readings from the novels
the book of safe-keeping
This essay looks at my personal relationship with miniaturisation, then miniaturisation in the metaphysical poets, Andrew Marvell in particular, the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, W. G. Sebald, Virginia Woolf, Tom McCarthy and Helen Dunmore, amongst others.
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Things Greater in Less Contain’d: The Miniature in Literature
Creator or Creation: Miniatures and Me
I recently decided that the moments I felt best when writing my novels were those in which I was writing about very small things. The passage that comprises the first chapter in The Land of Decoration, the passage where a crane fly lands on Elizabeth Stone’s desk in The Professor of Poetry and the sequence of the girl’s diary entries in The Offering called ‘Blades of Grass’, all came quite easily, ‘worked’ immediately and felt reassuringly resonant, as if a large number of other things were simultaneously in play (a strange thing to feel when writing about the smallest and ostensibly simplest objects). Perhaps this was not to do with the fact these passages dealt with small objects or creatures and more to do with the fact that they weren’t ‘thought-up’ or contrived; they appeared more or less fully formed and it felt right to leave them that way. They served no obvious purpose, either, not really advancing the plot, and, at least to begin with, did not seem to be directly linked to a character either. To cut a long story short, I wasn’t sure what they meant. I didn’t even know what the surrounding story may be when writing the opening section of TLOD. I didn’t know who was speaking. I just remember feeling very at ease and somehow on the ‘right track’ when writing about a model world, a crane fly and blades of grass, respectively.
This isn’t perhaps surprising, given my lifelong fascination and alliance detail, miniaturisation and smallness. I trust the small, perhaps mistakenly. This has led me into trouble: I was continually told by my A level English teacher that I lost the argument of my essays in a wealth of detail. I failed to achieve my predicted grade during the exam because I ran out of time writing too much. During my time at Oxford there were certain essay crises that crossed over from the usual panic that sets in after an all-nighter into darker territory. During Finals, trying to revise the amount of detail I tasked myself with, I very nearly lost my grip altogether. Yet my delight in detail, my failure to not see the bigger picture, my apparent inability to gauge just how much is involved in a project, persists. It must be a character flaw. As Judith, the ten year-old protagonist of TLOD discovers, miniaturization, while potentially empowering, can also be a difficult medium from which to extricate oneself. It can be dangerous and imprisoning.
This uneasy alloy of fascination, delicious engulfment in an entirely different element and a trace of unease permeates several of my childhood encounters with miniaturisation in literature: the adventures of Thumbelina, Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, Rumer Godden’s Tilly’s House, The Doll’s House, later Mary Norton’s The Borrowers and first and foremost Dr. Suess’ masterpiece Horton Hears a Who! (there was also a story about a musical doll or dolls in a toyshop that come alive at night, but it is such a distant memory I can’t even be sure of these details and if I did own the book it was lost long, long ago). Whatever the reason for the anxieties embedded in these tests, which the scope of this essay doesn’t allow me to explore, the anxiety transferred itself to me; there was a palpable undercurrent in each of loneliness, danger, paucity and loss, a haunting aftertaste that remained after the books had been closed, and I’ve since come to believe that such a vague sense of loss, homesickness or undefined longing is present in most miniaturisation in literature.
The first miniature object I remember loving was a moulded, plastic baby in a yellow painted romper suit, immovable limbs and solid flesh-coloured hair, probably not much longer than my little finger nail. He - I was sure it was a ‘he’ - was made by Mattel and belonged to a range of roughly 1:16 scale dolls called, aptly enough, The Littles. The nuclear Little family resembled my own: there was a ginger-haired father doll, a dark-haired mother and the yellow baby with ‘fair’ hair. Perhaps a subconscious identification with this tiny entity made his loss that much more poignant – because of course, I did lose him, before many years had passed, although in general I was very careful with my toys and despite a great number of them being tiny managed to keep nearly all safe. I think I loved the yellow baby because he was the smallest doll I owned (had ever seen, excepting the tiny figures in my father’s model railway set); although he was delightful, a larger version would not have enchanted me. Because of his size he was precious; and then, because of his size, he was lost.
As a child I spent nearly every moment I wasn’t in school, preaching house to house or attending religious meetings in my bedroom making miniature worlds and telling stories about them. It was so addictive. There were always at least four ‘worlds’ on the go, worlds which took weeks if not months to arrange, weeks to think up the stories, then years to narrate. I don’t think I ever reached the end point of a story; which was just as well, I suppose, because it certainly kept me busy. Perhaps a subconscious desire to avoid having to emerge from my room was at play. In any case, I actively looked forward to closing the door behind me when I came home and kneeling down to continue my sagas. The joy was heady and self-renewing - and I was dependent upon no one else for it. Deeper than even the excitement the miniature worlds afforded however, was the comfort I felt: it was the ultimate refuge; not experienced as a captivity, however unhealthy it may have been for me to be alone quite so much. ‘[B]y living in the world of miniature, one relaxes in a small space’, Gaston Bachelard writes, in The Poetics of Space. That was true for me, though I may not have been relaxed physically; often my leg would go to sleep or my knees would remind me they had been pressed into floorboards for hours. But I was mentally relaxed. I was not threatened in the room, as I was outside it. I had total control over each detail and complete creative freedom. I was my own master. Time passed differently inside the room. A vertical dimension opened up, perhaps because in their very tininess, my creations consumed vaster quantities of time than life- or even outsize ones did. Time not only shrank within the room, hours feeling like minutes, but often simply ceased to be. And I needed that; I needed to use time up as a child, I see that now. To experience it actually would have been unfeasible.
As a miniaturist, I saw the world anew; arguably, I saw it not at all. For instance, I didn’t see a room, a radiator, a bed, a wardrobe, a door; I saw mountains, fields, houses, farmland, a river, an island, a sea, a wood. As I suggested in TLOD, this is a very religious point of view. This world shouldn’t matter too much; the adherent’s eyes must be firmly set upon another. The Bible is nothing if not a tableau signifying that which is intangible, a stained glass window prefiguring a greater reality; one not really here yet. As above, so below. Through a small opening (my bedroom, my hours alone) a vast wonder emerged. Miniature makes the impossible possible. ‘[B]y faith all arms are of a length;/ One size doth all conditions fit,’ George Herbert, the fifteenth century poet and Church of England priest, wrote in ‘Faith’. Many of Herbert’s poems are miniature replicas of the various structures found in a Church, implicitly dramatizing the central Christian doctrine of the Eucharist: the transformation of one thing to another. Love becomes the transformative element in the Christian’s cosmic equation, the means by which base matter is turned to ‘gold’.
Rereading Herbert’s poetry while writing this essay I found a number of similarities to TLOD. Herbert and Judith, my protagonist, share several preoccupations: faith, right action, sin, doubt; one thing approximating another; words; dust; and most surprisingly of all, a keen attention to size and scale: 'If bliss had lien in art or strength,' Herbert writes, ‘[n]one but the wise or strong had gained it:/ Where now by Faith all arms are of a length;/ One size doth all conditions fit...' 'I tell myself that small things are big and big things are small,' Judith says, 'that veins run like rivers and hair grow like grass and a hummock of moss to a beetle looks like a forest, and the shapes of the countries and clouds of the earth look like the colors in marbles from space.’ 'Faith makes me any thing,' Herbert writes, 'or all/ That I believe is in the sacred story:/ And where sin placeth me in Adam's fall,/ Faith sets me higher in his glory.' '…I know that I am enormous and I am small,' says Judith, 'I go o
forever and I am gone in a moment, I am as young as a baby mouse and as old as the Himalayas, I am still and I am spinning, and if I am dust then I am also the dust of stars.' I was excited to see that the two concepts, faith and scale, often occur simultaneously: Judith lives within a matrix built of faith, which, in its close alliance with her imagination, makes it possible for her to perceive mountains as molehills, mustard grains as great trees, snowflakes as an avalanche and the model country in her bedroom, the whole world entire. Faith is a leveler, of mountains and of people; or, rather, only those who have already been 'leveled' can attain it, since there seems to be a certain emptying of the self that is necessary before it can put faith in another. Both Judith and I were in some senses, already ‘emptied’ and needed somewhere to build our selves up.
