“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.

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead

khanunquietdeadI have really mixed feelings about Ausma Zehanat Khan’s debut mystery The Unquiet Dead. For starters, I think it’s built around a good concept, one with a lot of potential for drama and moral seriousness. The contemporary crime turns out to be rooted in the evil and cruelty of the Bosnian War, particularly the massacre at Srebrenica; there’s a lot of historical back story, then, based in those events, as well as reflection on the inadequate international response at the time and since. The author’s expertise in these areas means that the novel is rich in chilling details, the accuracy of which is borne out by her footnotes. The generic form of a mystery sets up good opportunities for exploring connections between past and present as well as abstract problems, such as the interplay of justice and vengeance. The particular crime story Khan tells, too, invites debate about vigilantism in the face of bureaucratic inertia or, worse, indifference.

Also in the novel’s favor: the parts of The Unquiet Dead that are directly about the war and genocide are gripping in the way terrible true things are, the flashback interludes especially — though I found them a bit heavy-handed in the telling. The interspersed witness statements that form part of the case are an artful device, as well. And the mystery certainly aspires to be the kind I usually like: character-driven, multi-faceted, specific to a time and place and community, embedding its whodunit in socially and morally provocative material.

But notice that I say it “aspires to be” this kind: it doesn’t seem to me to succeed, quite, and so I felt really frustrated reading it, because I so wanted it to be better than it is. The characters that drive it, especially the detectives, never seemed entirely believable to me, never really came to life, despite the author’s insistent efforts to make them complicated and three-dimensional. I have a hard time putting my finger on just what doesn’t work: there are too many things going on at once, maybe, including family backgrounds that aren’t relevant to the unfolding crime story, and references to previous events and cases that we’re told resonate deeply for the characters but that can’t possibly do the same for us. The main detective pairing is too pat and familiar in too many ways: Rachel Getty, in particular, seemed like a watered-down Barbara Havers. Finally, the prose isn’t quite good enough to carry the book along. It too seemed to be trying too hard, insisting on profundity but falling into melodrama and cliches. By far the best part of the book for me was the “Author’s Note” at the end, where Khan reviews the story of the Bosnian War: it’s written with such clarity and unpretentious energy that I wished she had stuck to non-fiction for the whole project.

But (again), as her note makes evident, there are already plenty of non-fiction books about these events (some of which I’ve read), and yet I don’t think this is a particularly well-known or well-understood context, at least to North American audiences — not, at any rate, compared to the First World War, or the Holocaust, or other common settings for historical fiction and film. Popular fiction can reach readers who might never pick up Michael Sells’s The Bridge Betrayed or Samantha Powers’s A Problem from Hell — so from that angle, The Unquiet Dead is doing something important in drawing attention to the horrors of what happened and provoking consideration of what could ever count as “solving” a crime with such origins. Still, what matters most, since Khan did choose to write fiction, is whether the result is a good novel, and I just don’t think The Unquiet Dead is, much as (given how many things are smart and interesting about it) I wish it were.

Reading it I found myself wondering: what must it be like to a book editor working on a project like this? Clearly the editor at Minotaur (which is an imprint of St. Martin’s Press) thought the book was done, ready to face readers and critics. So maybe I’m just being unduly hard on it! Or else the conclusion was reached that this particular book was as good as it was ever going to be — something that any graduate supervisor has probably thought about at least one thesis at some point. I have no idea what specific advice I could have given Khan to make the book better in the ways I wanted: “make your characters seem like people, not ideas for people” or “write better” both seem too vague to be genuinely helpful, while “give Ian Rankin your idea and research and let him write the book” would probably have been an unwelcome suggestion!

This Week In My Sabbatical: Reading, Writing, Winter

IceThe winter of our discontent continues: with sidewalks already impassable across most of the city and side roads treacherous tracks of rutted ice, there’s yet another storm bearing down on us that promises the same cycle of snow followed by rain (and thus flooding) followed by a deep freeze. Usually rain is helpful as it means things warm up and snow gets washed away, but this winter it has just been bad news every time. I think it’s really the terrible sidewalks that are breaking people’s spirits — and it’s hard to imagine what can be done about them now that the ice has got such a grip. The whole “if winter comes, can spring be far behind” line is not much help when the answer is “yes, very far”!

