“A bourgeois tragedy”: Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet

balzacUsing the hashtag #IHaveNeverRead, Penguin UK recently urged people on Twitter to “confess” their “shocking literary shortcomings” — an exercise in weirdly inverted snobbery that inevitably recalls David Lodge’s game ‘Humiliation‘. I’m actually less and less humiliated by the vast array of titles (classic or otherwise) that I haven’t read: there are just so many books, after all, and it only takes a moment to figure out for sure that I’ll only ever read a tiny fraction of them. And what counts as a “shortcoming” in someone’s reading depends so much on what purpose we think that reading is supposed to serve. Since I’m supposed to be something of an expert in a particular subcategory of literature, it’s easy enough to point to books that in some sense I should have read by now (Dombey and Son, say, or Pendennis). But even within those parameters, is it “shocking” that I haven’t read, say, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, or anything by Disraeli? What about Charlotte Yonge? And in the larger context, while I regret not having read Moby-Dick (yet) or Crime and Punishment (again, yet!), I hardly see this as something I need to be ashamed of.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this. Until now, I hadn’t read anything by Balzac: Eugénie Grandet (which is the latest selection of the Slaves of Golconda reading group) is my first. I have read about Balzac, here and there and especially at Wuthering Expectations, where, I realize, exploring the archives, Tom called Eugénie Grandet “Balzac’s best book” and his own favorite. I’m actually glad I hadn’t remembered that as I read through the novel myself. It might have discouraged me, as I found Eugenie Grandet pretty hard going. On the other hand, knowing why Tom rated it so high might have helped me appreciate it more as I plugged along. If Eugénie Grandet is indeed the best of Balzac, then perhaps I am not (yet) very good at Balzac. That’s OK: you have to start somewhere!

Because it’s what the library had, the edition of Eugénie Grandet that I actually read is the 1950 Modern Library College Edition, translated by E. K. Brown, Dorothea Walker, and John Watkins. It doesn’t have any notes: when I read more Balzac, I think I would benefit from them. It does have a brief introduction, which I looked over before reading the novel (I skipped any parts that looked like they’d spoil the plot). The most helpful bit for me was its explanation of the unprecedented importance Balzac placed on characters’ “material circumstances” — and the passing editorial remark that this is what accounts for his “characteristic openings,” which are “such fatiguing obstacles to most modern readers who prefer a more insinuating exposition.” Knowing that this info-dumping was a Balzac thing, I persevered through the opening of Eugénie Grandet, which is indeed dense with details which (to my newcomer’s eye) never really took on a great deal more than descriptive significance: did we really need to know that much about the streets, houses, trade, and residents of Saumur to appreciate the moral and personal implications of Monsieur Grandet’s miserly ways?

This is thin ice for a lover of George Eliot, obviously; more than once I have made the case to bored students (following Eliot herself) that the action of Middlemarch  can’t be rightly understood with her long sections of exposition, and my favorite chapter of The Mill on the Floss is “A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet.” I’m a fan of telling! Showing can’t do everything. But I couldn’t discern any way in which the crux of Eugénie Grandet depended on the contexts so meticulously established: the tyrannical Monsieur Grandet didn’t seem in any particular way a creature of his time and place, any more than did his daughter, the almost-insufferably patient and virtuous Eugénie. She does, however, exemplify a specific ideal of femininity: “Women have this in common with the angels,” intones our narrator; “– suffering humanity belongs to them.” “To feel, to love, to suffer, to sacrifice will always be woman’s fate,” we’re told; “Eugénie was to be in all things a woman.” So on the one hand we have painstaking specificity, while on the other we have transcendent, platitudinous universals.

eugenie-grandet-honore-de-balzac-001That’s not quite fair, though. Grandet isn’t altogether a caricature, and Eugénie has some surprises in store for us, as does Balzac, as he throws a elegant but tragically impoverished cousin into the plot to help Eugénie find her spine and then cheats us of either obvious ending: we get neither the tragic “daughter sacrificed on the altar of forbidden love” nor the comic “true love triumphs over bad dad.” Instead, things go in weird directions in this “bourgeois tragedy”: the cousin is morally degraded by making his fortune in the slave trade; disappointed in the lover whose memory (and “dressing case”) she has cherished against all odds, Eugénie nonetheless enables his marriage to someone else and then marries herself — after insisting her husband-to-be accept her terms, which include preserving her virginity. Left a rich widow, she continues the penny-pinching ways learned from her father in her own life but puts her wealth to good use otherwise: “pious and charitable institutions, a home for the aged, and Christian schools for children, a richly endowed public library.”

I enjoyed being surprised by the story in this way. I wonder if rereading the novel would help me see what it means: is it singular, for instance, a simple slice of imagined life, or is there a larger idea at work here, about money or marriage or virtue or love? There are definitely ideas floating around in the book: the other aspect of it that I especially liked, in fact, was the intrusive narration, which seemed a bit haphazard but provided many quotable bits: “Isn’t this the only god in which we believe today,” he asks, “money, in all its power, symbolized in a single human image?” “How terrible is man’s estate!” he continues; “there is not one of his joys which does not spring out of some form of ignorance.” “Misers do not believe an a life hereafter,” he tells us later on, in the passage that I thought probably came closest to telling us the moral of the story:

 the present is everything for them. This thought throws a horrible light on the present day, when, more than at any other time, money controls the law, politics, and morals. Institutions, books, men, and doctrine, all conspire to undermine belief in a future life — a belief on which the social edifice has rested for eighteen hundred years. . . . To attain per fas et nefas to a terrestrial paradise of luxury and empty pleasures, to harden the heart and macerate the body for the sake of fleeting possessions, as people once suffered the martyrdom of life in return for eternal joys, is now the universal thought — moreover a thought inscribed everywhere, even in the laws which ask the legislater: What do you pay? instead of asking him: What do you think? When this doctrine has passed down from the middle class to the populace, what will become of the country?

Against that dystopian vision, he puts the angelic figure of Eugénie — except that her sacrifice is made for love, not God (and an unworthy love, at that), while her “noble heart,” tender as it is, has been irrevocably tainted by her father’s example, “always to be subject to the calculations of human selfishness.” So where does that leave her — or us? Maybe when I read more Balzac, I will know better.

“A Medley of Allusions”: Penelope Lively, Oleander, Jacaranda

oleanderPenelope Lively’s Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived turned out to be an apt book to be reading on my birthday, which is a day that inevitably recalls memories of its earlier childhood iterations. Lively’s book is a memoir, but it’s a markedly impressionist one, composed of anecdotes and recollections held together with a light stitching of context and retrospection. She doesn’t try to create a coherent narrative out of her materials or even to situate them definitively: instead, she’s interested in recapturing the intense but incomplete, even confused, quality of childhood when much is “perceived” (as per her title) but much less is understood, or at least not as adults understand it. Pictures come to her mind, moments complete in themselves yet unmoored from certainty: did that happen? can he have said that? why were we there? Places and relationships are recalled as they were once taken for granted, with the child’s acceptance that this way, and no other way, is how they are ordered — but now also seen with the eyes of greater experience as symptomatic of complex and contingent patterns, of class, of race, of national identity, of history.

What fascinates Lively most is “the young child’s ability to focus entirely on the moment”:

to direct attention upon the here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation. . . . A way of seeing that is almost lost in adult life. You can stare, you can observe — but within the head there is now the unstoppable obscuring onward rush of things. It is no longer possible simply to see, without the accompanying internal din of meditation.