Inside my bedroom the world opened rather than closed. It came closer rather than retreated, as makers of gigantic artifacts find. It swallowed me up. In the miniature world, though it may not at first seem so, there is always space for you; there are infinite places and infinite space. But such a perfect solution to my childhood challenges was itself fraught with risk: I was devastated if I had to dismantle a set or if it got knocked, which it could so easily be by myself and my mother (my father rarely came into my room) - even though I had persuaded her not to dust. A door or window banging somewhere in the house could set off an avalanche or ruin a spread table. If – god forbid – I myself overbalanced, dropped an object, or jolted one of the boards on which I arranged them as I slid it, so carefully, across the floor. The crash, clatter or tinkle that followed spelled ultimate disaster. Months of work could be lost in an instant. I dreaded other children coming to ‘play’.
One of the problems with miniatures is that they can be infinitely added to. As a child there was never a point when I felt I had made enough. Because each thing was ‘tiny’, my reasoning was: ‘I will just do this’, ‘make that’, ‘and these’, ‘and this’; ‘position that here.’ There was also a lot of upkeep; being a miniaturist (and, I guess, a story-teller; for me small things were only interesting if embedded in a narrative) I was always ‘on’. When we went on holiday I would take a token collection of two or three worlds with me, usually taking up a large bag or small suitcase, and spent the first week or so arranging the worlds in the hotel room so that their stories could be continued. On one holiday, aged about ten, I managed to surreptitiously turn a discussion with my mother back to a particularly thorny plot point that we had already brainstormed several times without a satisfactory result. My usually patient mother said something like: ‘Can’t you give it a rest for a while?’ I thought about it; it appeared I could not, for though I didn’t raise the problem again I could not stop thinking about it. A voice in my head kept turning it over. For the rest of the holiday it was a palpable weight that dulled even the blinding sun. Incomplete and now infinitely complex, my tiny world had become un-put-down-able.
As time went by my miniature creations and their attendant stories loomed larger and larger. I grew inches but however much I grew they dwarfed me. I began to keep lists of what I had done and still had to do, write down goals and deadlines. When we moved house (and country) the dread I felt lest the smallest thing be lost, the gnawing anxiety while the boxes were in storage was enervating. I had become imprisoned by my own collection. In Utz (1988), the late travel-writer Bruce Chatwin’s last, shortest and possibly finest novel, the eponymous protagonist is a collector of Meissen porcelain, possessing an army of figures standing about seven inches high. Living in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, he is unable to defect because he cannot take the collection with him. When I read this book later in life I understood his position; I would have rather died than part with my own miniature ‘collection’.
The Land of Decoration ends with the child protagonist confronting the internal voice of ‘God’. She finally realizes it is her or God. Both cannot exist. She began the novel believing that her problems were outside but what initially seemed to be a solution to them – the model world in her room, a voice telling her what to do – proves to be the real problem. The choice Judith faces is between god-like control and no control at all. It is the perennial problem of the ardent miniaturist.
‘A rude heap together hurled’ Andrew Marvell and Appleton House
Miniaturization in literature has recently been in vogue. There was Jessie Burton’s best-selling The Miniaturist in 2014, my own TLOD (just a tad less successful), Lauren Child’s creation of miniature sets for her retelling of children’s fairy tales, the increasing prominence of micro-fiction as a new literary genre, and just two months ago, Simon Garfield’s In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate The World. Claude Lévi-Strauss said that all works of art could be viewed as miniatures because the miniature, no matter how ‘true’ to life, was an abbreviation, just as art is a also a shortcut, a failure to represent the whole. Yet in the gap, in one thing standing-in place of another, there is potential wonder, perhaps additional meaning that is missing when we look at the 'real’ thing. Perhaps this is because in art, life is compressed or concentrated, intensifying the viewer, reader or listener’s experience. Any version of anything opens up a dialogue between itself and the original and in this the miniature is no different; the micro (and macro) inhabitants in Gulliver’s Travels reveal the moral deficiencies of their life-size counterparts by behaving just like humans, but, paradoxically, because they are different we recognise ourselves in them and are able to see ourselves more clearly. The process is reversed in Goethe’s play Faust (a first version of which was published in 1790), where the homunculus, essentially spirit, wishes to be born into a corporeal body, contrasting with Faust's desire to become pure spirit.
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, a pre-eminent feminist of the seventeenth century, though one that perhaps did not entirely advance her cause, utilizes tropes of miniaturization as she takes the western canon and men en masse to task. In her unique if slightly unhinged Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666), an appendix to one of her longer ‘Philosophical’ and ‘Scientific’ works, she appears as the character of scribe to a fictional Empress who, not content to reside within her own fantastical kingdom, creates other worlds to travel to. She herself creates, Cavendish writes, because she does not have the ‘power, time nor occasion to conquer the world as Alexander and Caesar did’, ‘cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second’ but in fiction can be ‘Margaret the First’ (and the last, one might add). In her scientific writings Cavendish explores the macro level of astrology and the micro level (they usually go together) where she seems to be striving to articulate a concept of subatomic physics. In several of her poems she describes worlds in atoms, earrings and clasps. The greatest crime in these poems is that the wearer does not realize just what is living on her earring. For all the Duchess’s eccentricity, awareness of other people and an openness to alternative ‘universes’, no matter how small (I’m reminded of Horton from Horton Hears a Who!: ‘A person’s a person, no matter how small!’) is a valuable lesson in today’s socio-political climate. In a more recent Blazing World (2014) female artist Harriet Burden decides to present her work as if it was made by three male artists in order to accrue the recognition it deserves. Siri Hustvedt appears briefly as a character in her own novel, as Cavendish did in the original The Blazing World and perhaps not surprisingly, Burden’s art often focuses upon the miniature: it begins with small, detailed doll-houses full of hidden meanings and by the end of the book an enormous sculpture of a woman's body filled with miniature sculptures, itself titled The Blazing World. Here miniaturization implicitly dramatizes the creator’s (both Burden and Hustvedt’s) concern with captivity, autonomy, disempowerment and authenticity.
The first group of writers that really took the motif of miniaturization to their heart was the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. Given their love of paradox, dichotomy and cerebral conceit, the fact that telescope had been invented at the beginning of the seventeenth century and compound microscopes appeared in Europe around 1620, and scientific understanding of the finitude of the universe had recently undergone modification, the plethora of scale changes in their poetry is understandable. I mentioned that faith dovetailed with miniaturization in Herbert’s devotional poetry; the cleric John Donne uses the trope for more secular purposes though he often drapes that purpose in ecclesiastical robes. In ‘The Canonization’ two lovers are ‘canonized’ through Love’s ability to ‘the whole world’s soul contract, and [drive]/ Into the glasses of [their] eyes’. The narrator of Donne’s ‘The Flea’ seeks to persuade his mistress to have sex with him for, he argues, since a flea has bitten them both, they are inside it already fitly conjoined:
‘This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.’
In ‘The Good Morrow’ the speaker once again considers the unifying and scale-shifting properties of love:
‘…love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?’
A little later that century Andrew Marvell, a politician and satirist, frequently deploys images of miniaturisation. His country house poem ‘Upon Appleton House’ is overtly unified by a single conceit: ‘things greater…in less contain’d’. It ostensibly praises Marvell’s patron, Lord Fairfax, a well-known English Civil War commander, but an undercurrent of unease runs throughout, suggesting Marvell’s true intention is upon something else; in a poem where ‘Lowness is unsafe as Height’ there is no certain ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The speaker begins by castigating the foreign, presumptuous architects (likened to the builders of Babel):
‘Who of his great design in pain
Did for a model vault his brain;
Whose columns should so high be rais’d
To arch the brows that on them gaz’d.’
