Is There Life Beyond The Gravy? Stevie Smith and Sarah Kane

[TW: rape]

It was a wonderfully sunny day; the willowherb waved in the ruins and the white fluff fell like snow. But alas – Celia glanced at the blue-faced clock in the Ministry tower – it was eleven o’clock.

Stevie Smith’s 1947 short story, ‘Is There Life Beyond The Gravy?’ shares much of its plot with her 1949 novel The Holiday. In both texts, Celia and her cousin Cas go and visit their Uncle Heber in the country. The background to this pastoral bliss, though, is the Second World War, which seems to go on even though The Holiday is ostensibly ‘post-war’.

But while Celia more or less survives The Holiday – the novel, as I’ve written before, ends with her lying down to sleep – ‘Is There Life Beyond The Gravy?’ runs backwards into the past from the moment of her death. The story starts with Celia getting up from the rubble of a bombed-out building; as she goes about her day in the office, and visits her uncle Heber, she gets younger and younger until she is a little girl in a ‘pink-and-white-striped sailor suit.’ Finally, the story reaches its climax:

‘We’re all dead,’ cried the three children in a loud, shrill chorus that rose like the wail of a siren. ‘We’re all dead, we’ve been dead for ages.

Writing a comparison between this short story and Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991), another novel with reversed chronology, is on my ever-growing to-do list. For now, though, I want to link the story with another text I’ve been reading this week: Sarah Kane’s Blasted (1995).

Both Smith’s story and Kane’s play trace the sudden eruption of war and violence into a sedate urban environment. In Blasted, an expensive hotel room in Leeds is abruptly destroyed by a bomb from a war which has inexplicably begun outside. Kane’s stage directions are blandly informative, stating the facts without explanation or emotion:

The hotel has been blasted by a mortar bomb.

There is a large hole in one of the walls, and everything is covered in dust which is still falling.

Catastrophe has erupted into a pleasurable space, and the narrative’s emotional response hasn’t quite caught up. Smith’s story opens on a gorgeous warm day, with flowers blooming:

It was a wonderfully sunny day; the willowherb waved in the ruins and the white fluff fell like snow. But alas – Celia glanced at the blue-faced clock in the Ministry tower – it was eleven o’clock.

Celia experiences disaster not in relation to the ‘ruins’ mentioned in passing, but from the prosaic fact that she’s late for work. Her bombed-out surroundings are aestheticised; the ‘white fluff’ of falling ash becomes identical with the soft pale fuzz of rosebay willowherb.

CYG5M3 Rosebay Willowherb ( Chamaenerion angustifolium), seed head - Stevie Smith, 'Is There Life Beyond The Gravy?'
CYG5M3 Rosebay Willowherb ( Chamaenerion angustifolium), seed head

She shook herself free of the rubble and stood up. The white earth fell from her hair and clothes.

‘Are you all right?’ said her cousin Casivalaunus, who was standing looking at her.

‘Oh yes, thank you so much. Oh, hallo, Cas.’

‘Hallo, Celia. Well, I’ll be off. See you at Uncle Heber’s.’

Celia took her cousin’s arm and hung on like grim death.

‘You’re sure you’re all right?’ said Cas, flicking at the white fluff with his service gloves. ‘I say, would you mind letting go of my arm?’

‘So long, Cas.’

‘So long, Celia. You’ll soon get accustomed to it.’

He saluted, and walking quickly with elegant long strides made off down an avenue lined with broken pillars.

In this text, as in Kane’s, war isn’t received dramatically. It’s instantly normalised. Celia shakes off her clothes briskly and stands, meeting Cas’s polite enquiries with even-politer assurances – the agony which leads her to cling to Cas’s arm ‘like grim death’ is unarticulated and quickly dismissed. Similarly, it is only off-handedlly that Kane’s character Cate notes that the war has started:

Cate stares out of the window.

Ian returns.

Cate         Looks like there’s a war on.

The physical destruction of the hotel is both metaphor and consequence of Ian’s rape of Cate in the second scene. She therefore disappears before the bomb has ripped open the hotel; the blitz is just a re-enactment of a horror which has already occurred for her. When she reappears at the end of the play – both later in the day, and later in the year, within the play’s complex time scheme – she has assimilated completely into the expectations of a warzone.

Cate enters through the bathroom door, soaking wet and carrying a baby.

She steps over the Soldier with a glance.

These characters are unemotionally responsive, radically open. Horrifying or inexplicable events simply appear in their consciousness, and are received without surprise. Cas, we suddenly learn, ‘was standing looking’ at Celia; he walks away down ‘an avenue lined with broken pillars’ which appears without explanation.

Kane’s mid-nineties play was sparked by scenes from the Bosnian war on TV. The text connects that conflict’s mass rapes with the normalisation of sexual assault in contemporary Britain. When asked, the playright enlarged: “The logical conclusion of the attitude that produces an isolated rape in England is the rape camps in Bosnia, and the logical conclusion to the way society expects men to behave is war.” What happens to Cate is received as at once the most appalling, apocalyptic event, and an occurrence which we (and Cate) have been socialised into viewing as inevitable. We soon – as Smith’s Cas remarks with a cryptic lack of subject – ‘get accustomed to it’.

Kane displaces horror from her characters on to the audience. We witness the characters rape and eat each other, and their flattened affect contrasts with our dismay. For Kane’s characters, individual and global events are inextricable. The same trauma goes on recurring in various forms: old news for them, but not for us. And why should Smith’s Celia be surprised at the destruction around her? The war goes on, even after it is ended, into the purgatory of an unwinnable and unending ‘post-war’. And of course, as we learn at the end, Celia is already dead – she has been for ages. As in Kane’s play, the calamity has pre-existed its own occurrence.

© Noreen Masud 2015

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