Penelope Shuttle Essay - Critical Essays

Shuttle, Penelope

Shuttle, Penelope 1947–

Ms Shuttle, an English writer, is the author of Wailing Monkey Embracing a Tree, a "poème en prose," and, with the English poet Peter Redgrove, the novel The Terrors of Dr Treviles.

Blurring the distinctions between poetry and prose, Penelope Shuttle's nervous and exciting talent still deals too strongly in arcana. There are many beautiful, fresh and turbulent passages in [Wailing Monkey Embracing a Tree], but her frequent examples of bardic overflow may be nothing more than the contemporary version of the pastel rhapsodizing once associated with the poème en prose. Whether this is a sign of excessive strain in her methods, or a sign of placing too heroic a faith in exotica dragged out of the sub-conscious (or the Thesaurus), it is probably too early to tell.

Often the reader's imagination is likely to be shocked without being convinced. But images and phrases do not entirely suffocate the story, while the uncommon poetic speech in which the narrator and the conjugal protagonists themselves present their meditative perceptions and reveries has the effect of mythologizing that familiar theme in contemporary fiction, a stale marriage. Longings for other lovers, for death, reliefs, escapes, that "miraculous future" Elinda dreams about, are transformed into a profoundly fictive zone of understanding. Extreme emotional situations probably encourage this; and yet there is some truth in the accusation that an unbalanced contrast between fantasy and actuality does, in a word, reveal only an exaggeration. In this case, the book might claim that there is a more exotic despair in domestic turmoil than may in fact be the case.

Working within its ardent and exacting mode, Miss Shuttle's linguistic concentration inevitably produces the feeling that the story she tells is more important for the poetry it elicits than for its social strangeness and significance. Yet she is dealing with common unhappiness, with trapped femininity and trapped masculinity, with breakdowns and hysteria. Such an emphasis is in fiction as much a contrivance as any other, the promulgation of a poetic view of life an insult to the ordinary. Fantasy and surrealistic recall, the enemies of Elinda and the symptoms of the errors in her temperament, are the friend and style of the writer, Miss Shuttle. A writer's stylistic or spiritual beliefs are as authoritarian as the "authoritarian concept of love" in which Luke and Elinda are caught. One accepts that; one accepts even the hermetic, if not always obscurantist, limitations of an imaginative work as poetic as this one very often is, despite the fact that its anger and ideology seem preserved in itself, as much as Elinda's body is said to be preserved in her mirrors.

"Strictly for the Bards," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 15, 1974, p. 149.

Penelope Shuttle writes the kind of prose that gives poetry a bad name. To read Wailing Monkey Embracing a Tree is like eating a meal of which every course is smothered in clotted cream. Almost every noun has to have its unexpected adjective. There are 'unchaperoned hands', an 'alkalescent wife', 'birdcatcher eyelids'; the tide is 'ischiatic', the sea 'samsonite', 'thrasonical' and 'oxalic'. I don't want to be dismissive of a writer who so obviously enjoys manipulating, and indeed manufacturing, words, and some of the images are apt as well as startling…. And what about the title of this book? The blurb says it is the Chinese name of a sexual position. I had hoped I would learn something useful when I came to the explanation, but I must have missed it—unless it's being described in 'Now the lovers are grasping flesh and their bizarre bodies melt together, the avatarick heartland slowly infiltrated by genitalia.' If so, I pass. (p. 138)

John Mellors, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), June/July, 1974.

The first thing one notices [in Wailing Monkey Embracing a Tree] are certain rhythms, verbal undulations, patterns within the sentence-structures and within the short sections—each to be read rather as a Rimbaudian prose-poem than as a chapter in the usual sense. These rhythms have such power that they may distract the reader from the simplicity of the book's plot, just as Penelope Shuttle's very obvious infatuation with some of the less familiar parts of the thesaurus occasionally makes her prose seem pretentious, and at the same time detracts from the strength of her observation of natural (and unnatural) forces at work in people and places. It is as though a drum were beating out a story which is not quite the story one is reading. In this single respect, I am unsure of the success of Wailing Monkey Embracing a Tree. It could be that Miss Shuttle has become the prisoner of her own verbal inspiration, so that the language is telling her what to do. It could be that I have not yet perceived the relation between the rhythm and the story. This is not a book which gives you all it has on one reading. On the contrary, it is designed to be reread—a lot is made to depend upon memories of linguistic echoes, cadences that came once like this a while before, now changed from the major to the minor, or vice versa. The thing is fugal.