Despite the ambitious architect’s intention though, the way he stretched (‘vault’) his brain, the ‘pain’ he went through, the ‘great design’ is contained, at least poetically, within the much smaller ‘brain’ and face and this is the image we are left with. Appleton House is of modest design, ostensibly a good thing, but the subtext once again belies the speaker’s words, the images suggesting another agenda:
‘But all things are composed here
Like Nature, orderly and near:
In which we the dimensions find
Of that more sober age and mind,
When larger sized men did stoop
To enter at a narrow loop;
As practising, in doors so straight,
To strain themselves through Heaven’s gate.’
The house may be ‘sober’ and ‘composed’ but the images conjured by the stooping, ‘larger-sized’ men are ungainly and rather than attest to their holiness, bring to mind the gospel metaphor that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (‘a narrow loop’) than for a rich man to be permitted into heaven – surely not the poet’s intent; or is it? Can we doubt that such a dazzling mind as Marvell makes such mistakes? Narrow is the gate and road and few find it, but even if this architect has, he must ‘strain’ himself to enter; the image is not a flattering one.
In the stanzas that follow, Appleton House, though anticipated to be a place of pilgrimage in the future when worshipers will come to see the place Fairfax and his wife lived, is also a ‘dwarfish confine’, a ‘cell’, is ‘laden’, sweats, ‘scarce endures [its] master great…’ and is ‘[m]ore by his magnitude distress’d/ Then he is by its straightness press’d’. The ostensible reason being that:
‘…honour better lowness bears,
Than that unwonted greatness wears;
Height with a certain grace does bend,
But low things clownishly ascend.’
Yet the ill fit of house to master has now been impressed upon the reader to such an extent we begin to wonder whether Marvell feels Fairfax should be at Appleton House at all. The poem could be interpreted as Marvell’s covert desire for Fairfax to return to his military career as a Parliamentary commander-in-chief during the English Civil War, a position from which he had recently resigned, unable to conscientiously support Cromwell any longer. But the truth is more complicated than that. During his life, Marvell, a prominent politician, appears to have moved from Royalist sympathies to being part of Cromwell’s Republic. In such a combustible political climate one’s true convictions, if not in accord with where power lay, had to remain private, so it is not surprising that we cannot be sure where Marvell’s verse it is conflicted and many-layered though mostly not circulated, even in manuscript form, during his lifetime. Upon the surface, Marvell appears to praise Fairfax’s pious retreat; he writes that Appleton House, a Cistercian religious house till the Fairfax family acquired it, ‘’Twas no Religious-House till now’. Yet the metaphors and images of the poem suggest that, for whatever reason, he wishes Fairfax to re-enter the world and contribute in some way to the troubled Commonwealth - just as he remains ambivalent about his own retirement to tutor Fairfax’s daughter, Mary.
It seems that the reversals of scale mirror the constant reversals of perspective in this poem, for with each step the speaker does an about-face. Fairfax’s gardens are depicted as miniature versions of a battlefield, the dense military imagery in honour of Fairfax’s martial prowess: the garden is laid out in the ‘Figure of a Fort’, a bee beats the ‘Dian with its Drums’, flowers display ‘silken ensigns’, are ‘at Parade/ Under their Colours’, let fly ‘fragrant Volleys’, grow ‘Each Regiment in order’. All is admirable grandeur, albeit on a small scale. But come night
‘…Leaves, that to the stalks are curled,
seem to their Staves the Ensigns furld,’
- standard bearers that should carry the army’s flag are slacking; and
‘…in some Flow’rs beloved Hut
Each Bee as Sentinel is shut;
And sleeps so too: but, if once stirred,
She runs you through, nor asks the Word.’
The guards are asleep and if woken, rather than asking the watchword, murder whoever goes there. The dysfunction aside, all this warlike imagery only serves to remind the speaker of the original Eden, ‘The Garden of the World’ ‘When Roses only Arms might bear’ when ‘The Nursery of all things green/ Was…the only Magazine’. How can we regain this war-less world? he wonders. Then yet again, in the very next stanza, turns about, lamenting the fact that Fairfax, who had the ability to make ‘our Gardens spring/ Fresh as his own and flourishing’ ‘preferred to the Cinque Ports/ These five imaginary Forts’.
As the miniaturisation continues, the meanings only densify. The speaker next turns his attention to the river meadows, ‘[w]here Men like Grasshoppers appear,/ But Grasshoppers are Giants there’. The reference is to Numbers 13:33, where the Israelites encounter ‘the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight’. There are more biblical references a stanza on, when
‘…Mowers enter next; Who seem like to be, Walking on foot through a green Sea. To them the Grassy Deeps divide, And crowd a Lane to either Side.’
Perhaps the poet wants to suggest that God is behind the ‘warfare’ of the garden, as He supported His people in the Old Testament, but if He is, such warfare is not without innocent casualties: a bird is ‘unknowing’ slain by a mower and once mown the meadows resemble a canvas stretched for the Dutch painter Peter Lely - or rather, Marvell says, the bull ring in Madrid before the bulls have been released; an arena of slaughter rather than a tabula rasa, then. The double-edged meanings continue, conjuring a world of confusion, inversion, disorder and anarchy. A few lines further cattle appear ‘As spots, so shaped, on Faces do./ Such Fleas, ere they approach the Eye/ In Multiplying Glasses lie.’ The multiplying glass is the microscope, but such enlargement yields no clarity only further confusion as images begin to cannibalize each other: the ‘River in itself is drowned’ and in the stanzas that follow, floods the land. It seems that nothing can be only what it is, but must be two or three things in addition.
The speaker retires to the wood, where he praises his own peace and exemption from worldly cares in this rural retreat. He is blending in a little too well, though (as he does in another poem ‘The Garden’): ‘turn me but, and you shall see,’ he writes, ‘I was but an inverted Tree’. He then proceeds to invoke creeping plants and briars to bind, nail and stake him to themselves; a measure which would seem to be unnecessary considering his professed fusion with his surroundings. Confusion about the dimensions of things now extends to another means by which we spatially locate ourselves: in the river ‘all things gaze themselves, and doubt/ If they be in it or without.’ As he observes his pupil Mary, Fairfax’s young daughter, walking in the garden he enjoins nature to follow her virgin example and ‘Employ the means you have by Her, And in your kind yourselves prefer; That, as all Virgins She precedes,/ So you all Woods, Streams, Gardens, Meads’; is he now advocating sterility or non-sexual propagation, we may be forgiven for wondering; after he waxed so lyrical about the profusion of the glorious grounds? Marvell has lauded the virtues of auto-eroticism on other occasions and here seems to be suggesting that the vegetable world’s ability to reproduce itself without recourse to heterosexual exchange should be mimicked. It would be a contrast, it is true, to the concatenation of images that clot and spawn one from the other; from the proliferation of hybridity and perversion we have so far witnessed.
‘’Tis not, what once it was, the World’, the speaker opens the penultimate stanza. ‘But a rude heap together hurled…Your lesser World contains the same./ But in more decent Order tame’. The Fairfax’s ‘world’ is a smaller version of the global one, but if the poem is anything to go by, there is precious little ‘decent Order’ or ‘tameness’ here, however much the speaker would like to wrap things up now. In the final stanza the topsy-turvy once more rears its head – or should I say, its shoe – because we are left with the craziest and random image of all: fishermen carrying their boats on their heads, ‘like Antipodes in Shoes’ who have ‘shod their Heads in their Canoes’. Antipodes are people who live on the other side of the globe, who, supposed to live upside down, were assumed to walk on their heads. Suddenly it all seems to much for the speaker, who abruptly enjoins: ‘Let’s in: for the dark Hemisphere/ Does now like one of them appear.’ Darkness has apparently fallen as suddenly as an apocalypse and the normal transition of day to night becomes tinged with a much more threatening – though still bathetic – element; for, in a return to miniaturization, the hemisphere is likened to a man with a boat – or shoe - on his head; is blinded, obscured and retires as swiftly as the speaker, and we are left with - nothing.