But life goes on, and I’m trying not to get too disheartened by the feeling that I’m losing a lot of one of my precious sabbatical months to the extra work and stress this kind of weather brings in its wake. In spite of everything, I haven’t missed a Monday session of “A Meeting With Your Writing” yet, and though sometimes that’s the only time I get much done on my George Eliot project, it’s always very productive time. I was up to almost 20,000 words of my “shitty first draft,” [PDF] and now I’ve started trying to wrestle that material into a slightly better second draft, one that’s more organized, more selective (I actually cut 2000 words this week!), but also more finished, as many parts of it are very sketchy. One of the big challenges for me at this point is that — having generated such a lot of very rough material — I’m struggling to manage it: it has been a long time since I worked with such a long document, but it’s still too messy for me to break it confidently into smaller separate ones. (Does anyone have a good strategy for managing long documents? I’ve used the outline feature to create a table of contents for navigating, but otherwise I’m just paging around.) The other thing that’s very hard for me at this point is believing in the project itself, but I’m making a deliberate effort not to think too hard about whether all this effort will come to anything (meaning, for instance, whether it will ever become a publishable book) and just write.

Speaking of writing, I wanted to spend less time working on campus this term, and that has certainly happened, partly because just getting to campus has seemed like too much of a hassle. I had hoped that the new Halifax Central Library might be a place I’d want to work, but it has proved to be far too bustling a space to suit me. (I’m actually quite crushingly disappointed in the new library overall, not least because I looked forward to it so much for so long … but that’s for another post.) I’m mostly working in my usual basement office at home, as result, but I’ve also been taking my laptop occasionally to the nearby Atlantic School of Theology, where the library is pretty much the polar opposite of the public one: old, musty, and sparsely populated. It also doesn’t allow food or drink in the stacks (so there’s no socializing) and I’m not allowed to use their wi-fi, which is reserved for their own faculty and students: while this annoyed and inconvenienced me at first, because I store so much of my work in the cloud and rely a lot on web resources, I’ve made a few adjustments (such as making sure I have e-books of Eliot’s novels available off-line), and now I think it’s actually a good thing. During the MWYW sessions (and at other times when I know I need to really focus) I cut myself off from the internet anyway, but the temptation is always there; at AST I know I can’t check email or twitter no matter what, so I just putter away. The other nice thing about the AST library is that it overlooks the Northwest Arm. So far the view hasn’t been particularly inspiring (because winter) but it’s nice to at least have a window.

souhamiI haven’t been working exclusively on the book chapter: over the past couple of weeks I was also working on my review of Diana Souhami’s Daniel Deronda spin-off, Gwendolen. It hasn’t been a pleasant task, because I really (really, really) disliked the novel, which means the time spent reading and rereading it was not at all rewarding, and the time spent writing about it triggered a lot of questions about what a review of it was really worth (and to whom). On Twitter a while ago Ron Charles sparked a conversation about the value of book reviews for readers compared to the time and effort they take. I wish I could manage to do a review in 21 hours! Maybe if I took out all the complaining and procrastination that is close to how much time this one literally took — but that kind of deferral itself represents a severe cost in terms of mental energy, and there’s all the agonizing over how to write a really negative review that isn’t gratuitously mean or just a gleeful hatchet job. In any case, however long they take, I’ve been wondering how good a use of my time book reviews are, because it seems like they just go out into the ether and don’t make any difference. The book is already published, readers will read it or they won’t, and my little opinions, over in an obscure corner of the internet, aren’t exactly going to shape any broader conversation about the book if there even is one. On the other hand (and I excel at offering myself counter-arguments!) I do think books and reading matter and that attentive, honest criticism is a crucial part of literary culture, so participating in it is the right thing to do. As for being mean, well, if I think a book is really bad, there’s no point in my writing the review if I’m not going to say so, but I also have a responsibility to explain my judgment as thoroughly and thoughtfully as I can. I hope I’ve done that in this case.

