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An Interview With Peter Jordan - Author of 'One Sprinkling Day'

2019-01-26
By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: Author Interviews

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AmeriCymru spoke to author Peter Jordan about his new novel 'One Sprinkling Day'. The book, set in Wales, has been described as a novel of ideas and is currently available from Amazon - One Sprinkling Day



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AmeriCymru interview  photo.jpg AmeriCymru: Hi Peter and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your novel, 'One Sprinkling Day' for our readers?

Peter: Thank you for inviting me to. After finishing this book at long last I soon learned two things that surprised me. One was that in England the final judges in literary matters aren’t critics or professors or publishers, let alone writers, but literary agents. The other was that according to literary agents a novel is a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, which you can tell them in a paragraph. I had, before this, read E.M. Forster’s words, ‘Yes—oh dear yes—the novel tells a story’, which if you mistake the tone you might think were meant as an apology for novels in general or a justification of his own in particular. Really they were an ironic rebuke to any readers who felt that some of his contemporaries with no interest in story-telling had written better novels than he had. He may have been a friend of Virginia Woolf’s, we needn’t follow her in including him among the ‘modernists’. They themselves don’t seem so modern now, and they haven’t much in common, but none of them ever wrote a rattling good yarn. Neither did Forster, still a rattling yarn fits his idea of the novel, whereas their explorations of the inner life, their rendering of the actual quality of experience, their ‘non-linear’ kinds of construction (Proust’s ‘chessboard’ treatment of themes, for example), made Forster’s fiction seem old-fashioned.

Yet even to fiction much less conventional than his he could be responsive enough. It was his appreciation of The Leopard that got it its due even in Italy and in ‘the world of literature’, though we needn’t believe that all who hailed it then could really see any merit in it. I’m afraid that in a case like this or the earlier ‘Svevo affair’ many readers of the book only praise it because others are doing so.

Of course, novels that were hardly stories had been written before the modernists‘. (Already before Joyce, hadn’t even Firbank’s plots been pretty wispy?) I suppose most of the great novels that relate events (as Kidnapped does) rather than develop themes (as already Niels Lyhne does) were written in the 19th century, and one or two of them were by Flaubert, still Flaubert when he wrote most spontaneously produced Novembre, and ‘L’action y est nulle’. And it’s in an inner journey that all the interest of Loss and Gain lies, if Newman’s path to Rome does interest you. Going even further back, to the only work of fiction by the greatest English writer of the previous century, to Rasselas,—as Professor Hiller said, we don’t read Rasselas for the story. But no doubt it was from the turn of the 19th century on that the scope of fiction was seriously extended. So Jean Santeuil reveals the author’s hidden self, in Malte Laurids Brigge as in Hunger an alienated consciousness confronts a modern city, Giacomo Joyce like Niels Lyhne brings into fiction a strange poetic realism, The Last Summer offers a transcript of life,—but none of them tells a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. (Musil had begun to find his themes well before he began to write The Man Without Qualities, but Young Törless is a story of sorts, and whether or not The Man Without Qualities is a story, it only lacks an ending because Musil didn’t live to write one.) And although I have enjoyed Kidnapped more than all these books except Jean Santeuil, I don’t think it has enlarged my mind as they have.

In writing this novel of mine, however, I had no model. (I understand that after Joyce the plotless novel had a vogue, but I know Lawrence Durrell’s The Black Book and other examples only by name.) I was only concerned to find a form for what I had to say. So I hope I shan’t be blamed for not doing what I didn’t try to do, and I’m grateful to you for not asking me ‘what the story is’! I can though say that this is the story of a day, as the title indicates, and one kind of movement in the book is accordingly a forward movement from morning to night. But as life is being as well as doing, there is also an inward movement, through the main character’s memories and reflections.