She doesn’t really idealize this “child’s eye view” or lament the inevitable adult blurring of that clarity. She acknowledges, and her book amply illustrates, how limiting and solipsistic it is. Living in Egypt during World War II, for instance, she has only the vaguest sense of the world-historical event unfolding around her, her own preoccupations entirely (and entirely naturally) wholly personal:

The bombing of Alexandria was concentrated on the harbour region, some distance from the residential area in which my mother would rent a villa for the summer. Indeed, for me the air raids simply added to the festive atmosphere of the place and gave it a further esoteric dimension. The sky was suffused with fireworks. If the raid was bad you were got out of bed and tucked up in a rug under the dining-room table, and there was always the possibility of picking up shrapnel in the garden next morning.

Later, when she is living with her grandmothers in England and struggling to adjust to “this stupefying environment” (“the inconceivable cold, the perpetually leaking sky, that grass”), “the war ended — and I hardly noticed, immersed in becoming someone else.”

oleander2That same self-absorption, however, is also what enables the peculiar clarity and vividness of her childhood observations: not already knowing what anything is or means, children have to puzzle it out on their own terms, and much of Oleander, Jacaranda simply describes the Egypt of Lively’s childhood as she saw it:

We are in the desert, somewhere outside Cairo. My mother has driven us to see what some archaeologists are doing, who are working out here in the middle of nowhere. The archaeologist to whom my mother talks is French. He is offering explanations, to which I do not listen. I see, simply.

I see a shallow scrape in the sand, a bowl in which lies in delicate relief a crouched skeletal outline. It is so faint that it seems to melt into the sand, or to be a pattern blown by the wind. There is the curve of the skull, the fan of ribs, the folded limbs. The trace of a hand. Perhaps I do listen to the explanation, with half an ear, because it comes to me as I stare that this is a person. Long, long ago, this was a person. It too saw, and felt, and thought. I stand there enthralled, glimpsing time, and death. I do not know what it is that I have seen, but I understand that it is of significance.

Now, looking back, she thinks she must have been looking at a “pre-Dynastic burial,” as the details she recalls with such distinctness match what she has learned about these remains. But she  can’t be sure where she was when she saw them, or when:

My reactions do not seem to have been those of a very young child, but it would seem odd for archaeological activity of this kind to have been going on in the desert once the war had got going — I feel it cannot have been much later than 1940. So I was six or seven, and able to grasp the idea of immensities of time.

The haziness of her commentary, the fog of uncertainty in which even the most precise details of her memories are bathed, might easily have doomed Oleander, Jacaranda. As a memoir, in fact, I might even say that it is not particularly successful. But Lively is not aiming at a conventional memoir: the book is more about the process of memory, and about the differences between childhood and adult perceptions. By the end of the book she realizes that she is moving from one to the other. While being shown around “the bomb-flattened area around St. Paul’s” by a family friend, “someone who had developed an intense interest in the topographical history of the area and had discovered the way in which the bombs had stripped away the layers of time.” As he points out what the bombs have revealed — bits of the medieval boundary wall, fragments of a Roman bastion — Penelope “caught a glimpse of what it is like to have adult concerns,” what it is like to know the stories that connect things and surround them with meaning beyond the immediate and personal:

Romans were to do with me because I had heard of them, but they were also to do with the significant and hitherto impenetrable mystique of grown-up preoccupations. It was as though the exposure of that chunk of wall had also shown up concealed possibilities. I sniffed the liberations of maturity, and grew up a little more, there amid the wreckage of London and the seething spires of willowherb.

Oleander, Jacaranda doesn’t give us an orderly account of Lively’s young life, but it gives a remarkably vivid sense of what it’s like to remember a life, as we all do, in chaotic and imperfect snatches.

moontigerIt also shows, though it only occasionally tells, a lot about the direction of that life: Lively became a novelist, of course, and it’s hard not to see in the kinds of memories she has the observant, inquiring mind it takes to write the kind of fiction she does. The language of Oleander, Jacaranda, too, has the sure touch of someone who lives through words:

The Alexandria of the 1930s and 1940s survives now only in my mind, and in the minds of others. Most of whom knew it a great deal better than I did. For I did not know it at all, I realize, any more than I knew Cairo in any real sense. Much of it I never even saw — the densely populate slum quarters to the west of the city, the labyrinthine streets of downtown Alexandria, tucked behind the boulevards and shops. It was not one city but half a dozen, in which people moved on different planes, segregated by class and culture. And for me there was the further segregation of childhood. My Alexandria was a sybaritic dream. Peanuts in a paper cone, eaten on the Corniche. The suck and whoosh of the sea at the Spouting Rock. The milky-green curve of a surfing wave. The cool grip of a chameleon. Pistachio ice-cream. Macaroons. A medley of allusions, which add up now to a place which no longer exists in any sense at all.

Lively has long been one of my favorite novelists. I especially admire Moon Tiger, which I have assigned once or twice in seminars on historiography because, like Oleander, Jacaranda, it is preoccupied with the interplay of personal and historical, of memory and fact and imagination, in constructing stories about the past. Oleander, Jacaranda is more meandering than Moon Tiger, and possibly less artful, but it’s still another fascinating excursion into the places of Lively’s mind.

This Week In My Sabbatical: Writing and Brooding

OxfordIt has been kind of a stuttering week for me. My “Meeting With Your Writing” session on Monday helped me work up some positive energy about the next part of the George Eliot project I want to work on — this was good, as I had been getting kind of fed up with the other piece I’ve been working on since January. That piece is at about 18,000 words right now and it’s definitely still a messy early draft, which is one reason I’d become frustrated with it. But I realized that trying to “finish” it, or even polish it, when I’m not quite sure about my overall direction would be unproductive, so starting the next section made both practical and psychological sense.

Soon after, though, I found myself in the writing doldrums, mostly because the new bit seemed so disconnected from the first part and that started a whole mental chain reaction of questions about what exactly I was trying to do. This kind of metacriticism of my own work-in-progress is something I’ve been deliberately avoiding this term: my plan was just to write as much as I could while I have the time to dedicate to it, and then contemplate the results in July, when my sabbatical is officially over. Who knows, by that point, I might have accidentally provided myself with answers about what exactly I was trying to do! And I wouldn’t any longer be trying to answer questions about it in the abstract — what kind of thing might this be? what would it look like? what would it say? — but would know, and could revise and reconsider and repackage from there.

Because I am prone to both brooding and self-doubt (they go together so awfully well, don’t they?), this plan was basically a good one. It has proved harder to follow than I’d hoped, though. I am steeped in self-consciousness by both nature and training, after all; falling off the wagon as I did this week was probably an inevitability. I got myself back together by Thursday, partly by doing an extra session of MWYW during which (in service of the writing, I promise!) I got to spend a lot of time surfing around in Middlemarch choosing examples to discuss. That was truly restorative! Jo always advises us to start, if we can, with an aspect of the writing project that we really want to do — something that we think will be fun. I’ve made a note to remind myself that when I feel stuck, I should go back — if only for a little while — to one of the novels and just read for a bit. After all, they are the reason I’m doing any of this in the first place!

