The sensations of landing on the island long ago haunted a writer’s final memories
By Paul West
December 7, 2015
Several days before the writer Paul West died in October, we sent him proofs for the remarkable memoir in this issue, and we learned from his assistant, Liz Butler, that she had read it to him as he sat in his wheelchair in the sun during one of his last lucid moments. If you admire this piece as much as we do, read another memoir of his we published in 2007, a few years after he had suffered a devastating stroke. With the encouragement of Diane Ackerman, his beloved wife, Paul had fought to regain his extraordinary linguistic abilities, keeping a diary of his struggle to recover. That’s the piece we published, calling it “Mem, Mem, Mem”—the first words he spoke after the stroke. His recovery was so successful that he went on to write five more novels and a collection of essays.
I was fortunate in my arrival because the rain was pouring. From the first I could catch a sight of the genius of the island, this place that has icebergs in June. It all looked Finnish, perfunctory, and sparse. Miles and miles of timber hemmed in smallish areas of shaggy rock. Settlements seemed few, roads fewer. After a swift ride through streets of sad houses, all wooden and flimsy, I was dropped off at Circular Road, where lodgings had been arranged for me. I did not know it, but I was on the threshold of a revelation—a symbol was to be vouchsafed for me.
Here was another house badly in need of paint, but the garden was neat and groomed. There was a cropped hedge, a lawn; I felt just a small bit at home as I trudged down the path. I rang. There appeared a timid little maid who, as I later found out, had a strident voice and keened dirges all day. I was led in through a door of stained glass that offered some Boy Blue idyll. Then I was in the museum: all around me were glass cases full of tattered taxidermy. Birds indignant in arrested flight leered at me from near the ceiling. A large engraving of a dying ox stared me in the face. The furniture was mostly of cast iron, especially the hallstand, a vast edifice of consummate ingenuity. This was festooned with furs, sticks, scarves, and old ladies’ hats. On the right was a sanctum, the door just a little open so that its air of dusty disuse could filter out into the hall. The floor was madly polished, the family prints were arranged altarwise on a little table, and several frail chairs seemed to be straining forward, as if to emulate the strength and purpose of the old toasting forks and spits that stood against the walls. I gazed, appalled.
Then my landlady-to-be emerged from the gloom: an old woman with a lively face and plenty of salty spirit. At once I was sat down to tea and currant cake. A large coal fire burned in the grate; everywhere in the living room there were roses—painted and two-dimensional; outside, the rain streamed across the glass; on the walls, more engravings, all black-framed; under the radio, a pile of library books. The time was four in the afternoon. And it was in this strange house of assorted bric-a-brac that I first put my finger on one of the pulses of the province. This was one of the better houses; large and roomy, twitching with stuffed foxes, with ferns and loose boards, it had survived from the days of prosperity through trade. Here, on this road, as on several others nearby, people tried to procure a maid, made a clear distinction between themselves and the arrivistes and parvenus of the TV era. Here the decencies and decorums that looked toward England held back the brash tide that swept in daily from the United States and mainland Canada. Here the people fiercely declared themselves Newfoundlanders rather than Canadians.
About five o’clock, my landlady’s sister came downstairs. A small, gnomelike person of great age, immense cantankerousness, and clear opinions, she could see and hear very little. But she wasted no time in conducting me to her bedroom, there to show me a switch: this, she said, should be turned off if the house caught fire; thus there would be no risk of electricity to help the fire on. She then exhibited to me the rope by which I was to leave the house in case of emergency. Nominal head, she had permitted her sister to be the effective power, but from time to time she would take a firm but disastrous hand in the running of the house. Her favorite trick was to burst into strange little catches of a dark symbolism:
You’ll never get wet in the sea’s salty spray
If you never stray off the shore.
Or she would favor us with fragments of hymns and, on her best days, with little jokes, like the one about the man who said his clock had been made by Tempus Fugit too; that’s what it said on the makers’ plate. At meals her conversation was limited to one phrase at three-minute intervals: “Have more tea!” This was more in the nature of imperative than invitation; a refusal put her off for three minutes only. Most of the time, she sat in her rocking chair, drumming her fingers and making solicitous inquiries in the spirit of sheer malice. If you were working at the table, she would ask if you had enough light. If you said yes, she would fuss to see so much being burned. If you said no, she would fuss until the first fuss took over. Periodically she would tour the big house to check the lights; once she came down from bed at three in the morning because she thought she saw a light. This in her flannel nightgown. She was preternaturally sensitive to light, as to drafts, just as she never heard telephones, conversations, and the doorbell. On Sundays she went out to church in heavy coat and capuchin hat; on her return, she would sing the entire service through, taking her own time and making her own pauses.