Not that I have gone as far as Gissing did in Ryecroft, and thrown over action, plot, dialogue and even character-drawing. (Wasn’t an interest in character the mark of the novelist as Virginia Woolf saw it?) I didn’t set out to throw over any traditional elements. If One Sprinkling Day isn’t a novel of action neither is it merely a vehicle for ideas. The ideas are bound up with the characters (and it was the characters more than their ideas who interested the author). Thus ‘the choice of life’ (to borrow a phrase Johnson used for Rasselas’s original title) is variously illustrated by the inquirer’s new friend Sadie (a New Yorker abroad) and old friend Kay (a gay schoolmaster), by his host’s wife, daughter and stepson (an ambitious young historian), and chiefly by his father and his host himself (a former fugitive from Hitler’s Germany)—though in this way again the movement of the novel is not that of conventional narration but one of progressive disclosure, as these characters reveal themselves to the main character and so to the reader.

Although I had no theory of the novel, I did have an idea of what I was trying to write. Not a ‘guide for the perplexed’, which I was unqualified to write, but perhaps the vade-mecum Paul Crouch (the main character) had lacked—the book (as the publisher’s blurb was to say) he would have liked with him in the maze. So the readers I was hoping for were mostly ones who, like me, were unsatisfied with stories and wanted more food for thought than fiction generally supplies. But if at the same time I could provide a little light reading for readers with scientific and philosophical interests, I should be delighted.

Would the book be a novel? To say that Rasselas is an oriental apologue at least conveys some idea of it. To say that Rasselas (or Candide or Nightmare Abbey or On the Marble Cliffs) is not a novel only raises the question what a novel is. I thought the question unimportant (I have thought differently since: ‘What Is A Novel?’). What mattered to me was the idea of that ‘inquiry into some traditional perplexities’ (as I have called it elsewhere) pursued through the medium of literary fiction. As I wrote on, of course, it was borne in on me that if I wrote for twenty years I still shouldn’t have begun to treat these matters adequately. And yet when I somehow had got through it, I should have to go through it again, cutting all the way, until nothing unconnected with the fiction remained—which I did, so that now Paul Crouch’s inquiry takes up only eight chapters out of eighteen.

AmeriCymru: What is the Welsh background and context of the novel?

Peter: My connection with Wales dates from before I was born, and I owe it to my parents, if not to the Germans who bombed Somerset House when my parents were working there, so that they were evacuated to what was then Caernarvonshire, where they got married. That was still years before my birth, and meanwhile, after the war, they had moved back to London, but subsequently almost every summer they would return, taking me with them, to stay with the family they had been ‘billeted’ with.

Evidently the circumstances that had linked those Welsh and English lives were exceptional. And the following years were the last before the world was shrunk by cheap travel. But perhaps that western seaboard can still allure an English mind if it’s a young mind. For me what happened between my getting into a second-class railway-carriage as a ‘Passenger to Pendinas’ and getting out of it five hours later was a kind of magic, but not a mere conjuring-trick such as I might see at a children’s party—the evanishment or production or exchange of coloured silks or feather bouquets or doves or a giant snake. It was the exchange of one whole world for another—an exchange of bricks, soot, neon, petrol fumes, moving staircases, bronze horsemen, drinking-fountains and skysigns for sea, slate, gulls, granite, heather, anathoths, megaliths and cherryade.

I have written about the real place in my review of Anne Forrest’s book My Whole World. In One Sprinkling Day it’s fictionalized as Pendinas, the small seaside place in Paul Crouch’s thoughts as the novel and the day begin, and again as they end, when it’s also recalled by his host, who had found a refuge there. In between, in the central chapters, Paul takes a walk which is at once a walk in a maze (the maze of thought about the problems he’s taken up with), a walk in the past (the region’s and his own), and of course an actual walk through a Welsh landscape.

Yn ystod taith gerdded sydd ar yr un pryd yn daith gerdded mewn tirlun, yn y gorffennol, ac yn y ddrysfa o feddwl am rai gwendidau [perplexities] traddodiadol, mae myfyrdodau'r protagonydd a hunan-bortreadau sgwrsio ei ffrindiau yn rhyngddynt â darnau am y rhanbarth hanes, hanes naturiol a nodweddion naturiol.

So besides supplying a lot of the material of the novel, the Welsh dimension unifies the whole.