I’m back on track now, ready for a better, steadier time next week. I don’t think the time I spent in the doldrums was necessarily wasted, though. Though Jo rightly pointed out to me on Twitter that I don’t need to decide this question now, what I found myself mostly brooding about was whether I was wrong to be thinking about this project as a book (recall the trigger, that the two sections didn’t seem connected, except by method) — or, to approach it from the other direction, why I wasn’t satisfied thinking about it as related but distinct essay projects. I’ve honestly never been sure I had a sufficiently motivating and unifying book-sized idea, so in fact the book plan (as far as it has gotten at this point) has always been for a carefully framed and integrated series of essay-like chapters that remain primarily exercises in expansive close reading — I know, I know, not a marketable idea, at least for a literary nobody — don’t knock me off the wagon again! But any book is a struggle to get published, and Tom isn’t the only person who has pointed me to venues like the Hudson Review that already do publish literary pieces of the sort I have been writing (and of which my current material is really just a larger and messier version).

Obviously, I can’t simply assume my work would be accepted at places like that, but what if essay-writing actually suited me and my work best — what would be wrong with making that kind of publishing my ambition? After all, even the critical books I’ve liked best in recent years have in fact been made up of … you guessed it, essays (I’m thinking of Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, for instance, or James Wood’s The Broken Estate). Why, then, have I become fixated on somehow producing a book?

During my brooding period, I finally admitted to myself that, in part at least, it’s for the wrong reasons, that is, it’s not because I have something to say that can’t be said properly in any other format but because I imagine it would bring me (in addition to what I hope would be some genuine personal and intellectual satisfactions) some professional validation. “Look!” I could say (to the kind of person, for example, who waved a dismissive hand at my list of essays and reviews and said they didn’t “add up to anything in particular”). “It’s not quite your kind of book, but it is at least a book, the kind of thing you can display at your book fairs!” That’s not the only reason, but recognizing that it was definitely one reason was at first depressing, and then strangely liberating. I routinely give presentations in which I bring up the MLA’s proposal that we “decenter” the monograph: I strongly believe that books (as I also discuss here) aren’t always the best form, though they have become the professionally essential form. Loving books as I do, it’s not surprising that I love the idea of producing (another) one, and I’m not 100% sure that what I’m working on now won’t eventually prove to be a book. But the next time I get fretful, I’m going to remind myself that (by principles I myself have argued for repeatedly), it’s okay if it doesn’t.

So that’s where I end up another week of my sabbatical! In the moment, it didn’t feel like a very productive week, but in retrospect I think both the writing and the brooding I’ve done actually were productive in their own ways.

Weekend Reading: Julie Schumacher, Tana French

dear-committee-membersAs the latest in a seemingly relentless series of winter storms bore down on us last week, I plucked The Forsyte Saga off my shelf (where it has been ripening for a couple of years now): it seemed like the perfect time had come for something so long and (I hoped) absorbing. Bad call, as it turns out, not because anything’s wrong with The Forsyte Saga (I very much enjoyed the 30 or so pages I managed to read) but because between one thing and another I had difficulty settling down to it. It’s re-shelved for now: maybe the really perfect time for it will be a long lazy summer day, when my nerves aren’t jangling — or my muscles aching from shoveling yet another mess of snow.

A couple of other books kept me happily distracted this weekend, though. The first of them was Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, which I signed out on impulse when it popped up on the library’s list of recent e-book acquisitions. I’d heard a bit about it here and there when it was newer, and people seemed to like it a lot, but it sounded pretty gimmicky (a whole novel written as letters of recommendation? really?) so I hadn’t chased it down. Well, it is gimmicky, I suppose, but it’s also painfully funny — I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud so often reading anything. The narrator, Jason Fitger, is a bitter, dispirited professor of English and Creative Writing. There’s a layer of the novel that is straight-up snark of the kind all academics will recognize and many (shamefacedly or not) have participated in:

This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of this campus. I’ve known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes. This young woman is certainly tenacious, if that’s what you’re looking for.

There are some hilarious send-ups, also, of fads in creative writing:

This letter is intended to bolster the application to Wexler Foods of my former student John Leszczynski, who completed the Junion/Senior Creative Writing Workshop three months ago. Mr. Leszczynski received a final grade of B, primarily on the basis of an eleven-page short story about an inebriated man who tumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster … is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs, the monster’s spittle burbling ever closer to the victim’s groin. . . . Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea. . . You might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats.

Fitger is not a nice man, and in some respects he’s even quite creepy. But his acidity is in part a symptom of the failings of the system he works in; underlying and giving depth to the novel’s humor is an indictment of tendencies in contemporary academia that, again, all academics will recognize, from the devaluation of the university’s intellectual mission to the exploitation of part-time faculty and the demoralization of the rapidly diminishing number of their tenured colleagues. Asked by his new department chair to nominate someone for the position of director of graduate studies, Fitger explains why pickings will be slim:

Why? First, because more than a third of our faculty now consists of temporary (adjunct) instructors who creep into the building under cover of darkness to teach their graveyard shifts of freshman comp; they are not eligible to vote or to serve. Second, because the remaining two-thirds of the faculty, bearing the scars of disenfranchisement and long-term abuse, are busy tending to personal grudges like scraps of carrion on which they gnaw in the gloom of their offices.

Unsympathetic curmudgeon as Fitger mostly is, too, in his own way he’s fighting for the right and the good, especially in his relentless (if spectacularly undiplomatic and ineffective) championing of the one student he truly believes deserves every good opportunity. In a way Dear Committee Members is quite a grim book, and it doesn’t end with any false notes of redemption, but by the end I thought it was something more and better than simply cynical.

The_Secret_PlaceI also read Tana French’s The Secret Place, the latest in her Dublin Murder Squad series. I think French is really good, though I noted with Broken Harbour that I had become a bit tired of “the melodrama and the self-consciously brooding interiority, [and] the heavy-handed revelations.” I also got a bit impatient with The Secret Place, which seemed to me to be overwritten, not so much with melodrama but with metaphor: intangibles are always swirling, radiating, crystallizing, shimmering, around the four teenaged girls who are at the heart of the mystery. I appreciated that French wanted the novel to be more than a whodunit, that she’s interested in the way the teenage years are times of intense self-consciousness but also self-fashioning, that the girls’ identities are in flux as they try to figure out who they are, or, more to the point, who they are going to be. I just got a bit irritable with passages insisting on it: “They lie still and feel the world change shape around them and inside them, feel the boundaries set solid; feel the wild left outside, to prowl perimeters till it thins into something imagined, something forgotten.”

I found the novel’s emphasis on a particularly gendered kind of menace very interesting: one of the crucial elements of the crime is a pact of resistance the girls make — a resolution to keep “guys” at a distance, thus setting themselves apart from many of the emotional and social pressures of their boarding school. The novel alternates between their experience and the investigation, and there too we see the difficulty of sexual politics, especially through the character of Antoinette Conway, who has alienated her murder squad colleagues by turning on one of them when he “smacks her arse.” “If she’d just made this much effort to fit in,” says another male cop, warning off (he thinks) our narrator, who is working the new case with Conway; “But she didn’t, and now the rest of the squad thinks she’s an uppity ball-breaking humorless bitch.” Refusing to fit in is exactly the hallmark of the four girls at the center of the case too.

I ended up uncomfortable, though, with the way French develops this premise. The popular girls sneer at the others for being “weird,” even calling them “witches”: at first, this seems like an indictment of the speakers, and there’s no doubt that the members popular clique are worse than the ones they mistrust: shallow, judgmental, cruel, manipulative. But French actually plays with the witchcraft possibility, giving the outsiders uncanny powers that seem entirely real to them, though one of them eventually reflects that “someday she’ll believe — one hundred percent believe, take for granted — that it was all their imagination.” A lot of the imagery around these four also turns their close friendship into something uncanny: what are we to make of that? Is this just French’s way of exploring the total immersion of friendship at a time when individual identities are porous enough to allow the group to take on its own character?  It’s certainly not a nostalgic vision of youth, though: if anything, the teenage world the novel gives us is dystopian, a seething morass of hormones and resentments and lies and anxieties. That atmosphere, too, ended up making me uncomfortable: I thought the motif of resistance would take us in a feminist direction, but at times I thought the opposite was true, that the novel was perpetuating and even relying on, for its own purposes of suspense, the worst misogynistic clichés about teenaged girls. I’d love to know if anyone else had the same slightly queasy response.