It would not be difficult to see a reflection of the civil war raging in England at the time in the glut of self-dividing yet simultaneously self-spawning images in Marvell’s poem. An underlying anxiety about where to locate oneself, both politically and physically, is evident, as well as an ambivalence in identifying right and ‘fitting’ action, which the incessantly deployed trope of miniaturisation serves to dramatize. One line stays with me: ‘And in your kind yourselves prefer’. A miniature is a thing much smaller than normal, or something very small of its kind. But if normality, the very nature of things themselves, is in question, paralysis and confusion rather than effective action is the inevitable result.
‘[S]uppose we each had an island…’ The Brontes’ Tiny Chronicles
Not till the nineteenth century does the trope of miniaturization enter literature with the consistency it did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The nineteenth century saw dolls’ houses and miniatures in general transition from status symbols for adults to playthings for children. At the turn of the century the first model railways were manufactured. During this period Britain cemented itself as a colonial power, first enlarging and then shrinking the known world, bringing back exotic souvenirs, words and customs. For whatever reason, there appears to have been almost an obsession with miniaturization among the Victorians, a strong belief in its seemingly innate worthiness. Popular past-times were painting miniature portraits and landscapes, embroidering miniature samplers and creating other miniscule artifacts and objects. The precocious Bronte children – Charlotte (b.1816), Branwell (b.1817), Emily (b.1818) and Anne (b.1820) - created miniature books, filled with stories, maps and diagrams; objects such as lace, a quilled tea caddy and darner; and portraits and landscapes, comprised of a sea of microscopic strokes. Their most famous miniature works are the tiny chronicles of Gondal (created by Emily and Anne) and Angria (by Charlotte and Branwell), written in a minute script comprised of letters that resemble blades of grass, some sort of Morse code or marks on a prison wall. The chronicles had their beginning in scaled-down newspapers or magazines (such as ‘Tales of the Islanders’, from which the quotation heading this section is taken) that the children created for a set of toy soldiers gifted to Branwell. Due to a shortage of paper and the desire that their writings be illegible to grownups, the stories were expanded into sagas written in bound volumes smaller than a thumb, made from scraps of sugar bags, wrapping and wallpaper. Such an act was not only one of imagination then, but resourcefulness and subversion too. The tiny books were called things like ‘A Peep into a Picture Book’, ‘The Spell’, ‘A Leaf from an Unopened Volume’, titles simultaneously encouraging and dissuading further exploration. The appeal of miniaturisation in this context then, seems to have been partly the privacy it afforded to have free creative reign; we know that Emily was furious when Charlotte once discovered some of her Gondal poems.
There is nothing all that unusual in this, given that children are often apt to create miniature artifacts, to be secretive about their play, and miniaturization was in vogue at the time; nothing, except for the quality of some of the writings, the extent of them, and the fact that these tiny volumes would prove to be the compost from which at least three of the greatest works of nineteenth-century literature would sprout. They also spawned a parallel fantasy world that sustained, at least the Bronte sisters, for most of their lives. The Brontes needed sustaining: the children’s mother and several of their siblings died young. They were sent away to schools where some of them died and those who did not were scarred for life by their barbaric and brutal treatment. Their father was wrapped up in his duties as a clergyman. Even after childhood the sheer misery of being a governess – the fate that befell Anne, Emily and Charlotte – coupled with disappointments (at least on Charlotte’s part) in love and all-too-brief periods of good health, meant that death, grief and uncertainty were all around them. Their very lives, by today’s standards, could be said to have been ‘miniature’: Anne was twenty-nine when she died, Emily thirty, Branwell thirty-one, Charlotte thirty-nine. Their imaginary worlds sustained them through it all. Emily was still writing ‘diary papers’ in her twenties, describing current events in Gondal while teaching at Roe Head School. Charlotte recounts in her dairy the excitement and nourishment imaginary happenings in Angria could afford her: ‘Then came on me, rushing impetuously, all the mighty phantasm that we had conjured from nothing to a system strong as some religious creed.’ The word ‘mighty’ is worth noting because we know that Charlotte often felt small, almost invisible in real life; there is a story of Thackeray having her to tea, during which she was quiet as a mouse and answered in monosyllables. The miniature world provided a necessary outlet for the expression of prohibited and, considering the creator’s outward demeanour, shocking emotion. Angria was a world of violence, revenge, ambition, tyranny and all-consuming love. To accompany her own stories Emily sketched illustrations of floggings, corpses, tiny men brandishing whips, holding children aloft by the hair, a sword planted like a flag in the midst of some. The miniature kingdoms were enmeshed in civil war, ‘open ruptures’, ‘threatening states’, ‘war-shaken’, wheat threshed with ‘gore’. Characters were bereaved, imprisoned, exiled, captive and orphaned. The style is Gothic, often lurid, sometimes erotic, elements which all found their way, in varying degrees, into the sister’s adult fiction. Charlotte’s friend and fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote in one of her letters that the imaginary worlds of the Bronte’s embodied ‘the idea of creative power carried to the verge of insanity’.
A small world that more than made up for its size - and for the dreariness, drudgery and pain of the real one - in its drama and vibrancy, then. ‘Liberty was the breath of Emily's nostrils; without it she perished,’ Charlotte wrote of her sister, yet Emily found such liberty, apparently, only at home; the few times she went away from the Haworth parsonage she sickened dramatically and had to return there. Emily did most of the housework at the parsonage, cooking, ironing, cleaning, feeding hens; apparently relishing what, by today’s standards, would seem to be a very menial life indeed. In some of her correspondence we see her stopping some household task to comment on what is happening in Gondal, then just as easily segueing back into her chores (disemboweling enemies one minute, ‘pilling’ spuds the next), just as the miniature worlds appear spliced between actual countries in the Bronte’s Grammar of General Geography, the names appearing quite casually, the hand written entries the only factor setting them apart. In this section of the essay I will not be analyzing miniature references within the Bronte’s writing since, as far as I can tell, there are few instances except a smattering in Emily’s poetry and a devoir she wrote while studying in Belgium. Instead I will be thinking, in view of the Bronte’s later works and what we know of them, what may have prompted their lifelong creation of miniature artifacts, and what may comprise the psychology of miniaturization in general.
For the Victorians, at least, it seems that the allure of the miniature creation owes much to the appreciation of a very specific type of beauty, one associated with detail and delicacy, and to the belief (conscious or not) that through endeavor, sheer excellence, the maker could save her soul (I use the feminine pronoun because it was mostly women who engaged in such activities at this time), could wrap it up; condense it divinely, hold something back from ruin forever, by ensuring it was contained in infinitely small yet infinitely dense packages, that retreated in ever-greater concentration the more closely they are explored, rather like a neutron star. Did the diminutive size itself hold assurance that no harm would come to the object? Was the danger being noticed, the allure that of going unseen by an all-seeing eye (salvation to be seen by the right sort of see-er)? Are miniaturizations, in being less overtly noticeable, less vulnerable to destruction? Or/and is it that for many, miniatures are so captivating one cannot help but come close to them, be charmed by them, come under their sway and hence want to protect them? If so, the creator of the wonderful miniature plays into the Victorian idolization of the child-like, of all that is young and pure and innocent, for children, like small and precious things, are usually protected. Or, is the appeal of the miniature, that of those typically Victorian virtues: modesty (an ‘essential’ female quality) and frugality; the danger in making larger entities one of perceived excess? If so, the possible danger could be averted by travelling in the opposite direction: by making something ostensibly ‘humble’, small, of no great importance – all while subliminally suggesting that the greater the importance, the smaller the package, the tinier the object, the more prodigious the intelligence that made it; and of course, the smaller the world, the larger, by contrast, the creator.