I’ve already written up the other recent reading I’ve done, including Arctic Summer for my book club. I can add that we met Monday night and had quite a vigorous discussion about the novel, which was not very popular with the group. In general, people found it dull and/or badly written — which I didn’t — while a number of us puzzled over the difference between the Forster it showed us and the Forster we thought could have written Howards End. I didn’t think of it quite this way at the time, but one way to reflect on this would have been to think about the biographical author vs. the implied author, except that there’s the added complication that Galgut’s Forster is himself a literary character. I was kind of surprised that the overall reaction to Arctic Summer was so negative, but one thing I enjoy about the group is that often it’s the books that aren’t favorites that end up provoking the best conversation. Rather than following up with another book about India (I had been thinking of pitching Kipling’s Kim as a possibility) or something else somehow Forster-related (for instance, we considered Maurice as a logical next step) we ended up following Galgut to South Africa, and then settling on Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist for our next meeting.

I have some other things lined up to read before then, though. I’ve just started Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, which is actually a kind of teaching-related task: following up some links to it that went around on Twitter, I thought it sounded like a contender for my mystery class, both because of its interesting historical context and because its author is Canadian. I don’t like it much so far, though: the writing and the set-up of the plot both seem very labored. I plucked Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes off the shelf the other day because all the talk about The Buried Giant reminded me that, much as I adore The Remains of the Day, I haven’t read much of Ishiguro’s back catalog. Finally, just for pure fun I’m rereading Busman’s Honeymoon. I talk all the time about how much I love Gaudy Night; although I think it is generally regarded as a sappy disappointment, I’ve also always loved this sequel too. I haven’t read it closely, though, since I started teaching and writing more about detective fiction, so I’m curious to discover how it holds up. The first 30 pages have been just as delightful as always!

“Encircled by Invisible Emotion”: Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer

galgut

This kind of companionship had far more value to Morgan than their few, fumbling physical encounters. Sex could be forgotten, or made into something that it wasn’t, but feelings were much harder to erase. There had been moments, from their time in Alexandria, when they had simply sat together talking quietly, or smoking cigarettes in brotherly contentment, when he’d felt that they were removed from other people. Paired off. And it had come to him then that there might be many men like them, in the past as well as the present, who had been together in a similar uncelebrated way, encircled by invisible emotion.

My book club chose Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer to follow Howards End. Not only did I enjoy Howards End so much that I liked the idea of hanging around with Forster a bit longer (which is also why I reread A Room With a View), but I’ve been curious about Arctic Summer since I read Steve’s review in Open Letters Weekly, and got even more interested when it made the Stevereads “Best of 2014: Fiction” list.

I enjoyed Arctic Summer quite a bit — though maybe “enjoyed” is the wrong word, as it’s such a low-key, melancholy novel. Unlike Steve, who has always already read everything else (in this case, specifically the Forster biographies on which Galgut’s novel is heavily dependent), I knew little about Forster the man before I started, and now I feel that I have gotten to know him pretty well. I like him, too, though I think there’s a side of him I might like even better than the somewhat mopish, solitary man we mostly see here, where we hardly ever spend time with him when he’s actually having fun. “On a surface level, he was quite sociable,” we’re told at one point, “seeing a great many people and acquitting himself well in company, but an essential part of him had become deeply withdrawn, hardly noticing the outside world.” It’s that withdrawn man, steeped in reticence, who is Galgut’s main character, not (or only very rarely) the man who holds his own (just for instance) in conversation with the Woolfs and their friends at Monks House. That his reserve is in many respects a necessity only makes it more poignant: Galgut’s muted tone nicely matches the emphasis he puts on the emotional costs, to a man as hesitant and sensitive as Forster, of a life so shrouded in secrecy.