“A Solitary Woman on the Threshold of Winter”: Miral al-Tahawy, Brooklyn Heights


The notebook meanwhile remained innocent of writing. She sketched one self-portrait after another in charcoal on the white pages, images of a woman with hollow cheeks and a long nose and curly black hair, hands clasped to her withered breast — a solitary woman on the threshold of winter.

That description is not actually of Hend, the protagonist of Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights: it’s of Lilith, one of the women we meet as we follow Hend in her wanderings around Brooklyn, where she has emigrated to from Egypt with her young son. Later, though, when Hend rifles through the books and papers Lilith leaves behind after her death, “a feeling of déjà vu sweeps over her”:

‘Emilia, I know these papers. . . .’ And I know that I’ve written every word in them myself, she thinks. This is my handwriting, they belong to me. . . . ‘I feel like I’ve lived all this before, that these letters are mine, these words are mine.’

Her friend Emilia is unmoved: “When you get to be my age,” she tells Hend, “you’ll realize that everything starts to look and feel the same when you’re old.” It’s not, in other words, a clever meta-fictional moment in which we are sent back to the beginning of Hend’s story to reconsider it as Lilith’s: it’s an acknowledgment of kinship across stories and lives.

The whole novel, which is both beautiful and melancholy, both bitter and touching, is made up of moments like that: encounters that awaken memories or evoke connections. There’s little plot in Brooklyn Heights, but that’s not to say nothing happens as we follow Hend around; it’s just that the happenings are more often in her past than her present, and as likely to be in the Egypt she has left as in the America where she has settled. People she meets remind her of those she used to know; places she visits take her back, in her mind, to where she used to be. Her wanderings through Brooklyn come to seem metaphorical, not just for Hend’s own journey through life but for all of ours, as the various elements that make up our histories and identities come and go.

Hend’s loneliness is profound, individual to her unique experience but also familiar; she is haunted by “a feeling of emptiness and futility and a yearning to share her loneliness with another human being.” But the new friendships she makes are fraught and impermanent, while her old relationships have simply “vanished from her life without a trace,” like the unfaithful husband who “walked out the door and never came back.” She lives a strange, sad, fragmented life that is nonetheless full of intensity:

Here in Brooklyn, she waits for the phone to ring or for a strange women to smile at her on the street. She doesn’t see Fatima any more either. “Everybody in this city is running around after something. Everybody is busy,” she would say to make herself feel better. She walks alone towards Atlantic Avenue. The winter rain falls steadily and the homeless people hide in the subway station or make a quick dash for the Dunkin’ Donuts. They sit alone and glance longingly at strangers with whom they hope to exchange a smile or a few words. The rain falls on the glass windows of the coffee shop and she watches the solitary drops and thinks how closely she fits in with the wretchedness around her. As she walks down the long avenue she passes the halal butchers, the Islamic Center, and the stores that sell fragrant oils and religious books about the torments of hell, pilgrimage clothes and velvet Meccan prayer rugs and short white Pakistani jalabas and so many different kinds of headscarves. Sometimes she rides the bus from Atlantic Avenue in the north of Brooklyn to Coney Island or Brighton Beach in the south. She sits next to the window and remembers how she used to love watching the world go by from the window of the old Cadillac. She stays on the bus till the end of the line and then rides back again, without getting off.

Her experience is highly specific, from the stories of her childhood in a Bedouin village to the dance class she takes in Brooklyn at the urging of a neighbor whose friendship subsides once Hend refuses his sexual overtures:

He had tried to convince her of the truth that love and hate mean nothing in the dance as in life, and that all she had to do was relax the muscles of her mind and give her body a chance to express itself, but Hend wasn’t convinced. The fragile spell cast by the wine and the circle of dancers was broken and Charlie went back to being a clay frog of a man she didn’t love.

Somehow the meticulous details do not restrict the novel’s meaning to Hend, though: without ever overtly pushing us towards universality, al-Tahawy seems to me to reveal it, in Hend’s yearning for companionship, in her puzzlement over her own unstable identity, her difficulty recognizing her self in her thoughts, or in her mirror. The other stories in the novel — of Lilith, of Hend’s family, of the retired bakery owner Naguib al-Khalili and his nephew, Ziyad, who “come to America to study film-making, but the real world got the better of him and he began to work full time in the bakery with his uncle” — are all also highly individualized, and yet they also play variations on Hend’s themes of displacement, memory, and identity, so that the book as a whole feels unified despite its episodic structure.

Brooklyn Heights has an elegaic quality: Hend is not old, but she is aging and unwell, and there is no sense in the novel of a new life unfolding in the new land she has come to. She believes herself born under an unlucky star: “it happens,” she thinks,

that you’re born on a summer night and suddenly find that you’ve been taken hostage by a star: always moving in the wrong direction, always pretending to be strong when in reality you quake in mortal fear, always wanting things but never reaching out for them, never knowing the difference between truth and illusion.

“The patterns traced by the stars gave some measure of meaning to her life,” but not any hope or confidence: Hend is constantly in motion but she’s not on a quest, not going anywhere except to return. She dreamed of being an actress; she thought, too, that she would be a writer: “all she wanted to do was write, so much so that she felt she would die if the bitter mountain of words stayed trapped inside her.” But she finds “writing is intractable, like a wounded woman, and at some point she realized that, after all was said and done, she was incapable of healing those wounds.” It’s not hard to imagine a different version of Brooklyn Heights that takes the hint from that moment and turns the novel into her novel. I was glad, though, that al-Tahawy does not offer us that facile reassurance that sorrow transmutes into art. There’s something beautiful about the bleakness of Hend’s meandering, and it seems fitting to be left with her on that cold threshold.

This Week In My Sabbatical: More of the Same

Sadly, that includes more winter: not only did we get another storm yesterday that dumped another foot or so of snow (it was hard to tell exactly, because it was very windy and so there were lots of big drifts), but apparently there’s yet another one looming. Whatever. It’s the kids’ March break; I’m not teaching; we don’t have anywhere we need to be before Friday: let it snow! But then, please, let it stop — because enough already.

In happier news, there has also been more reading and writing. If you’re reading this, you probably already saw my post on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act as well as the one on Rex Stout’s A Right to Die. Neither book was a great hit with me, but McEwan is a writer I’m never sorry to read — his worst recent books are still much better than most other books I read, at least in their scrupulous intelligence and their ambition to be about something interesting, and I always admire his prose. And I understand better now why Nero Wolfe is such a favorite for so many mystery lovers I know, even though I don’t think he’s going to become one of mine.

senseofanendingOver the weekend I also read Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending and reread (most of) Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible. I didn’t feel like writing a “proper” post on the Barnes novel. I didn’t like it much while I was reading it — it seemed really heavy-handed in its not-telling, and unduly portentous given what turned out to be the big revelation, which was a lot less revelatory than I expected. I’m sure there are all kinds of nuances in the novel’s treatment of memory and evidence, but I couldn’t motivate myself to go back and work up an appreciation of them. There’s lots of good writing on it: I recommend the typically thoughtful post at Tales from the Reading Room (which includes links to some extended discussions about the “what actually happened”) or this trenchant critique from Jessica at Read React ReviewMr. Impossible was a perfect storm-day diversion: it’s a perfect example of one of my own favorite romance tropes, namely “severe bluestocking discovers passion with a man who finds her intelligence alluring.” (I’m sure that says nothing about me at all! But seriously, as I said the first time I wrote here about reading romances, it’s interesting to me how personal romance preferences seem, compared to, say, detective fiction.) Now I’m reading Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights. I’m liking it a lot so far: it’s quiet and a bit melancholy.