They could save their souls, wrap them up, save them through thoroughness, through not missing a thing, not a dot or a dash or a word or a glance; nothing is lost but all gathered in and accounted for. It is worth remembering that the Bronte’s lives were marked by one loss after another, losses they were continually reminded of by the graveyard at the foot of the parsonage garden. Their lives existed in a brief interstice, end-stopped at either side by Bible-black. Their hours were marked by the chimes of the great clock in the hall and the tolling bells in the churchyard. At least to those who watched successive loved ones die and were left behind, life must have increasingly seemed a slight and fragile thing, a morsel not a meal. The romantic notion of the fragment (to which the miniature and the sample are related) imbues the scrap with an air of otherworldly mystery. Charlotte once forged a ‘fragment’, tearing the edge of a page of one of her tiny volumes to make it look as though it had been part of a larger sheet, or casually created - or, even better – found. The fragment had been cast off but was intensely valuable (largely owing to the fact that it had skirted so close to oblivion?). It did not appear to have been carefully crafted at all; as, upon closer inspection, it would be found most certainly to have been; much more so, at least, than its overtly constructed and ostensibly whole counterpart. Fragments tend to be tiny, and if they have artistic merit because they are fragments (and not because they are part of some larger work of art), tend to be made. For Charlotte to pretend her tiny volume had been written on a scrap of something larger, however, suggests that she felt the work itself needed a ‘frame’ to justify or augment its existence; that it itself, at least to it's maker, it did not feel quite enough. It also points to a central part of miniaturization's appeal: it is not about the object itself and how well it is created, but its size; it’s relation to others of its kind (which Charlotte in this instance underlines). Perhaps the impulse to create miniature objects is a perverse shunning of that which is overtly worthy of attention and admiration and is a love of the unworthy; is apparent humility; a desire for approval and attention that is so powerful it has to play safe and initially negate itself before anyone else can. Should the astronomical effort involved in making a tiny version of the life-size indeed be ignored, the miniaturist can pretend that it doesn’t matter; that there was nothing to see in any case.
In making miniatures there is an immense amount of painstaking, often awkward work; work that wrecks eyesight and health faster than many other pursuits. We know that Charlotte showed early signs of myopia and all the children suffered ill-health. I am, of course, not attributing this to their miniature creations, only pointing out the mentality that is willing to put itself through such intensive labor. The sheer amount of work involved in making miniatures can feel like working off a debt or some sort of sentence; it can feel worthy, ‘good’ in a moral sense, though most definitely, at least not for me personally, pleasurable. Perhaps such labor appeases the conscience. Ironically, although in the process of making miniature artifacts there are many details and internal workings that are necessarily omitted, the illusion is precisely the opposite: it seems that everything has been documented, faithfully reproduced and accounted for. There is a feeling of peace in such amassing, satisfaction (at least, when you think you have accomplished it), a cessation of anxiety. The miniaturist has studied her subject and consigned every mark and aspect deemed necessary in order to reproduce its essence, to paper, wood, metal or clay. In this way she exercises god-like control: in a miniature there are far fewer details than in the full-sized original but each detail stands for many more, is an impression only. This will stand for this. There is a ransoming going on. The artist, the creator translates the world for her audience, codes and decodes reality, is an intermediary, an intercessor, is Christ-like even.
In fact though, the position we adopt to study or make miniatures is the opposite of one stretched on a stake: we have to curl, we have to bend over, we simultaneously adopt a reverential and defensive position, one designed to protect our most precious organs and aligned in our subconscious mind with safety. The miniature artifact does not only implicitly encourage a defensive response, it also elicits a protective one. Looking at and creating miniature things engender a sort of comfort: a feeling that the viewer or creator is exercising caution and hence safe, while simultaneously extending this protective impulse towards the artifact. Miniatures are protected precisely because of their smallness. We daren't handle them more than we can help for fear of damaging them and so the fragile goes from being a liability to being something extremely powerful, something that commands, and mostly gets, special treatment. And in so far as the artist lives on in her creation, she is also protected; and, perhaps, created. I feel that the impulse to create miniatures at all, at least from observation of my own subtlest motivations, stems from a worldview shadowed by fear; from an obsessive, mainly introverted, highly compulsive, rigid, detail-oriented, trifle-saving, un-simplifiable psyche; rather, say, than an expansive, sweeping, flexible, spacious, happy-to-simplify-and-miss-something-out psyche. I believe the impulse to create miniature comes from a feeling of not enough, a fear of loss. Every blade, every stone must be accounted for and recorded. The protective response elicited by the miniature artifact is thus a completion of the emotional trajectory the artist travels along as she creates the miniature: the creator wants protection, the work demands it and the viewer or audience give it, all quite unconsciously.
We must come closer to the miniature in order to experience it better. This is suggested in the very roots of the word which lie in the late 16th century Italian 'miniatura' that came to us via the medieval Latin 'miniare', meaning to 'rubricate’ or ‘illuminate'; which in turn was derived from 'minium', meaning 'red lead’ or ‘vermilion', which was used to mark particular words in manuscripts with the intention of drawing awareness towards these details to highlight their value and significance. The massive work of art elicits feelings of 'awe', the origin of which is also instructive, deriving, as it does, from Old English 'ege', meaning 'terror’ or ‘dread'. Faced with magnitude, the natural human desire is to honor, revere and bow down before. The huge generates, on the whole, a cold feeling. We draw away to experience the large work of art better. The large work impresses, both in the sense of ‘intimidate’ and ‘overwhelm’. Both in making the artifact of great size and in appreciating it, there is a stretching up, standing back and opening outwards. A miniature work of art elicits quite a different response. The feeling of wonder may be similar but viewing a miniature invokes a desire to appreciate, preserve and protect. The miniature elicits a warm feeling, a desire to cherish. Perhaps the creators of both miniature and out-size work subconsciously desire to encounter these different responses, and according to their dispositions, are drawn to each form of art.
Looking at the very small, unlike the very large, requires concentration; our minds mirror what our bodies automatically do: they zero in on, get down to, become immersed in; ironically, the tiny takes us ‘in’. Our minds, source of such unending, enervating, and mostly pointless activity, stop for a few precious moments. We are forced to block out the superfluous, unpleasant and humdrum, as we do not do in quite the same way when contemplating the large. We are sucked, quite involuntarily, into the vortex of the miniature. We tumble down a rabbit hole. The movement may not be more powerful than the effect of a large work of art, but I believe it is more consuming and more involuntary.
Absorption is nearly always attractive and perhaps never more so than when our reality is constrictive; where pleasure, freedom and expression are greatly proscribed, as they often were in the time in which the Bronte’s lived. But there are no human-sized openings in this world, only chinks and interstices, which sometimes, when entered, expand exponentially. Sometimes the tighter the constraint, the greater the outpouring, the greater the paucity, the more plentiful the outpouring, the narrower the strait, the more successful the escape. Of course, we are now talking metaphorically and no longer about the physically diminutive artifacts the Brontes created but their adult literary achievements, all of which rose from a life that (certainly for Emily and for Anne) could not have been much narrower or very much shorter or all that more bleak. But that is how it happens, the crucible: through the very smallness comes immensity. The initial limitation is a provocation, then a talent, and even, sometimes, a gift.
‘A vast morsel’; The Cosmos According to Emily Dickinson
Our next miniaturist’s life overlapped the Brontes’ though she lived in the United States. Amherst, Massachusetts, to be exact. She, like her Bronte peers, lived for most of her life in isolation (self-imposed this time), experienced great loss and writes with a visionary, elemental power, a power I can only attribute to one other female poet; to the poet whose poem, ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’, she chose to have read at her funeral: Emily Bronte.