It’s that “surface level,” I guess, so much more confident, assertive, and optimistic, that comes across in Howards End or A Room with a View, or in The Art of Fiction or the radio broadcasts Zadie Smith discusses in her wonderful essay “E. M. Forster, Middle Manager.” Because this is the Forster I knew, I was surprised to find Arctic Summer so sadly yearning. “Only connect” seems a more wishful (or wistful) credo here — but connection is certainly what Galgut’s Forster longs for. He does achieve it, but only equivocally, in both of the two friendships that dominate the novel: with his Indian friend Masood, to whom A Passage to India is ultimately dedicated, and his Egyptian friend Mohammed, with whom he comes closest to the kind of intimacy he most desires (“To touch, to hold. To be touched. The yearning was so strong that sometimes it hurt. The more so because it could not be spoken”). His final affirmation is also equivocal, hardly a happy ending but not unhappy either: “I have loved. That is, I mean to say, lived. In my own way.”

Mark Athitakis has a really smart, eloquent review of Arctic Summer in the Barnes and Noble Review in which he discusses the relationship between Galgut’s novel and A Passage to India:

Misunderstanding, prejudice, and power are the lenses through which Galgut tries to position a sexually repressed Forster, introduced in 1912 making his first trip to India. Though he’d written four novels attuned to the relationships of men and women, he struggled to apply his plea to “only connect” to his own life. His homosexuality was unspeakable: “He could not refer to his condition, even in his own mind, with too direct a term; he spoke of it obliquely, as being in a minority. But via Galgut, unspoken lusts abound within him, especially for Masood, a young Muslim he met as a Latin tutor in London six years earlier. The opening pages capture the first stirrings of that repression becoming unlocked. The sentences are thick with heat and lust, felt by a man fit to burst.

That Forster — Morgan as his friends call him — will be liberated over the course of the novel isn’t in doubt. The tension within Arctic Summer is how much, and how that urge for sexual liberation was sublimated into the novel. To the second point, Galgut cannily invests picayune details from Passage into his own novel and invests them with a sensual weight: help with a collar stay, for instance, or Masood’s observation of Forster’s “pinko-gray” skin. But the novel’s engine is Morgan’s broader anxieties.

It has been too long since I read Passage for me to add anything to Mark’s analysis, though now of course I want to reread it, partly to complement Arctic Summer, partly to test Mark’s comment that Passage “is showing signs of age.” (I read The Jewel in the Crown not that long ago, however, and got intermittently confused by recollections of it that surfaced during discussions of Passage. Parts of Arctic Summer also reminded me of J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, particularly the descriptions of Bapu Sahib’s chaotic household.)

passageBecause I couldn’t sustain a properly intertextual reading, what I found myself thinking about the most with Arctic Summer was the question of genre. In his original OLW review, Steve describes it as a “mildly inert reading experience” because of “the novel’s curiously timid approach to its own novelhood.” He concludes with dissatisfaction, but clearly reconsidered by the time he was assembling his ‘best of’ list. Maybe because I didn’t have the “two great templates” mentally to hand, I didn’t find Arctic Summer thin in the way he describes, but I agree that, interesting and touching as I found it as biography, it doesn’t ever really take off as a novel, so I ended up wondering what is really gained, or lost, or intended, in rendering Forster’s life story in fiction in this way. If it doesn’t break any new ground (and I have to take Steve’s word for it that it “virtually never strays from Furbank’s biography in its details”), and it doesn’t do anything striking formally or artistically (though it is certainly well written and crafted) — is it really just taking Forster’s story and making it more accessible, more digestible? Is it the novelistic equivalent of a docu-drama or a re-enactment?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, especially since I’m someone who is (evidently!) much more likely to read about someone’s life in a novel than in a full-fledged biography. (The opposite is true of my husband, who very much enjoyed Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan but has repeatedly declined offers of David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk.) But somehow in this case I was left fretting about whether reading fiction in lieu of fact was such a good idea: Arctic Summer seems so much like straight-up biography that I might be misled into believing things about Forster that weren’t really true.