Besides the blog posts, I’ve also written more of my George Eliot chapter. It’s still a long way from being finished, but I think it would be a mistake to keep at it until it seems perfect and complete: I still don’t quite know what the larger project should be, and the more I polish this piece the harder it will be to mess it up again later. So I’ve resolved to stick with it for another week, at which point all of its parts will be there in rough form. Then I’m going to start the process again on the topic I’ve chosen for the second chapter, work away at it until it too is in rough but full form, and then take off the blinkers and try to figure out what I’ve done, whether I should persist along similar lines, or reconsider altogether, or what. I have been feeling a bit grim about all this effort going into something that may be entirely quixotic — but I got a boost today reading Dan Green’s review of Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel“Ultimately,” Dan says,

[Gorra’s] goal is to enhance our appreciation of this novel (and indirectly of Henry James as a fiction writer), in the most old-fashioned sense to account for its greatness. What Gorra has really produced in Portrait of a Novel is a work of critical eclecticism. He borrows from a number of critical approaches, including some of those currently ascendant in academic criticism, as well as more traditional “scholarly” concerns, and in the process demonstrates how criticism can draw on a variety of ways of thinking about literature as a phenomenon of human expression and culture in order to satisfy the ultimate goal of providing a clarifying perspective on a morally and aesthetically complex work of literature.

gorra“Our current literary culture,” he concludes, “could certainly benefit from more books like Portrait of Novel, books that avoid both the intellectual trendiness and abstraction of academic criticism and the undisciplined impressionism of popular criticism.” I’m not (at the moment, anyway) including much biography, but I am trying to do “the sort of ‘in-between’ criticism” Gorra’s book apparently provides (I’ve put a hold on it at the library and will take a look for myself as soon as I can), and as Gorra’s book has been well received, maybe Dan isn’t the only one who likes to read that kind of thing. Gorra, of course, already had the right profile to make a book like this seem to a publisher like a plausible venture, but that’s an anxiety for another day. David Pierce’s Reading Joycewhich I have already looked at pretty carefully, is another example of “in-between” criticism — more than, say, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, which for all its good qualities, really does not offer a rigorous reading of its touchstone novel.

“Meaning”: Ian McEwan, The Children Act


She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.

I love reading Ian McEwan’s prose. It’s so satisfyingly meticulous, every word the right one, every one placed just so. It’s not that he’s a relentlessly spare or minimalist stylist: he likes a detailed description, an apt but surprising simile, even the occasional conspicuous flourish, like the Bleak House allusion that opens The Children Act: “London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather.”

But that allusion was just the first of many aspects of The Children Act that I found puzzling. Is it an interpretive hint or just a literary nod? What does this novel ultimately have to do with Bleak House? Both books have a dying child at their moral center, I guess, so that’s something. There’s Chancery Lane, too, and the whole legal context, but is Adam Henry’s case to be read as a metaphor for a broader social catastrophe, the way Jarndyce v. Jarndyce is? In Bleak House the legal system is a black hole into which not just money but lives, loves, good intentions, kind hearts, hopes, dreams are all inexorably drawn. The family court over which Fiona Maye presides certainly seems like a similar vortex of unreason and despair:

The new coinage was half-truth and special pleading. Greedy husbands versus greedy wives, maneuvering like nations at the end of a war, grabbing from the ruins what spoils they could before the final withdrawal. Men concealing their funds in foreign accounts, women demanding a life of ease, forever. Mothers preventing children from seeing their fathers, despite court orders; fathers neglecting to support their children, despite court orders. Husbands hitting wives and children, wives lying and spiteful, one party of the other or both drunk, or drug-addled, or psychotic; and children again, forced to become carers of an inadequate parent, children genuinely abused, sexually, mentally, both . . . And beyond Fiona’s reach, in cases reserved for the criminal rather than the family courts, children tortured, starved or beaten to death, evil spirits thrashed out of them in animist rites, gruesome young stepfathers breaking toddlers’ bones while dim compliant mothers looked on, and drugs, drink, extreme household squalor, indifferent neighbors selectively deaf to the screaming and careless or hard-pressed social workers failing to intervene.

In Bleak House Jo’s plight comes to represent that of all the children failed, not just by their parents, but by a state that proclaims its patriarchal authority but has abandoned its paternal responsibilities — more than that, the inability, or unwillingness, of anyone in power to save him is a symptom of a moral decay infecting the whole nation. “And dying thus around us every day,” charges the narrator, implicating his entire audience. England itself is the real “Bleak House” — and Esther, of course, is its symbolic housekeeper-savior. McEwan too shows us a world that is spectacularly failing its children, its dysfunctional families a sign of a society come unmoored.  But from what? Not from religion, which features in several of Fiona’s cases as just another source of conflict, one powered by its own forms of irrationality. Against its destabilizing power is set the organizing intelligence of the law: Fiona’s work is to wrestle all the chaotic elements into order, to sort and weigh and evaluate and ultimately rule, with the “welfare” of the children her top priority — which, compared to Bleak House at least, seems like progress.

And yet The Children Act is surprisingly equivocal about both law and religion. I say “surprisingly” because McEwan is well-known to be one of Richard Dawkins’s “brights,” that is, an atheist, and The Children Act seems perfectly set up to enact a decisive confrontation between the sacred and the secular. Fiona’s ruling on Adam’s case was just what I expected — well, I couldn’t have filled in the specifics in advance, but the decision itself seemed predictable, and yet it is also eloquent:

his welfare is better served by his love of poetry, by his newly found passion for the violin, by the exercise of his lively intelligence and the expressions of a playful, affectionate nature, and by all of life and love that lie ahead of him.

Adam, too, is initially converted, embracing his new chance at life and rejecting the rule of the “tooth fairy.” He sees Fiona as his savior:

You were calm, you listened, you asked questions, you made some comments. That was the point. It’s this thing you have. It added up to something. You didn’t have to say it. A way of thinking and talking. . . . It wasn’t about God at all. That was just silly. It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all the nonsense, it’s teatime! You were the grown-up.

Indeed she was, so why is this not the happy ending, for Adam and for the novel?

ChildrenAct-542x800The loose thread that unravels this tidy resolution is Fiona herself, who is not an abstraction, a theoretical embodiment of law or principle, but a person preoccupied by the fraying edges of her own once-elegant life: a discontented husband looking for the passion they no longer share; discontent of her own about her lack of “significant relations defined above all by love,” including having no children of her own (“Her failure to become a woman, as her mother understood the term”); doubts about the efficacy of her work, for which she has given up so much else (“she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ”). When Adam seeks her out as a … what? mentor? teacher? guru? sponsor? … she’s uncomfortable, understandably, as his impetuous proposals cross boundaries between the personal and the professional, between her public role as a judge and her private life:

I love being ‘young and foolish’ and if it wasn’t for you I’d be neither, I’d be dead! I wrote you lots of stupid letters and I think about you all the time and really want to see you and talk again. I daydream about us, impossible wonderful fantasies, like we go on a journey together around the world in a ship and we have cabins next door to each other and we walk up and down on the deck talking all day.