Like steam escaping from a whistling kettle, the more something is confined the greater the power with which it will escape if released. It is no coincidence that writers massively constrained in their personal lives, who willfully retreat from the world and sometimes from aspects of their own natures, often choose to focus upon the small things of the world, which beneath the poet’s laser-like gaze attain revelatory importance. Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest (1844-89), believed that knowledge of the particular could give knowledge of the universal. Speaking of a bluebell, he says: ‘I know the beauty of our Lord by it’. His own tendency to look inwards is revealed in his coinages: ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’. ‘Friday I tasted life,’ Emily Dickinson writes, ‘It was a vast morsel’. Dickinson is the writer who chose Bronte’s poem for her funeral and even more so than her namesake she was drawn to the morsels of this world. Her instinct was to examine the menial and everyday, sensing truth would be found there that spoke with unassuming, quiet authority; in its very modesty effortlessly undercutting the grand and imposing.
A ‘love for little things’, to borrow a phrase from John Clare, is not the same as a love of miniaturization; things small in relation to others are simply small; things small in relation to others of their kind are miniature. To miniaturize something traditionally thought of as large or abstract is to embed, reduce or perceive it in the tiny or concrete. In Dickinson’s poetry the great and momentous is continually seen through the wrong end of a magnifying glass: ‘Being but an Ear’, the entity upon which a dying person’s attention rests ‘a Fly[‘s] buzz’, death is a clock that stops, ‘[h]eaven’ turns out to be ‘a small Town - / Lit – with a Ruby’. The ‘Murmur of a Bee’ yields ‘A Witchcraft’ that is unspeakable. A ‘Mushroom’, the ‘Elf of Plants’, whose ‘whole Career/ Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay/ And fleeter than a Tare’, becomes Nature’s grand ‘Apostate’, its dual nature summed up by the word ‘scion’, meaning both ‘twig or little shoot’ and ‘descendant of a notable family’. Words such as ‘Trinket’, ‘Speck’, ‘Crumb’, ‘Atom’, ‘instant’, ‘morsel’, ‘Germ’, ‘Dregs’, ‘Spot’, ‘dot’, ‘Crumb’, ‘Drop’ pepper Dickinson’s verse, often capitalized and in direct dialogue with immensities which are themselves often shrunk to ‘trifles’.
The small and diminutive are transformed, stretch magically to contain universes, or else hide larger versions of themselves; the ‘Ourself, behind ourself concealed’. Most often the brain is the stage for such revelations: this is where the ‘Funeral’ occurs, minute mourners passing to and fro. It has ‘Corridors – surpassing/ Material place’, is ‘wider than the Sky…//The one the other …contain[s]/ With ease’, is ‘just the weight of God’. ‘Just’ is a key word in understanding Dickinson, who is preoccupied with exactitude and precise correspondence; with both ‘centre’ and ‘circumference’. In ‘Safe in their Alabaster Chambers’ ‘Grand…Years’, ‘Worlds’, ‘Firmaments’, ‘Diadems’ and ‘Doges’ drop and surrender ‘Soundless as dots – on a Disc of Snow - ’. In ‘I have never seen ‘Volcanoes’’ ‘features keep their place’ in the human face ‘upon a pain Titanic’, in ‘That Love is all there is’ the ‘freight’ of Love is ‘Proportioned to the groove’, the mismatching rhyme of ‘Love’ and ‘groove’ serving to highlight, by paradox, their perfect coupling. In the tiny, single stanza-long ‘It’s such a little thing to weep’ the diminutive nature of tears and sighs serves to reinforce their power: ‘by…the size of these/ We men and women die!’ ‘Dimension’, ‘proportion’ and ‘measure’ are true Dickinsonian words because to understand the size or take the measure of something is to know it in intimate and absolute terms. ‘To ascertain the size’ of the ‘Loneliness One dare not sound’ is to experience it. Where sight, sound or senses can no longer be used as tools to divine the nature of a thing, size and dimension can.
Dickinson’s verses are themselves like miniature artifacts, both in their brevity, their simple stanzaic form and because each phrase and image is encapsulated by dashes, forming little lozenges of meaning capable of joining to more than one other. I have the impression of eavesdropping as I read, garnering snatches, tidbits; the small, slowed meter brings each word and each syllable into close-up. But while each component is set apart and isolated, apparently unassuming, each is likewise possessed of astonishing power. Coupled with the rich, metaphorical nature of the language – innate to the miniaturist’s vision of the world – one thing ineluctably becomes, or is revealed to always have been, another. Whatever diminishment Dickinson suffered in her personal life – arguably to the point of invisibility if we remember that for most of her life she was a recluse (albeit by her own choice) – in her poetry she partakes of the grandeur of the Universe, which becomes her ‘husband’, the divine ‘You’ to which many of her verses are addressed.
Miniaturists see the world anew. Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space: ‘The man with the magnifying glass takes the world as though it were quite new to him’. He stresses the miniaturist’s ability to see as if for the ‘first time’ several times. The characteristic is certainly one aspect of Emily Dickinson’s distinctive voice and her power. Frequently Dickinson’s speaker is child-like, the word ‘child’ appears reasonably often or the speaker appears to have the stature of a child: God’s table is ‘spread too high for Us,’ Dickinson writes in ‘Victory comes late’, ‘Unless We dine on tiptoe - /Crumbs – fit such little mouths’. A child-like quality is something often remarked upon in many works of genius and miniaturisation, looked at in one way, is regression to a child’s perspective. Often in Dickinson’s poetry this results in the speaker being almost entirely erased - ‘A Speck upon a Ball’ – yet afforded the necessary subterfuge and leverage over larger entities precisely by virtue of her tininess. In ‘The Soul selects her own Society’ the soul appears to be minute, watches ‘Chariots – pausing/ At her low Gate’, ‘Unmoved’ ‘an Emperor…kneeling/ Upon her Mat’. I imagine a giant-like figure kneeling on a doormat, at a doorway fit for fairy-folk. This soul selects her own society, chooses ‘One’, no matter how large, and then shuts her tiny door.
At other times the speaker is giant-like. In ‘I stepped from plank to plank’ she has ‘Stars about my Head…./About my Feet the Sea’, recalling the mighty angel in St. John’s Revelation. Yet the celestial are not immune to threat: the speaker fears ‘the next/ Would be my final inch’. Interestingly, in this case, it is the tiny (‘inch’) that holds terrors, but this should not surprise us given that the spaces, stillness and silences between Dickinson’s words can open at any moment to reveal a yawning chasm. In ‘A Clock stopped’ the death of a person is ‘An awe [that] came on the Trinket’, the human a ‘puppet…/ That just now dangled still’. Nothing, closely related to the diminutive (technically the difference between the two states being simply a matter of degree), is just as much a presence in Dickinson’s poems as All: ‘Gilded pointers’, ‘Seconds slim’, ‘Figures’ and ‘Decimals’ themselves on the verge of or gesturing towards extinction, frequently pale into ‘Degreeless Noon’, or the ‘concernless No’ that awaits us all. ‘Crisis is a Hair’, Dickinson writes, ‘Nicely balancing’ ‘Life or Death’.
Here, I think, is the heart of the matter: the great forces of existence – which, of course, are polar opposites – are necessarily separated by a trifle: ‘Let an instant push/ Or an Atom press…’ we read, ‘It – may jolt the Hand/ That adjusts the Hair/ That secures Eternity...’ Tiny things, small as ‘syllables’, bear an ‘undeveloped Freight’, the ‘weight’ of which if divined can ‘crumble’. ‘A passing Universe’ puts on a ‘little Stone’s’ ‘Coat of elemental Brown’ while the stone fulfills ‘absolute Decree/ In casual simplicity’. The miniature entity is a close relative of ‘Nothing’, which while possessing the ability to obliterate is also ‘the force/ That renovates the World’. Walking the filament strung between the two, Dickinson crafts her art. There is no need to interrogate the infinite directly; the small leads her ineluctably to the heart of it.