AmeriCymru: You have said, of 'One Sprinkling Day', that ‘The author’s excuse for it is that the basic questions science and religion offer answers to aren’t asked only by scientists and theologians.’ Do you think that the majority of people either do or should think philosophically?

Peter: I think most of us ask these questions on occasion, though we may not think about them then for very long. Is this to think philosophically? I suppose they can be thought about in different ways. But aren’t there also different ideas of what philosophical thinking is? Traditionally philosophers were ‘seekers after truth’, weren’t they, trying to ‘interpret’ the world (if not to change it), to understand our relation to it, and to determine how we ought to behave towards each other. But at the time when Paul Crouch was beginning to ask the basic questions I referred to, most English philosophers, or the most influential ones, weren’t concerned to know whether this or that statement about the world or about human nature or anything else was true, but just what it meant. Paul Crouch in One Sprinkling Day hasn’t begun studying the subject formally yet, so I can only speak about my own experience here. And the philosopher I have in mind wasn’t a linguistic philosopher. Still he liked to define his terms and to use words precisely—“We have a job to do and our tools must be sharp.”

So for example he explained that in the statement ‘Man is essentially social’, the term ‘social’ was purely descriptive, comprising both ‘sociable’ and ‘anti-social’. Similarly, to say ‘Man is a rational animal’, or ‘the rational animal’, wasn’t to deny that he’s often (or even usually) irrational—here man was contrasted with the non-human animals, and they aren’t irrational but non-rational. Again, ‘moral’ in the phrase ‘moral philosophy’ hadn’t the usual meaning of ‘good’ or ‘right’ (when its opposite is ‘immoral’), but meant ‘belonging to the field of morals’ (its opposite being ‘non-moral’).

And this was all very precise, still those statements about ‘Man’ weren’t exact, since human beings, whom they were meant to define, aren’t all male. (An obvious fact which, in producing such high-sounding and exclusive phrases, philosophers and theologians, if they hadn’t lost sight of it, chose to ignore.) As for the commending words themselves and their opposites—‘good’/­­‘bad’, ‘worthy’/‘unworthy’, etc.,—we went on to consider what agathos meant in Homer, which was not what it meant for Plato or Aristotle, much less of course what ‘morally good’ meant for us, and we noted that kalos, another word for ‘good’ or ‘worthy’, also meant ‘beautiful’, just as aiskros meant both ‘unworthy’ and ‘ugly’, and in due course we learned what ‘good’ and the rest meant for Hume, Kant, Mill and Moore. And I’m sure that by this, Paul Crouch in my place would have wanted to know whether we should never discuss any situations in actual life, any moral choices of our own, whether we mightn’t try to solve some problems, or at least, by analysis, dissolve them,—whether we would ever do any philosophy. But I know that the answer if he had asked would have been that philosophy was just what our teacher had been doing in explicating these terms and referring them one to another. The philosopher’s job wasn’t to understand the world, and it wasn’t to preach or lay down the law, it was to clarify our thinking. We might in consequence think differently, we might then act differently, we might even change our lives, so philosophy might, indirectly, contribute to changing the world, still its true function wasn’t to solve problems but to put them before us.

In speaking of his own philosophy, our teacher was distinguishing it from the one then in fashion, the practical uselessness of which according to him its champions were actually proud of. They even disliked definitions, preferring merely to analyse moral terms as commonly used, however trivial the examples. Still, he might declare that rather than ‘pedantic concern with everyday language’, his field was the ‘questioning of accepted moral rules and values’, the ‘criticism of conventional moral codes’,—the criticisms his students heard were all of his colleagues. And not only of the English-speaking ones. He also criticized his fellow academics in West Germany, ‘well-off professors leading comfortable lives while holding forth about Care, Dread and Being-towards-death’. What would have surprised Paul Crouch, he even found fault with that other continental existentialist, the thinker called Mancy in One Sprinkling Day, for holding that we each have to re-invent our ethics in every action. Wasn’t he himself the inventor of a ‘Creative Ethics’, whose ‘open-mindedness’ permitted him to ‘re-think his principles in the light of his practical experience’? Paul would have thought the Frenchman’s ethics, as a godless sort of ‘situationism’ (or casuistry as it used to be called), must be congenial to him.