“I want to come and live with you,” he says; “I could do odd jobs for you, housework, errands. And you could give me reading lists, you know, everything you think I should know about.” Is it his failure or hers that, with the whole world now open to him, Adam sees in it only Fiona — or, at any rate, sees Fiona as the only source of wisdom and guidance? “Without faith,” she thinks later, when — turned away, or turned loose, by Fiona, Adam has made a drastic return —

how open and beautiful and terrifying the world must have seemed to him. . . . Adam came looking for her and she offered nothing in religion’s place, no protection, even though the Act was clear, her paramount consideration was his welfare. How many pages in how many judgments had she devoted to that term? Welfare, well-being, was social. No child is an island. She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.

Is that the message behind Adam’s sad fate, that something needs to fill the gap left by religion’s absence? If so, why is it Fiona’s individual responsibility to provide it? Or is the failure a collective one — or is Fiona falling, at Adam’s naive prompting, into solipsism, imagining that somehow she (the “grown-up”) has all the answers, when the responsibility really lay with Adam to embrace his hard-won independence and make meaning for himself?

McEwan doesn’t make the novel the polemical knock-down case he surely could have against Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular or religious believers more generally; The Children Act is a less schematic novel, I think, than Saturday, in which the contest between artistic and scientific worldviews plays out in a clear, if not quite clearly resolved, counterpoint. But neither does he concede that religion is a particular force for good, or a particular good source of meaning. Does he mean to leave us agnostic? “Why replace one tooth fairy with another?” asks Adam, to which Fiona replies, “Perhaps everyone needs tooth fairies.” It’s a bit of a let-down, not to mention a rather big concession to the tooth fairy crowd, if the novel’s best idea is that everyone needs something to believe in.

And what is the connection between this contest (if that’s what it is) and the details of Fiona’s personal life? Is her faltering marriage another symptom of the need for some more enduring belief, or some governing authority? Or is it just further evidence that the world is “open and beautiful and terrifying” depending on our own choices? Is it human love that should provide what Adam is looking for? Or perhaps is it music, which plays a large part in Fiona’s story? Walking to work Fiona mentally practices the Bach partita she has been memorizing:

The notes strained at some clear human meaning, but they meant nothing at all. Just loveliness, purified. Or love in its vaguest, largest form, for all people, indiscriminately.

 The novel’s climax is her triumphant performance with a fellow lawyer, a singer, in which they “entered the horizonless hyperspace of music-making, beyond time and purpose” — but the promise of this moment, that here, somehow, is the transcendence we all need, is undermined by Fiona’s lurking conviction that “something waited for her return.” She walks out on their standing ovation and returns home to the devastating news of Adam’s death, her failure in one realm overwriting her success in another. That’s life, I suppose, and perhaps that’s what we’re left with, what we have to make our own meaning out of. Amid the resulting emotional morass Fiona’s marriage “uneasily resumes,” and she and her husband lie “face to face in the darkness.”

“They’ve got that word in them”: Rex Stout, A Right to Die

righttodieA while ago word got out that I hadn’t read any of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. It didn’t take long for a certain thoughtful someone to make sure I had a good selection to choose from — and now I have read 1.5 of them! Why the .5,you ask? Because I started (dutiful as always) with the first one, Fer de Lance, and couldn’t finish it. I liked Nero and Archie just fine, but the mystery itself was too far the wrong side of absurd, and to top it off, the style seemed stilted. Also, in general I have difficulty making new detective friends: there are so many, after all, and I’ve been in my relationships with some of them for so long. It takes a lot to make me want to persist, especially if my first impressions are not great.

But I suspected I wasn’t done with these fellows (so many other smart readers can hardly be wrong!) so I kept the stack nearby, and recently I picked up A Right to Die more or less at random as I was heading to an appointment and needed a small book to stash in my purse for the waiting room. (We all know never to go anywhere without a book, right?) It turns out to be quite a leap forward from Fer de Lance — literally, as it’s both written and set 30 years later (though, as the Wikipedia page for A Right to Die points out, Wolfe and Goodwin haven’t aged a bit). I wouldn’t say it’s light years beyond the earlier book in other ways, but it certainly seemed more smoothly written and constructed, not to mention more grounded in reality. In fact, its specificity was its most striking feature: it is very deliberately about current events, and keeps reminding us just how current they are by having Archie regularly forget and then remind himself that Idlewild Airport has recently been renamed in honor of JFK.

RexStoutThe case involves two members of a civil rights organization, a black man and his white fiancée, Susan Brooke, who is the (first) victim. It seems pretty likely at first that race is a key factor in her death: I think it’s not giving away too much to say that this assumption is itself a symptom of the racial tensions the novel depicts, while the resolution of the mystery seems designed, not necessarily to move us past race, but to remind us that there are plenty of other sources of homicidal hatred that a preoccupation with race ought not to blind us to. The plot is set up by a visit from Paul Whipple, who was inspired to give Wolfe some crucial information in a long-ago case after Wolfe made an impassioned speech against shielding a murderer “because he is your color.” Whipple shows up and quotes the speech verbatim, including this bit:

You are helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions which you justly resent. The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them.

Racist assumptions get Paul’s son Dunbar accused of Susan’s murder: “Because she and I — we were friends. Because she was white and I’m black.” Wolfe, on the other hand, doesn’t assume anything. While his investigation (or, Archie’s investigation, really, since he does 90% of the actual work) does turn up plenty of nasty prejudice, the puzzle’s solution eventually turns on a diphthong and the culprit’s motives … well, that would be telling!

In a way, I think Stout’s choice of plot depoliticizes the novel (though you could also argue that Wolfe’s stated ideal of making race irrelevant is itself a political position, a particular vision that emphasizes ignoring or erasing, rather than understanding or celebrating, difference). By comparison, the crime story in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress is very much about race and identity, and the novel as a whole emphasizes systemic injustices that make solving one crime seem like not much. It’s not that Stout ignores such systemic problems, but by not tying his murder to them he reduces them to context or setting, rather than developing them as a theme, and as a result A Right to Die ends up being less interesting, just as a novel, than it might have been. It’s still got some pretty powerful moments arising from that context, though, including the impassioned explanation from the accused about why he hesitated to call the police after finding the body. “About motive, with a Negro they take motive for granted,” he tells Wolfe. “He’s a shine, he’s a mistake, he was born with motives white men don’t have. It may be nonsense, but it’s the way it is.” “With the scum, yes,” agrees Wolfe. “With dolts and idiots.” “With everybody,” Dunbar replies:

Lots of them don’t know it. Most of them up here wouldn’t say that word, nigger, but they’ve got that word in them. Everybody. It’s in them buried somewhere, but it’s not dead. Some of them don’t know they’ve got it and they wouldn’t believe it, but it’s there. That’s what I knew I’d have to face when I sat there on the bed last night and tried to decide what to do.

I was initially tempted to label A Right to Die a “period piece,” but like Mosley’s “historical” Los Angeles, there’s a strong enough resemblance to our own period, to our present, that it would be much too easy to set it aside and say “case closed.”