Tiny Exiles; Miniaturization in the Twentieth Century
During the late nineteenth and early-twentieth century, the rapid growth of technology, communications and travel effectively shrank the external world, while advances in psychology enlarged understanding of the inner one. The Modernists focused on the minute, if not miniaturization. There was the Imagist’s precision and brevity in poetry and the stream of consciousness narrative and epiphanies of novelists such as Joyce and Woolf. The word ‘epiphany’ originally meant the revelation of a deity or the divine (the large) in the everyday (small). For the Modernists a sudden insight (perhaps an indirect continuation of Hopkin’s ‘inscape’) is often triggered by an apparently trivial, fleeting, yet concrete thought, image or sensation. In Ulysses (1922) James Joyce deliberately gives himself a tiny window – twenty-four hours – in order to write one of the biggest (in every sense of the word) novels in English literary history. Virginia Woolf spoke about the myriad impressions the mind constantly receives as ‘an incessant shower of innumerable atoms’ and held that it was the novelist’s task to ‘record the atoms as they fall’. Often such ‘recording’ results in formulations of huge, abstract ideas about time, death, history and beauty. At the beginning À la recherche du temps perdu (1913), Marcel Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece, a mouthful of madeleine cake triggers a recollection and occasions a now world-famous foray into the past time of the title. A ‘little squeak of the hinges’ at the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (which also takes place in the course of a single day) sets off a similar chain of association in the eponymous protagonist as her mind leaps back to her youth at Bourton and her early significant relationships. Throughout the novel ‘leaden circles’ of the chiming Big Ben cause Mrs Dalloway to consider the ever-present nature of time, which is both linear - the progression of hours marked by these audible markers throughout the narrative - and circular, in that the past continually ‘presents’ itself. Towards the end of the novel she is fascinated by a glimpse of an old woman in a house across the way, a small figure framed by a window, as if she is viewing a doll in a doll’s house, and stand watching her for several moments before leaving the encapsulation of her own ‘little room’ to return to her party. That we are all enclosed in our own small window, room, life and mortality, is a typically Woolfian idea and the challenge for her protagonists is to continually bring discrete entities together, whether aesthetically or interpersonally; to – as E. M. Forster, another Modernist, wrote - ‘only connect’.
These days technology has made connecting easier than ever before, shrinking the world even as it expands exponentially. It is now possible to move a tiny yellow person on a screen and stand on the Golden Bridge in San Fransisco, while on another device see exactly how many types of vegan burger are available within five miles. We can ‘friend’ someone on the other side of the world and chat to them daily, hold a library in our palm and travel anywhere on the planet we want to in less than twenty-four hours. There has been an explosion of styles, sexual identities and ways of being, while warfare has become the province of a single machine or individual rather than an army, the high street has shrunk to a single site, and while greater numbers of national groups are expanding than ever before the definition of nationhood is narrowing. The world has shrunk even as it has mushroomed, which brings to mind the most horrifying example of the interpenetration of micro and macro. Woolf’s words ‘record the atoms as they fall’ would have a darker meaning than she could have possibly imagined when on August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States detonated two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the explosive potential of the infinitesimally small, if ever doubted, was made abundantly apparent.
In the latter part of the twentieth century literature was preoccupied with a perceived inability to say anything at all, partly because it felt like everything had been said and partly because human existence seemed to no longer have meaning. What there still was, was trauma. The protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s 2005 novel Remainder is paralyzed as a result of being hit by an unnamed object falling from the sky at the start of the novel and has to relearn how to do everything. With the compensation money he sets out to pay actors and buy a building to recreate remembered, key, life events and environs down to staircases strewn with cigarette butts in an enormous tenement block that has the uncanny feel of an enormous dolls’ house, into which he himself then moves in. When the protagonist finds himself occupying a space he can’t control, he feels nauseous, as I imagine one would upon finding themselves shrunk to a fraction of their size and encased in a scaled model. Centuries earlier, Heinrich von Kleist, in his essay ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ had argued that, paradoxical as it may seem, a puppet is free in a way no human being can be because it lacks consciousness. For us to achieve the gracefulness of puppets we would have to have “either no consciousness or an infinite amount of it”; that is to say, we would have to be a marionette or a god. The protagonist of Remainder attempts in his way to be both. Recreating certain moments as closely as possible is a way for him to experience reality ‘authentically’ rather than in the ‘second-hand’ manner his traumatic situation resulted in. When this recreation fails to satisfy, he starts re-enacting more violent events.
For the speaker in Helen Dunmore’s poem ‘Hold Out Your Arms’, written shortly before Dunmore’s death from cancer in 2017, the ultimate trauma – that of dying - reduces an adult to child-like proportions, while Death looms large. But while the protagonist is miniaturized and takes the status of a child, Death is mother-like, not an ogre and is invoked to ‘hold out your arms for me/ / Through all this suffering /You have not forgotten me’. Usually humans hope death forgets about them for as long as possible, but here the final ‘embrace’ is longed for. The diminishment and simplification of our adult identity to a state of unknowing, overwhelm and the child-like craving for comfort often experienced in extreme duress or when near death, rings so true that it seems hard to imagine the poet could have found a more apposite metaphor. In the second stanza Death shrinks to ‘the bearded iris’ while the narrator, still a child, ‘stands by the wall/ Not much taller than the iris’, waiting for what seems like a first day at school - or the transition from life to death. Death ‘stoops over me…// She knows I am shy’. ‘She will pick me up and hold me so no one can see’. Finally, the shrunken narrator is assimilated into Death: hair ‘scrubbed’ into hers, ‘arms twining’, ‘[t]highs gripping your hips’ and realizes ‘there is no need to ask:/ A mother will always lift a child/ As a rhizome/ Must lift up a flower’. In the final stanza Death pushes back the child’s hair, ‘which could do with a comb’, and whispers ‘we’re nearly there’. The extreme diminishment of the speaker, reflected in the trope of her miniaturization, holds an unexpected and last minute comfort that anyone who has fully surrendered to an inescapable situation may have experienced. The relief is as unexpected yet wholeheartedly embraced as any apparent inversion that nonetheless contains a hidden ‘rightness’ (the naturalness of the reversal is highlighted with the metaphor of a plant: ‘a mother will always lift a child/ As a rhizome / Must lift up a flower’). If Death was not so much bigger and so more powerful than the narrator ‘she’ could not offer comfort; she could not pick the narrator up and go with her to the place no one else can. If the narrator had not lost all of her power she could not experience such grace.
I do not think I have ever read a more resonant depiction of trauma than that by the German writer W. G. Sebald in his final novel Austerlitz, published a month before his own death in late 2001. In fact it was while reading Sebald for the first time that I felt I was not only in some strange way partially revisiting (disturbing, though not clearly remembered) aspects of my early childhood, but felt again the palpable undercurrent of loneliness, homesickness or undefined longing I used to feel reading works of miniaturization as a child. The trope of miniaturization is once more deployed and is linked to a certain key image that is laced throughout the novel. The image first appears when the narrator’s recent visit to a zoo is recalled as he enters the Central Station in Antwerp, where railway passengers ‘seemed to me somehow miniaturized’, as many of the animals in the zoo had been (‘dwarf species – tiny fennec foxes, springhares, hamsters’). To the narrator, the passengers seem to be ‘the last members of a diminutive race which had perished or had been expelled from its homeland.’ Sebald’s characters are peripatetic, so it is fitting that the vision of an exiled and miniature nation should be couched in the larger context of a railway station. One of these ‘exiles’ is Austerlitz, the eponymous hero, a displaced person and victim of the Kinder Exchange who is haunted by a past that is continually sensed yet always somewhere off stage. He is psychologically and geographically adrift in a post-war Europe, through which we and the narrator follow him in his search for his past and identity. As they begin to talk, Austerliz tells the narrator that the Central Station was modeled on a railway station in Lucerne, King Leopold of Belgium being particularly taken with its dome, ‘so dramatically exceeding the usual modest height of railway buildings’ that the effect was rather like the Pantheon in Rome and being inside a cathedral rather than a secular building. Over it all – over the people and the trains - Austerlitz points out, ‘time…represented by the hands and dial of [an enormous] clock, reigns supreme…just where the image of the emperor stood in the Pantheon’. Not only can ‘the movements of all travellers…be surveyed from the central position occupied by the clock’ but ‘conversely all travellers had to look up at the clock and were obliged to adjust their activities to its demands.’ Indeed, ‘[i]t was only by following the course time prescribed,’ Austerlitz adds, can we ‘hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other.’ We are continually made conscious that time and space are the elements Sebald’s characters traverse in their peregrinations and as they do, both elements stretch and conflate, being essentially inner phenomena rather than outer constants. Here, the looming presence of the clock serves to highlight the way in which the temporal and spatial coordinates we are adrift in are apt to change in a moment and how they dwarf us both psychologically and phenomenologically.
