Reading C by Tom McCarthy #4

I continue my reading of Tom McCarthy’s C, with Chapters 4 and 5.

Comments on Chapter 1 are here, Chapter 2 here, and Chapter 3 here.

Chapters 4 and 5

‘Sophie and Serge are educated together’(38), the first sentence of the chapter, sets the subject for discussion, as well as indirectly pointing up the fact that such co-education would be uncommon in pre-WW1 England, certainly for Sophie. The contrast in their approach to learning is striking. Serge ‘sees letters streaming through the air, whole blocks of them, borne on currents occupying a zone beneath the comprehensible’ (38). One thinks, inevitably, of his father’s experiments with telegraphy. Neither, oddly, can Serge do perspective in art class. ‘He sees things flat; he paints things flat’ (39).One thinks back to Chapter 2 and Serge sitting alone in a classroom looking at flat characters and shallow landscapes. And yes, in the most literal way, he has no sense of perspective.

Sophie, on the other hand, scrutinises botanical specimens and paints them in forensic detail. Unlike Serge she sees into things, and as we already know, she has already seen more than a child perhaps should (and at this stage it is not easy to determine how old Sophie actually is). As her name, Sophia, suggests, she is, or should be, the personification of wisdom. As yet, however, although Sophie has knowledge, whether she uses it wisely is another matter. She is, though, hungry for that knowledge, and whatever project she embarks on, she pursues it with single-minded devotion.

In section ii of this chapter, her new enthusiasm is cryptography, which she learns from Widsun, a friend of her father’s. Widsun, with one eye on the political situation that is brewing, is interested in the possibilities of sign language for passing covert messages in wartime. Simeon disapproves of both cryptography and sign language as he believes they subvert attempts to communicate, and for that matter refuses to accept that war is in the offing.

The question of what communication actually is hovers constantly in the background, not surprisingly when the entire house is seemingly given over exploring it from all angles. Quite apart from the deaf children being taught to speak and Simeon’s experiments with telegraphy (in which letters and words are transmitted in Morse code), there are the recordings of the pupils speaking that Sophie and Serge discover in the attic, Widsun’s gift of a projecting kinetoscope (an early form of cinema projection, and of course showing silent films on a flat screen), the elaborate communication system of strings-and-cans that the children set up around the garden to facilitate communication during their most elaborate games. Yet, with all of this, there are constant failures of communication, most notably between the children and their parents and, by extension, between them and Mr Clair, the tutor, who cannot teach Serge perspective and who has been far outstripped by Sophie’s brilliance.

No attempt at communication ever works quite as it ought to; the sense remains of words being cut off, of voices not being heard (the deaf children still can’t ‘hear’ if they have their backs to a speaker). And, of course, Simeon is constantly pipped at the post in his attempts to patent his discoveries (and we only ever have his word – and what does that actually mean – that he is actually doing the research he claims to be carrying out, and achieving those results). At other times forms of communication become corrupt, most strikingly in the way Sophie and Widsun communicate, through coded messages in the Personals columns and through a different form of sign language.

section iii of this chapter focuses on the Day School Pageant, which takes as its subject matter the Rape of Proserpine. Here we see Simeon in his element, lord of all he surveys, attempting to orchestrate every aspect of the play, which in turn underlines how little of the rest of the world he controls. Everything about Versoie is somehow always trussed up, in walls, in telegraph wires, in vines, in the threads on the loom, and in costumes.

Within the play, Serge is cast as Ascalaphus, the witness to the rape, as Widsun observes. And this is Serge’s role at home, and indeed throughout most of the novel to come. He will rarely possess much in the way of agency, but he will bear witness, though often, particularly now, as a child, he will not entirely understand what he sees. He stands as a contrast to Sophie, who observes and understands and already carries the weight of knowledge. Thus, Serge sees Widsun and Sophie signing to one another but doesn’t understand what they say, and in turn doesn’t understand why Sophie’s stage special effects go slightly awry throughout, until as the play ends, everyone is desperate for refreshments, leaving her to vanish. After noise comes silence, and Serge’s standing witness to a strange event which the adult reader interprets as two people copulating behind a screen, their shadows thrown onto the screen but which for Serge simply makes no sense at all as he renders it in terms of two-dimensional objects. As he never quite gets to see behind the screen, he remains in ignorance and we are left to assume that Sophie and Widsun have had an assignation, not least because Widsun leaves so rapidly afterwards.