“I Have Married England”: Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon,” Part II

busmans2Now for the things I don’t love about Busman’s Honeymoon. [If you missed it, Part I, “Love with Honour,” explains the things I do love.] Some of these I’ve always noticed, some stood out particularly on this reread; some are small irritations, and some make me uneasy that, in spite of them, I still love the book. In the discussion that followed my earlier post about making excuses for Gaudy Night I suggested that some books are “like a slightly embarrassing relative you still adore.” I think it’s not just loyalty that keeps Busman’s Honeymoon in my good books (so to speak!): I think the good in it really does outweigh the bad. But I can’t deny that it has some real problems.

Worst is the novel’s off-hand antisemitism, which surfaces in the context of not one but two “financial gentlemen” who get involved in squabbling over the victim’s estate. The first, Mr. MacBride, is anticipated as “an inquisitive Hebrew”; he turns out to be”a brisk young man, bowler-hatted, with sharp black eyes that seemed to inventory everything they encountered, and a highly regrettable tie.” He also has “a trifling difficulty with his sibilants.” The second, Mr. Solomons, is “a stout, elderly Hebrew” with a pronounced lisp (“Very thorry to intrude . . . I have here a bill of thale on the furniture . . .”). They are both presented as slightly comical figures and treated with perfect, if faintly condescending, amiability by our main characters, but there’s no doubt that they are meant to represent an exotic and not altogether desirable genus characterized by money-grubbing and sharp dealing. This is the kind of thing that could be shrugged off as “a product of its times” but is more appropriately pointed out as a symptom of what was wrong with those times, or at least with too many people living in those times. In Gaudy Night villainy is strongly associated with Nazism, but antisemitism and fascism had a pretty strong hold in 1930s England too: Mr. MacBride and Mr. Solomons could come across as quaintly offensive anachronisms, but they are also salutary reminders of the conditions that made Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts possible.

Next up is the novel’s snobbery. In Gaudy Night, where so much of what matters is educational and intellectual, I tend to think in terms of elitism instead, and to see Oxford as a place that (in Sayers’s admittedly idealized version) renders class barriers, if not irrelevant, at least less relevant. But in Busman’s Honeymoon you really can’t ignore the power of class hierarchies. Though there are references to Harriet’s past life as an ordinary person (you know, the kind who buys tea biscuits in a shop and so knows which ones from the package have the cheese in the middle), she’s living in Peter’s world now, and she adapts with discomfiting ease. It takes no apparent effort at all for her to refer to the gardener simply as “Crutchley,” to accept Bunter’s deferential services, or to be high-handed with the (admittedly dreadful) housekeeper Mrs. Ruddle.

In taking on Peter’s rank, Harriet is taking up a new place in a strictly ordered world, one the novel portrays with more nostalgia and idealism than mistrust or critique:

Whatever fantastic pictures she had from time to time conjured up of married life with Peter, none of them had ever included attendance at village concerts. But of course they would go. She understood now why it was that with all his masquing attitudes, all his cosmopolitan self-adaptations, all his odd spiritual reticences and escapes, he yet carried about with him that permanent atmosphere of security. He belonged to an ordered society, and this was it. More than any of the friends in her own world, he spoke the familiar language of her childhood. In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village — no matter what village — they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares. She was curiously excited. She thought, “I have married England.” Her fingers tightened on his arm.

vintagebusmanIt’s one thing to be “immutably yourself” when you’re the duke’s son (or his new bride), but it’s another if you are a struggling mechanic or anyone else who might like to “do or become” something else. Even though Harriet’s own story could be read as one of disruptive social mobility (and that’s exactly how she is seen by the more hidebound of Peter’s family and aristocratic peers), in Busman’s Honeymoon social aspiration is cause for ridicule (the absurdly pathetic Miss Twitterton, for instance, who gives herself airs because her mother was a school teacher) or a sign of villainy; the cynicism of a world in which Mrs. Ruddle initially suspects Harriet and Peter of being film stars and “no better than they should be” is contrasted unfavorably with the noblesse oblige that requires dutiful attendance at village concerts and the vicar’s sherry party.

Peter is often a bit awkward or apologetic about the anachronism of his aristocratic identity, but he’s also profoundly attached to the continuity it represents, and Busman’s Honeymoon really indulges that feeling, particularly when he brings Harriet at long last to visit the family “pile,” Duke’s Denver, with its antiques and its peacocks and its well-mannered ghosts. The tour of the family portrait gallery brings to mind Trollope’s remarks about the wealth of the church: “Who could lie basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library, and that unequalled spire, without feeling that Bishops should sometimes be rich?”

The afternoon sun slanted in through the long windows of the gallery, picking out here a blue Garter ribbon, there a scarlet uniform, lighting up a pair of slender hands by Van Dyck, playing among the powdered curls of a Gainsborough, or throwing into sudden startling brilliance some harsh white face set in a sombre black periwig.

We are all, in some ways, beneficiaries of such privilege: shouldn’t we be glad that some people have, historically, been able to collect and preserve so much beauty, to patronize artists and commission great buildings? But while it’s true that Busman’s Honeymoon does include reminders that democratic forces are at work — that in London, as Harriet observes, for instance, this “ordered society” is in flux — there’s something conservative about its yearning to keep those forces at bay and to protect “impeccable Inigo Jones staircases” from the encroachments of modern life. Along with the novel’s other nastier prejudices, this raises questions about just what kind of England Harriet has married: it doesn’t seem an altogether welcoming or progressive place.

Finally, there’s the crime itself, which Chandler was quite right to point to as contrived. The Golden Age aspects of the mystery are mostly good fun. I especially like Peter’s self-consciously Holmes-like reading of the vicar:

 “This is magnificent,” said Peter. “I collect vicars.” He joined Harriet at her observation post. “This is a very well-grown specimen, six foot four or thereabouts, short-sighted, a great gardener, musical, smokes a pipe — “

“Good gracious,” cried Miss Twitterton, “do you know Mr Goodacre?”

” — untidy, with a wife who does her best on a small stipend; a product of one of our older seats of learning — 1890 vintage — Oxford at a guess, but not, I fancy, Keble, though as high in his views as the parish allows him to be.”

“You know my methods, Watson,” he says self-deprecatingly to Harriet when she exclaims that “to the best of my knowledge and belief you’re right.” Unrealistic as they may be, too, the array of clues including clocks and cacti and wireless settings make for a good puzzle, Inspector Kirk is excellent, and the subplot with Constable Sellon adds a nice human touch. But it all feels like a puzzle set up to be solved, not (as Chandler wanted) a story of a murder by “the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Our killer does have his reasons, but given them, and given his character, there are much simpler, more obvious methods he’s more likely to have resorted to. There’s also the typical Golden Age implausibility of a body turning up on the sleuth’s honeymoon in the first place, not to mention in his own home. These are, of course, the kinds of things about which this subgenre of crime fiction requires suspension of disbelief, but there’s too much genuine human drama and feeling in Busman’s Honeymoon for them to sit quite right. While Gaudy Night elegantly fuses its mystery plot with its other elements, Busman’s Honeymoon feels like a mish-mash, an uneasy and ultimately unsuccessful compromise between two kinds of books.

“Love with Honour”: Dorothy L. Sayers, Busman’s Honeymoon (Part I)

busmansI’ve written at length about my love for Gaudy Night, but I have never really tried to sort out my views on its sequel, Busman’s Honeymoon. As I have owned and loved Busman’s Honeymoon as long as I have Gaudy Night (I have them in matching editions, inscribed to me on my 13th birthday), I thought it would be an appropriate book to write on for my 1000th post here at Novel Readings! But it turns out that I have so much to say that I’m going to do it in two posts.