I remember one traumatic experience with her. Sleeping in late one morning, I woke to find the sheet being drawn over my head in a slow, reverential manner. Never to see again … It was the old lady making the beds, guiding the sheets over any awkward obstacles. Her method was simple: she knocked at your door; if you shouted, “Come in,” she came in; if you kept silent or shouted anything else, she came in. I do not think of her as a typical Newfoundlander; but she is inseparable from my idea of the Newfoundlander’s tenacity, obstinacy, unimpressionableness, and ability to stick to blinkers once donned. She herself spoke with an English accent and could remember the days when they played cricket on the field at the back of the house. But her memory was increasingly selective, and she transposed as she thought fit. I think of her as the frail dynast of the province, full of history and always deploring the new age of TV, aeroplanes, and skittish maids whose main ambition in coming to St. John’s was to entrap an American airman for life. For her, life had a clearly defined pattern: a fixed scheme of observances, rites, habits, timings, phrases, and penalties. She made immense fun of her old age; many a time, on dropping something, she would reprimand and parody herself by exclaiming, “Handy Andy!” This summed up all that could be profitably said about the situation. Having said it, she would look around her as at the conclusion of a long speech. For centuries to come she will be sitting at the table blindly presiding, admonishing young men at tea to “Take some yourself, and pass it on! ” Several times she would ask her sister about a friend who had been dead for 10 years; on learning he was dead, she would grin in triumphant reproof: “Well, well, now, he looked all right to me when I saw him last.” At eight o’clock each evening, she would turn on the radio in the hope of catching an occasional word; an hour later, after much preliminary ahem-ing, she would recapitulate what she had heard. Occasionally she would produce a pun or a bit of sarcasm. More often she would drive her sister frantic with wild suggestions about banking matters and the possible fate of relatives.
Thus Miss Amelia, one of the last of the old guard, a woman evocative of the days when folk songs were the only entertainment. Emblem of a fast-fading ethos, she helps me to peg atmosphere and oral habits to a representative person. I can imagine her singing some of those old songs, wanting to entertain herself, judging entertainment by the amount she felt impelled to put into it—not by the amount offered. Much more than a tiny spinster matriarch, she makes abrupt confrontations in my own mind: old pale lace with nylon; an anecdote from round the bay with what Perry Como said about a rival; horse carriage with the new Chevy; button-up boots with thick campus stockings; family evenings at home with other evenings by the TV light. She was a bridge, not realizing her extent, neither recalling all she had come from nor comprehending fully where she found herself.
A good deal of conversation not only manipulated esoteric truisms but also played with such lively figures as these: busy as a nailer, cross as the cats, wet as dung, smoky as Labrador tilt, old as Buckley’s goat, rough as a dogfish’s back, soft as a mummy, slow as cold molasses, deaf as a haddock, dirty as a duck’s puddle, hard as the knockers of Newgate, big as Munn, far as ever a puffin flew, foolish as a capelin, hard as the hob of hell, like a cat on hot rocks, like a birch broom in the fits, lonesome as a gull on a rock, mute as a mouse, proud as Guilderoy, round as the bung of a cask, stunned as an owl, wide as the devil’s boots, and soggy as lead. Where the land is barren, talk need not be so.
Winter was jail. We gathered in firewood, cans of food, booze, tobacco, and a thousand other things. After November there was precious little. Or at least we sometimes thought so, despite the airmail, iceboat sailing, snow soccer, hunting, and skiing. If you lived on an island, or wanted to get to an island, you had to force your boat through the forming ice of November, but you couldn’t drive a dog team over that ice until January. In such conditions a man could concentrate, and savor to the fullest the few objects round him: the sheen of a can; curlew berries, bakeapples, smelt, flatfish, cod tongues, seal flippers, tuna, whale and halibut steaks, a glass of rum and milk (walrus milk); rock tripe, pachyderm leaves, prone trees bent at right angles from their roots or just growing horizontally in sheer self-effacement; a black whaleback humping madly up from the leaden sea; the pyrotechnics in the sky at night; small waterfalls pouring down the sides of icebergs; icebergs wheeling round like a craggy parody of the whales; whale ears like white tin hats. It was to the quality of all this that I turned. Even so, I would have gone mad without the radio.
If you took the Burgeo to Goose Bay, you could then catch another vessel up to Hebron: more than 600 miles and five days. After Cape Harrison came Makkovik, announcing Eskimo country, as it was called then. At Makkovik there was a Moravian mission, elegant and colorful, stuck there like a taunt since 1896. There, where the soil seemed to have been spread out to make some kind of a show—covering the rock to keep up appearances—the buildings had a frightened, vulnerable look. The roofs were gaily tiled in blues and warm reds but seemed to be indulging in sheer bravado. Farther up the coast, Postville, founded by a Pentecostal pastor, epitomized the thriving beleaguered; Hopedale offered another mission, with a high, exulting cupola that defied the glowering sky, and a collection of Eskimo handicrafts. At Davis Inlet, I found the Nascopi Indians, tent dwellers who excel at making snowshoes, caribou-skin clothes, drums, and weightless canoes. Next came Nain, hemmed in by hills, and yet another mission; then, Black Island, Cut Throat, Moores Harbour, Nutak, and Hebron, where the Moravian church, the missioner’s quarters, the traders’ quarters, offices, and storerooms were all included in one edifice built in Germany in the 19th century and then exported piecemeal to Labrador for reassembly. Beyond Hebron (a dwindling settlement), there was nothing except Port Burwell on the tip of a spur pointing at the pole. This was the region of inspired desperateness. All was snap, twitch, blast, ice, maximum, and minimal; death had left a hoof print in the shape of Ungava Bay; it is a clenched, rigid, minerally ungiving land full of strange howls. One was reminded of a husky, padding into a pool, treading on and then devouring a flatfish.
Paul West , who died in October 2015, was the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, and essays.