Yet there is a narrative shape, and characters, and a plot. (p. 66)

This is a highly original piece of work, not least in its insistence upon [the protagonist's] changing masks as she changes lovers—the way in which Miss Shuttle shows her heroine to be a reflection of the two men. By the end, this has ceased: Elinda has one face, and her lovers are going to have to learn its lineaments. If we were going to discuss this novel according to the Jamesian categories of literary criticism, then I would claim this as its moral point. Such categories will not truly contain it, however. I come back to the matter of rhythm and am reminded by Wailing Monkey of two superb passages in the work of John Cowper Powys—his evocations of the sea at the beginning of Jobber Skald, and his invocations of Cybele, Our Lady of the Turrets, at the end of A Glastonbury Romance. Miss Shuttle is more successful than Powys in marrying what her people say to what they do. Her dialogue is not exactly credible, but it is coherent, and it is genuinely dialogue between male and female voices—where Powys is all male monologue, even if the male is at moments so old maidish as to sound like Tiresias. She is almost as successful as Powys in indicating that her landscapes and seascapes are as much mental as physical. The patterns of the changing sea reflect Elinda's face and mind as beautifully as the mother's room performs the same service without beauty in Samuel Beckett's Molloy, or the interior of Dud No-Man's lodgings in Powys's novel Maiden Castle. I throw out these names to try to suggest a direction for further criticism. Miss Shuttle's work is assuredly ambitious enough in scope, and sufficiently rich in detail, to justify such comparisons. (pp. 66-7)

Robert Nye, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Robert Nye 1974; reprinted with permission), November, 1974.

Dr Gregory Treviles [in The Terrors of Dr Treviles] is a psycho-therapist who believes in using the total imagination of his patients in helping them to help themselves. In doing this he injects, as a kind of imaginative transplant, images from his own poetry and dreams. For true poetry can make one find the truth in one's own fantasies and so move on to new wholeness….

The freshness for the reader is in having a scientific imagination electrically at work where one usually has a literary one…. [The] central correspondence of the book concerns the body's molecular structure and the exciting possibility of molecular therapy arising from greater knowledge of this.

All these ideas open the gates of the mind with a fine flourish…. But to sustain the exhilaration of a true romance of science it seems to me the story should be set in a world where this knowledge is already part of our consciousness, a world in which the molecular revolution has already taken place. Then potentially interesting characters … could have an effective role in the action. But we soon realise that they are only on the fringe of Gregory's imagination and that the book is primarily an offering by the authors, a dual testament-cum-allegory (at times perhaps dual therapy) to help create such a world. It is also incidentally a fascinating storehouse of scientific information….

The end suggests a waking up on Treviles's part and a great weariness with the mask-like function which his vision of imagination as therapy inevitably gives him. Which makes one wonder whether it is not time for Treviles's creator to write a scientific-cum-religious book that faces the issues of pattern and randomness that assault him so continuously. Everything may be related to everything else, but it is not the same as everything else and sometimes, it seems to me, one has to use comparatively limited rational categories to bring this out. But argument of this kind, though I think it is fundamental to the book, quite misses the ease and power, the light and shade, the visual beauty and exactness of the presentation and writing throughout. There is also a good deal of acute satire of academics. More than once the authors deftly place themselves in their own work. I think the revolution for them as novelists, though, will occur when they do not want to do this. (p. 70)

Marie Peel, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Marie Peel 1975; reprinted with permission), February, 1975.