I think the general consensus, even among Sayers fans, is that Busman’s Honeymoon is a bit of a let-down, not just as a detective story but for the ways it carries forward the relationship between Peter and Harriet — though I may be extrapolating much too far from the dismissive comments of critics like Julian Symons, who complained about the ‘dismal sentimentality’ of Sayers’s later novels. Still, it seems to be Gaudy Night that’s usually cited as the pinnacle, not of Sayers’s whole oeuvre necessarily, but of the four that make up the Harriet Quartet. I actually used to prefer Busman’s Honeymoon, which makes sense given how much more abstract some of the issues are in Gaudy Night, and how cerebral its romance. Busman’s Honeymoon has more going on right on the surface: both emotionally and criminally, it has more blunt objects! I don’t know quite what my 13-year-old self made of some of its details, such as the discussions of “shabby tigers,” or Peter’s “fits of exigent and exhausting passion” during the agonizing wait for the killer’s execution. There weren’t many limits on my youthful reading, so my guess is that these allusions to Harriet and Peter’s sex life raised fewer questions for me than their struggles to define their marriage as a relationship of equals. Rereading the novel now, it’s those struggles that stand out, and that remind me why Peter and Harriet have so long seemed to me one of the most interesting and important literary couples I know.

Gaudy Night makes a powerful case for finding a balance between head and heart – but accepting that as the ideal isn’t the same as living up to it in perpetuity. Busman’s Honeymoon is the next step: what does this really look like in practice? One thing I really liked about Busman’s Honeymoon this time (in my next post, I’ll get to the things I really disliked) is that we see these two fiercely independent and highly intelligent people trying very self-consciously to make sure their romantic relationship reflects their principles, not just their passions. The personal equality they value isn’t an easy thing to achieve in a world that is otherwise defined by inequalities — not least of wealth and power, of which Peter has a disproportionate share. Once they are married, of course, Harriet enjoys much of the same privilege (about which more next time), but Sayers is savvy about the challenges she faces to both her finances and her pride as she prepares for the wedding. “Oh, Mr. Rochester!” she says to Peter on receiving his extravagant gift of a mink coat, while she earns the money for the Donne manuscript that is her gift to him by writing “three five-thousand-word shorts at forty guineas each for the Thrill Magazine.” At Oxford, in Gaudy Night, none of that mattered: the interchangeability of their academic gowns stands for the meeting of their minds, for the freedom to face and love each other as peers. It’s very clear in Busman’s Honeymoon that they aren’t at Oxford any more.

Neither Harriet nor Peter wants marriage to mean compromise. After their first real disagreement — which arises when Harriet questions whether Peter needs to get involved in investigating the sordid murder that turns out to have taken place in their honeymoon home just before their arrival — she backs off quickly when faced with his argument that he shouldn’t “pick and choose what I’ll meddle in” to suit his own convenience. “This business of adjusting oneself was not so easy after all,” she thinks, and she can’t smooth things over with girlish ploys:

He wasn’t the kind of man to whom you could say, ‘Darling, you’re wonderful, and whatever you do is right’ — whether you thought so or not. He would write you down a fool. . . . He wanted you to agree with him intelligently or not at all.

Imagine that! Later, when the argument recurs, with the added stress that now there are real suspects who stand to pay the price for Peter’s “meddling,” Harriet rejects the power she wields because of his love for her, scorning to be the kind of woman who boasts “My husband would do anything for me.” “What kind of life could we have,” she demands, “if I knew that you had become less than yourself by marrying me?” “Love with honour” is their goal, and they know it’s not a conventional one: “If you go on behaving with all this reason and generosity,” Peter says admiringly to Harriet, “everybody will think we don’t give a damn for one another.”

newgaudynightIn Gaudy Night another sign of their equality is their collaboration on solving the mystery. It’s true that in the grand reveal it’s Peter who dominates, and the attack on Harriet could be seen as marking her as a victim in need of rescue (and there’s the whole dog collar thing too). Harriet works on her own at first, though, and prepares the dossier on which the solution depends. That they work so closely on the mystery reinforces both the novel’s overall theme of balance and its promise that the two of them are truly partners. In Busman’s Honeymoon the investigation is more clearly Peter’s turf: in those quarrels, he’s the one insisting that detection is his work, his vocation; it’s Peter who really puts the pieces of the puzzle together and who carries the guilt, in the end, of having brought the criminal to justice and thus (after due process) to his own violent death. Harriet still has a lot of input, though: it’s not the case that she simply stands by and observes. I don’t think she needs to get redefined as a sleuth herself to sustain the balance of their relationship: she has a career, as a writer, and that’s the expertise she brings to the case.

Something else Harriet’s presence does in Busman’s Honeymoon that has real generic significance, particularly for a novel that belongs to the “Golden Age,” is galvanize Peter’s transformation from sleuth into complex, flawed, and intensely vulnerable human being. This is a process Sayers herself undertook deliberately once she’d introduced Harriet into her novels. I don’t much like the early Wimsey books, as Peter’s such a chattering fop in them compared to the layered character he eventually becomes (he does still play the part of upper-class twit occasionally). Sayers knew he had to become someone Harriet could say yes to; that’s only accomplished by the end of Gaudy Night (in Have His Carcase, there are moments, but overall he’s not quite there). The implications of that for him as a detective are particularly interesting in Busman’s Honeymoon, as the ending of the novel is anything but triumphant for Peter even though he has solved the puzzle. Instead of this “success” setting him up as a heroic avenger, it brings back all the trauma of his wartime experience and leaves him broken and weeping. In “The Simple Art of Murder” Raymond Chandler quite reasonably mocks the artifice of English puzzle mysteries, including Sayers’s — in fact, he singles out Busman’s Honeymoon for its admittedly absurd scenario (“a murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business”). It’s interesting that he doesn’t comment on the novel’s conclusion, which could surely be read as a repudiation of the entire form of the book itself, or at least of the type of mystery it sort of is, which as Chandler noted, could force “real people” (which he admits Sayers could create) to “do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot.”

With all this attention on reason and intelligence and principles and genre, I don’t want to miss the one other thing I have always loved about Busman’s Honeymoon, which rather pushes against the more intellectual merits I’ve been highlighting: it is utterly sentimental, full of declarations of love, some playful, some breathtakingly sincere. How wonderful to be caught up in these moments with Harriet and Peter, to be in a world, and a relationship, and a novel, in which the demands of reason and intelligence, and the conflicts that inevitably arise between two strong wills, don’t rule out the emotional abandonment — the ecstasy –of love. Peter and Harriet are both ever-ready with literary quotations, a game that’s played perhaps to excess (and sometimes to comic effect) in Busman’s Honeymoon. But it’s also here that poetry becomes, at last, the truth of their experience. “How can I find words?” asks Peter, in frustration at his own struggle to articulate his feelings on his own behalf. “Poets have taken them all, and left me with nothing to say or do — ”

“Except to teach me for the first time what they meant.”

He found it hard to believe.

“Have I done that?”

“Oh, Peter — ” Somehow she must make him believe it, because it mattered so much that he should. “All my life I have been wandering in the dark — but now I have found your heart — and am satisfied.”

“And what do all the great words come to in the end, but that? — I love you — I am at rest with you — I have come home.”

It seems fitting that Donne (that most cerebral of love poets) is always their touchstone. “This is joy’s bonfire, then,” reads his “Eclogue for the Marriage of the Earl of Somerset,” which ends the novel,

where love’s strong arts
Make of so noble individual parts
One fire of four inflaming eyes, and of two loving hearts.



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