Not that it was (or is?) unusual for a philosopher to disapprove of other philosophers. After all, the principal German existentialist had dissociated his philosophy from Mancy’s even though, or just because, Mancy’s owed so much to it. In fact he had dissociated it, as a philosophy of Being, from every philosophy of Existence, including that of the other great German existentialist of the day, who however regarded him as a metaphysician, while likewise rejecting the name of existentialist if Mancy was one. All these thinkers agreed, though, that the current Anglo-American philosophy—the main English-language philosophy of the century—was ‘irrelevant’, because it wasn’t lived (it hardly could be), so that its practitioners’ lives were ‘inauthentic’. To a mere student of the subject, the view of philosophy as a process of analysis might seem to link all the thinkers who shared it in a tradition going back at least to that ‘Art of Thinking’ which Pascal had contributed to (and Pascal had been just as particular about defining terms and concepts as our teacher). But if the analysts on their side agreed in charging the existentialists with conceptual confusion and false profundity, that didn’t mean they were generally at one. The great philosopher called Stern in One Sprinkling Day, who defended philosophical analysis himself, definitely shared their opinion of existentialism, both French and German—‘pure nonsense, based intellectually on errors of syntax and emotionally on exasperation’. And the ‘positivists’ among them had his sympathy. But as to the kind who thought that what should be analysed was language itself and that the wish to make sense of the world was an outdated folly, he was as scathing about them as about the existentialists—philosophy if they were right being ‘at best a slight help to lexicographers, at worst an idle tea-table amusement’.

I think then that Paul Crouch would have recognized, on our teacher’s part, an attitude reflected in almost every philosophy book he had read, where other ways of thinking were qualified as mere philosophizing, or not philosophy at all, or nonsense, whereas the author’s way of thinking was true philosophizing, what philosophy consisted in, what it really was—though naturally the author’s critics, and even followers in some cases, had completely failed to understand it. And I don’t think Paul Crouch would have been surprised (it was the same with Stern and Mancy) that a philosopher so severe on other philosophers should be even more severe on theologians. For our ethicist, all the assertions of ‘speculative metaphysics’ about immortal souls, a creator God, etc., were unfounded, because ‘immortal souls, like God, can’t be observed, and no observable differences would follow from their presence as compared with their absence’.

The last claim at least, which had a positivist ring, I think would have struck Paul as begging the question. And he would surely have noticed another thing. To this philosopher, explicating terms, not to mention re-thinking basic principles, was a valuable activity, just so was analysing concepts to Stern and the logical positivists, and scrutinizing ‘modern English usage’ to the linguistic philosophers. Yet they all despised the ‘re-thinking’ now being done by Anglican theologians, representing it as a way of making doctrines cease to be obviously false by rendering them meaningless.

Paul Crouch learns about this re-thinking from a retired clergyman, Dr Sprange, and he also learns what Dr Sprange thinks of philosophy, just as he learns from a Hindu holy man, Swami Satyanand, what the Swami thinks of it. Because we must certainly ‘hear the other side’, as St Augustine said. But your question relates to the Great Debate Paul Crouch was interested in, not directly to Paul Crouch himself—the debate I alluded to in the words you quote. So perhaps I may also recall, as representing another point of view in it, another person I had to do with myself. This will help me both to give a balanced answer and to illustrate further the feature of the debate that I think the most noteworthy—which is that every one of those different ways of philosophizing and transcending is reckoned by everybody who goes in for it to be the only one legitimate and worthwhile.