The image of the screen returns again at the end of this chapter, but first, in section i, we meet Serge, a teenager now, listening into the world via his transmitting and receiving chamber, buried away in a silence chamber he has constructed somewhere in the house. This picks up, once again, on the sense of the labyrinth: the estate hidden away, the house hidden within the estate, the buildings that seem to fold in on themselves, and now another layer within, like Chinese boxes, embedded one inside another. And inside the silence chamber, the smallest box of all, the world unfolds and multiplies as Serge goes through his nightly routine of scanning the wavebands, first for local traffic and then, gradually, reading out to the world beyond, to the ‘vast sea of transmission’ (64), set again the ‘little household’s fantasy of isolation’ (64). No coincidence, then, that Serge chooses to recall the night he intercepted a distress call from a sinking ship.

To Serge, ‘[t]he static’s like the sound of thinking’. It is more than a person or a group. ‘It’s bigger than that, wider – and more direct.’ ‘It’s like the sound of thought itself.’ (63). And what is striking here is how Serge sees words in sounds, picking up that image from the previous chapter. Of all of them, even Simeon, Serge is the only one who seems to be fully aware of the wider picture, of the world beyond, and even then he can only apprehend it by hiding away in the silence chamber. But he, at least, is aware. Simeon, Mrs Carrefax and Sophie are all looking inward, each contained in their own cocoon of workshop, weaving shed and laboratory. There is no real world beyond.

Moving to section ii, it is not clear at what point Sophie leaves Versoie to study in London. We encounter her only after her return, after two terms, for no immediate reason. She works obsessively and sleep-walks. When Serge speaks to her, her responses are fractured, disjointed, echoed in her constant work of dissection, her deconstructing of flowers and insects, the way in which she mingles newspaper headlines and charts and diagrams of her work on the wall of her laboratory.

When she confides, finally, in Serge and tells him she has a lover, the reader is left with a jumble of possibilities. Is it Widsun? Or someone else? Is she pregnant, as she seems to be suggesting? And, critically, is she suggesting that Simeon is not their father? One thinks back to the pageant of the previous chapter and the mysterious muddle of the crowning of Widsun and Mrs Carrefax, rather than Mrs Carrefax and Simeon as originally intended. The signals are muddled, and her death, from taking poison, is glossed as an accident. Only Simeon knows that she said ‘I’ll have to kill him in me’ (74).

Section iii is the funeral, another, darker pageant orchestrated by Simeon; in this instance, there can be no return to the light, although Simeon decides that Sophie’s coffin must be fitted with a Morse code transmitter in case she is not actually dead. What is striking throughout is his seeming oblivion that this is his daughter who is dead, whose funeral he has arranged, rather than it being one more general event. His lack of emotional involvement is extraordinary. The event is a farce rather than a moving ceremony.

For Serge, ‘[b]oth death and she are elsewhere, like a signal, dispersed.’ At the same time, ‘Serge feels a heaviness enter his stomach, as though something foreign were being lodged there’ (83).

The day-school children, inevitably, recite at the ceremony, and Serge, or is it McCarthy, comments on their under-rehearsed performance.

‘The looping, repeating lines mutate and distort so much that, even when the words come out correctly, they seem like a mispronounced version of something else, other sentences that are trying to worm their way to the surface, make themselves heard’ (78)

One returns, in that case, to ‘the letters streaming through the air, whole blocks of them, borne on currents occupying a zone beneath the comprehensible’ at the beginning of Chapter 4. (Also, it made me think of electronic voice phenomena, supposedly the communications of spirits from beyond the grave.) There are indeed ghosts in the machine, but what sort of ghosts, what kind of machine?