What kind of concern is this, though? It’s not something that bothers me at all about Wolf Hall, where surely the odds are much greater that I’m getting a Cromwell wholly unlike the man who actually lived. Wolf Hall is “historical fiction”: is it just the longer expanse of time between us and its subject that changes the terms on which we read it? I’m not saying it doesn’t matter whether Mantel did her research: it does, and she did. Wolf Hall is anything but timid as a novel: is that what makes me feel differently about it? You couldn’t read it and forget you were getting an artistically-shaped treatment: maybe it’s Arctic Summer‘s semblance of transparency that provokes this line of questioning. Just by being a novel, though, it’s setting aside its claims to be telling the truth. Furbank’s biography, which is also, inevitably, made up (because, as we all know, narratives must always be imposed on chaotic, amorphous reality, or carved out of it) probably presents itself much more authoritatively. In retelling Forster’s story as a story, maybe that’s Galgut’s signal contribution: a reminder that however scrupulous we are about the facts, the result will always in some sense be fiction.

Clear Conscience, Brave Heart, Can’t Lose! Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Invalid_-_Louis_Lang_-_overallA good friend of mine has been making a long, difficult recovery from not one but two concussions. You hear about these injuries all the time — or you do, at least, in a country as hockey-obsessed as Canada — but (perhaps because hockey players are rashly determined to get back on the ice a.s.a.p.?) I had never fully understood how debilitating, not to mention depressing, they can be. So I have learned a lot from my poor friend’s experience, though mostly from a distance, because one of the keys to her rehabilitation has been near-total isolation.

She recently published a superb little essay that describes her suffering in terms sure to resonate with those of us who live a lot in our heads. “My brain is not my home anymore,” she explains;

When you feel angry or sad, you might retreat to a space you know well and take for granted – a space comfortably furnished, where things are in their places. It’s as though my home has been vandalized, the furniture thrown around and the walls defaced. An alarm system rings and rings and cannot be shut off. But I have nowhere else to go. There is no shelter from this, no comfort.

She was put on the kind of “rest cure” most of us have only read about in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (which, ironically, she had not read until she was confined to her room and climbing the walls herself): she was “ordered to retreat to a cone of silence and darkness – no music, no talk, no light, no reading, no computer.” No reading! The horror. But eventually she was at least allowed to listen to books, and she credits Victorian fiction in particular with saving her: in it she “found a world not unlike my own – inhabited by invalids in dark sick rooms.”

She’s moving gradually back into the outside world and so I had the pleasure of running into her recently at work, where I complimented her on her returning health and on her essay. But, I had to ask, which Victorian novels had she been reading that were so full of invalids? I could think of plenty of characters who get ill, but I somehow couldn’t recall a novel that kept us for long in the kind of sickbed environment she described. “Well, Wives and Daughters, for one,” she replied — and that made me realize how long it had been since I’d read Gaskell’s final work. It seemed about time, plus these grim winter days I too could use some “lessons of endurance, patience in suffering and of the deep consolation of human companionship.” So I loaded it up on my trusty Sony Reader from Project Gutenberg (how can it be that I don’t own a hard copy?) and settled in — and it proved just what I needed to read this week.

wivesanddaughtersoxford If I were a publicist, I’d probably pitch Wives and Daughters as “Jane Austen meets Anthony Trollope, with a dash of George Eliot”: it has Austen’s minute attention to social behavior, and something of her stinging satirical wit, too, but it’s paced like a Trollope novel and dwells with Eliot-like interest on moral quandaries and their repercussions. Yet to package Gaskell as a composite of other writers is to do her an injustice by implying that there isn’t a voice or quality that’s distinctly her own. What is it exactly, though? Here’s what the editor of the Cornhill Magazine had to say in the “Concluding Remarks” added in lieu of a conclusion to the novel, which was unfinished at Gaskell’s death in 1865:

While you read any one of the last three books we have named [Sylvia’s LoversCousin Phyllis, and Wives and Daughters], you feel yourself caught out of an abominable wicked world, crawling with selfishness and reeking with base passions, into one where there is much weakness, many mistakes, sufferings long and bitter, but where it is possible for people to live calm and wholesome lives; and, what is more, you feel that this is at least as real a world as the other. The kindly spirit which thinks no ill looks out of her pages irradiate; and while we read them, we breathe the purer intelligence which prefers to deal with emotions and passions which have a living root in minds within the pale of salvation, and not with those which rot without it.