Some pages on the narrator runs into Austerlitz again (these apparently random meetings are typical of Sebald’s narratives and it is testament to his initially imperceptible yet considerable skill as a novelist that we do not question the likelihood of this too much as we read). They fall to discussing buildings, noting that it is ‘buildings of less than normal size…that offer us…a semblance of peace’ while vast edifices elicit ‘dawning horror’ for ‘outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction’. The Palace of Justice, ‘on the old Gallows Hill in Brussels’, is ‘the largest accumulation of stone blocks anywhere in Europe’, Austerlitz informs the narrator. It is a nightmarish maze of corridors, rooms and empty spaces. He once wandered through ‘this mountain range of stone…forests of columns…past colossal statues…roofs… crammed together like pack ice…’ and interior courtyards like ‘ravines’. Humans are dwarfed and disoriented by their own megalithic creations which contain the inevitable seeds of their demise, Sebald seems to suggest, just as they are by the vast swathe of objects, artifacts and sensory memories that swirl, flotsam and jetsam-like, through his narratives and lead to the ‘vertigo’ the narrator of another of his novels experiences.
The trope of the exiled miniature nation is returned to about a quarter of the way into the novel when Austerlitz recounts his childhood fondness for the Biblical story of the ‘children’ of Israel crossing the wilderness, ‘with nothing in sight but sky and sand as far as the eye can see’. There are no landmarks in this desert with which to orientate oneself, or gain much sense of distance or size. I remember being momentarily confused as a child when I saw photographs of the desert the Israelites travelled through in books my parents studied with me. The terrain in the illustrations looked at one moment like the dust, stones and tracks I would find outside in the backyard, and at another like a desert miles wide, surrounded by mountain ranges that were miles high. I just could not be sure of the scale of the thing. Austerlitz now confesses to the narrator that he has always had a preternatural conviction that his ‘proper place was among the tiny figures populating the camp’ of Israel. The next sentence is interrupted halfway by the largest illustration of the novel (and there are many throughout, as typical of Sebald’s work): a grainy, black and white illustration in which a lowering, igneous, apocryphal, queerly veined and muscled mountain range curls around a plateau upon which are rows of identical, pale tents, tiny black figures (no more than blurred, vertical marks) scattered around them. In the center, where the book parts, there is a larger tent surrounded by a barricade. A white pillar of smoke rises from this tent, partly obscured by the fold of the pages.
This image instantly suggested to me the Nazi termination camps with their ovens (linked staggeringly by Sebald to the practice of sacrificial atonement practiced by God’s ‘chosen people’ in the Old Testament). But the longer one spends with the novel, the illustration also seems to suggest the drifting and exiled multitudes of the latter half of the twentieth century; rendered tiny, anonymous, powerless and hardly human by the lowering forces of time and history, which seem to gaze down upon them from the mountain’s stony face. Austerlitz himself experiences the scene as ‘uncannily familiar’ and, one thing, for me at least, that makes Sebald a mesmerizing writer is his ability to invoke in the reader (or this one, at any rate) a feeling that they too have seen, felt, heard or known a thing before; of course, I had seen similar illustrations in the religious literature in my parent’s house when I was a child, but there was more to it than that. I do not know whether to attribute the weird déjà vu and I felt at numerous points reading Austerlitz to subtle and previously unnoticed placing of certain motifs, but to emerge from one of his narratives is to emerge from what feels like a dream-like and collective unconscious. The metaphor of the tiny, exiled nation, and the analogy between the Nazi party and the Israelites (and Hitler to Moses) is made explicit a little later when Austerlitz’s childhood guardian, Vera, relates how, in a film of the Nuremberg Party rally, a ‘bird’s-eye view showed a city of white tents extending to the horizon, from which…the Germans emerged singly…following, so it seemed, some higher bidding, on their way to the Promised Land at last after long years in the wilderness.’
Later Vera relates how, gazing at pictures from her past, she often feels she is gazing at a diorama she saw as a child in the Reichenberg, ‘seeing the figures inside a case filled with some strangely translucent aura poised motionless in mid-movement, owing their lifelike appearance, oddly enough, to their extremely diminutive size’. To read Sebald’s novels is to experience something similar, the lack of ‘plot’, action and clear narrative demarcations, extremely long sentences, repetition of certain images with slight variations coupled with the sheer amount of physical detail, mean that his characters feel similarly stilted, motionless, frozen in time and yet simultaneously drifting; ‘strangely translucent’ – and frequently ‘lost’ amidst the vastness of history. The ‘real’ feels unreal; even as we are never entirely sure whether we are reading a real-life travelogue, due to the proliferation of, what seem to be, genuine artifacts (one even shows an old passport photo of Sebald himself). A page later, the harder Austerlitz tries to conjure a faint recollection of his mother at a dress rehearsal while sitting in a theatre, ‘the more the theatre seemed to be shrinking,’ he says, ‘as if I myself had shrunk to the stature of a little Tom Thumb enclosed in a sort of velvet-lined casket.’ This last remark set off ripples of recognition within me; I knew I had come across the image elsewhere in Sebald’s fiction, if not in this novel. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t find it. This simultaneous recognition and disorientation triggered in the reader (which mimics the experience of the protagonist) is what makes reading Sebald so affecting. To an extent, we experience the same churning of space-time as do his protagonists, and the effect is diminishing, the magnitude of what we are made privy to awe-inspiring and what we have actually been made privy to is a myriad of the smallest details. Why Austerlitz feels himself shrinking the harder he tries to recall this memory is not entirely clear; perhaps he is subconsciously embodying his infant self or perhaps Sebald is gesturing towards the paralyzing sensation experienced when one feels dwarfed by the abstract immensity of the passage of time. Or, it could simply be that, as when trying to remember a dream, the harder Austerlitz tries to relive the memory, the more his immediate surroundings slip away from him.
The fact that all this takes place in a theatre is no accident; Sebald is really only ever expressing one truth; a felt one: that linear time, structured space, our present selves and the relations between all these things are endlessly mutable, inter-pollinating and ultimately illusory; no more fixed or lasting than the curtain on the stage below Austerlitz which suddenly ripples, recalling him to the present; where he perceives the ‘conductor of the orchestra…like a beetle in his black tail-coat’ and spies a blue sequined shoe - a shoe Vera later confirms his mother did in fact wear at that very dress rehearsal - upon which, he says: ‘I felt as if something were shattering inside my brain.’ There is no assurance, here, that the large abstractions of Death, Time and Nothingness will turn out to be benevolent guardians, parental figures that lift us, even if at the last moment, into their arms; Sebald seems to be of the McCarthy camp that posits endless repetition of trauma in the hope of elusive transcendence; endless wandering through the mists of the past in order to reencounter what could not be encountered at the time. But there is something to hold onto: large or small, near at hand or far removed, all things already exist, Sebald is saying. They are ‘only waiting for us to find our way to them…’
journal of the plague year