, as the journal entries cease at a more or less arbitrary point; indeed, the second-last entry reads, tantalisingly, “There’s always more to say.” It’s equally possible, then, to imagine the narrator in a worse condition a month or two after his final entry, to not take the novel’s endpoint as an indication of his trajectory so much as of his impulse to quit. This is especially true because, throughout the novel, his progress towards recovery is so erratic that it makes a mockery of any assumptions about his wellbeing beyond any given day.
This is part one of a two-part essay on white space in two recent novels.
The second part discusses Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9— Fog.