Although of another communion, the monk I now have in mind took the same view of philosophy, or of ‘philosophizing’, as Dr Sprange did, considering it likely to cause special difficulty for a person seeking faith—“Not because faith is incompatible with a genuine philosophy, indeed faith is the fulfilment of philosophy, but because the philosopher’s mind won’t find it easy to make that worshipful submission to the infinitely superior mind of God which faith involves.” I had gone to his monastery when living in the English Midlands and trying to get on with the inquiry that would eventually issue in this book. I was also then going through a period so barren that without seeing myself as a pilgrim, I couldn’t help wishing for a guide. Is it ever better to travel than to arrive? That must depend on the destination (Stevenson only says it’s better to travel hopefully), and in this department of inquiry you can’t be sure there is any destination. Pascal had his Lord say (this being the realm of paradox) ‘Comfort yourself, you would not seek me if you had not found me’, but Pascal was a believer. Anyhow, over the years I consulted a number of spiritual experts, among them that Trappist monk. Who told me plainly he doubted whether my inquiry would ever bring me much nearer the truth, though he ‘suspected the difficulty and even futility of it might be the means of my being drawn to approach the question of faith in a simpler and more direct way’.

At the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, the esoteric school set up near Fontainebleau in 1922, one of the wise sayings to be studied in the Study House was ‘Judge others by yourself and you will rarely be mistaken.’ (I heard another of those sayings once, at his flat in Kensington, from a man to whom the Christian doctrines were ‘empty formulas’, but who, having likewise swallowed a whole system of thought, didn’t lack ready-made answers of his own—only this one too, like the monk’s, wasn’t an answer to a question I had asked. I may add that to him as to all my experts, who saw themselves not as still seeking the truth but as having found it, the philosophizing of others was, in his master’s phrase, ‘pouring from the empty into the void.’) ‘Rarely mistaken’—the qualifying word was needed. If people who have made a lot of money judge poor people by themselves, they may well think them failures, though not everyone who is poor has tried to get rich or even wanted to. Because Dr Sprange valued faith, which he had, and which Paul Crouch had asked him about, he supposed Paul wanted faith. Not only that, because he himself asked things of God, he saw no reason why Paul shouldn’t ask faith or grace of Him. ‘Help thou my unbelief’ indeed, except that the man in the gospel said first (paradoxically enough), ‘Lord, I believe’. Paul didn’t want to believe by ignoring the facts against belief. And how can you settle any doubtful matter without looking into it? After listening to the abbot’s secretary, and much as I liked him, I felt as if I had been advised by Bishop Blougram. And had Paul actually asked a Being he didn’t believe in to help him believe in Him, he would have felt that his case gave Mancy’s term ‘bad faith’, which to him had meant nothing, a sense and an application.

Some people do say they wish they had faith, most of them I think fancying it gives comfort—as it may, though it may also give none even to the most devout (like Cowper, ‘snatch’d from all effectual aid’). But how in any case could a man of faith imagine inquiring about faith yet not desiring it if he hadn’t understood that for a person who doesn’t believe in God, God doesn’t exist? To Paul Crouch, who for his part couldn’t imagine a supreme being desiring his worshipful submission, to be told “Don’t close the door on God!” would certainly have seemed strange. For him to have called on God for help, to have acted as if he did believe in God, would have been a sham.

And yet his position wasn’t one of disbelief. In fact if an agnostic holds that whether God exists we neither know nor can know,—if the name means what Huxley seems to have meant by it in coining it, Paul wasn’t an agnostic. His position was one of unbelief. The old sceptical philosophers may have doubted whether real knowledge is possible, whether any facts can be certainly known, still to scepticize in the etymological sense is at least to ‘consider’ the facts, to ‘inquire’ into that possibility—to ‘seek’ after truth.

But not after ‘the truth‘, so such an inquiry can’t be futile as the monk had conceived it to be—not being an attempt to acquire faith—, and what he had said about it was no discouragement.

AmeriCymru: What's next for Peter Jordan? Any new works in the pipeline?

Peter: A book literary agents would think worth reading would be next for me, if I could think it worth writing.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?

Peter: I set One Sprinkling Day in Wales because to pay a debt to Wales was one of my aims in writing it. But I hope it will interest AmeriCymru readers for other reasons as well, and I’m much obliged to AmeriCymru for the opportunity to speak about it.

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