I barely remember Sylvia’s Lovers and have never read Cousin Phyllis, but this is certainly a good description of the world and the tone of Wives and Daughters. The novel is hardly full of exemplary people: there’s a great deal of pettiness, jealousy, spite, even coercion. But they are concentrated primarily in a few people less pleasant than the rest, and while the other characters have plenty of flaws and make plenty of mistakes, they are, by and large, trying to do their best to live honest, kind, “wholesome” lives, even when circumstances (personal or even historical) conspire against them.

There’s a wonderful fairy-tale quality to the novel’s opening line:

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl . . .

The rest of the novel follows this little girl, Molly Gibson, to adulthood. Molly is an extremely likable heroine. She’s honest, intelligent, sincere, loyal, and conscientious. She speaks her mind, but she couldn’t be less like sassy Elizabeth Bennet; she stands up for herself, but there’s no trace of Jane Eyre in her. In other words, she’s not in any way a rebel: rather than fighting against injustices or making demands for herself, she stands by or fights for the people she loves. She’s a strong feminine character, you could say (rather than the trendy “strong female character) which means she is a close cousin (unsurprisingly) to Margaret Hale in North and South, who also seeks to maximize the strengths she has as a woman — though Margaret presses harder than Molly against the ways her sex limits her actions.

Molly’s path is occasionally thorny, especially after her widowed father (with the best intentions) marries again. She doesn’t exactly get an evil step-mother, but the second Mrs. Gibson is passive-aggressive in ways that are mostly comical but also sometimes borderline sociopathic. Gaskell is particularly snarky about her self-serving pretensions about her relationship with the aristocratic family where she was once the governess: after one visit from Lady Harriet, “all the rest of that day her conversation had an aristocratic perfume hanging about it.” Mr. Gibson’s remarriage also brings his daughter a step-sister, Cynthia, whose vivacity and lightness of character make her a perfect foil to earnest Molly.

Wives and Daughters is another in the great catalog of what I think of, following Anita Brookner, as “tortoise literature”. “In my books,” Brookner notes,

 it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero. . . . The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course. . . . In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. . . . Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Axiomatically, . . . hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game. The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation.

Cynthia is every bit the hare, but Wives and Daughters is Molly’s book from start to finish. Because reticence is one of her virtues, at times it is as painful as Persuasion as she keeps her own feelings to herself while becoming the faithful confidante of pretty much everyone else. Early on, in fact, she is troubled by the moral pressure she feels to suppress herself:

Thinking more of others’ happiness than of her own was very fine; but did it not mean giving up her very individuality, quenching all the warm love, the true desires, that made her herself? Yet in this deadness lay her only comfort; or so it seemed.

This quandary puts her in good literary company, but it’s more likely in Gaskell’s world than in Eliot’s that patient altruism will be rewarded eventually, so the overall atmosphere is less fraught. Still, Molly needs plenty of stoicism. She faces loss and even scandal:

Every one was civil to her, but no one was cordial; there was a very perceptible film of difference in their behaviour to her from what it was formerly; nothing that had outlines and could be defined. But Molly, for all her clear conscience and her brave heart, felt acutely that she was only tolerated, not welcomed. She caught the buzzing whispers of the two Miss Oakes’s, who, when they first met the heroine of the prevailing scandal, looked at her askance . . .

There’s not much suspense in following Molly’s progress towards the inevitable happy ending, but there’s a great deal of satisfaction in watching her make her steadfast way along and knowing that she will finally earn the recognition and love she deserves.

Wives and Daughters seems to me a very accomplished novel. The various family and romantic entanglements of the plot are deftly handled, and there’s plenty of humor and pathos in them. There’s also plenty of interest in the novel’s historical setting, and in the way the characters embody different forces of social change or stasis — the Hamley brothers, for instance, with one a languidly ailing aristocrat and the other a rugged scientist who earns, rather than inherits, his place in the world. Though in this way it is at least implicitly political, Wives and Daughters is a much subtler book than North and South, one that takes more time just to enjoy the scenery:

It was one of those still and lovely autumn days when the red and yellow leaves are hanging-pegs to dewy, brilliant gossamer-webs; when the hedges are full of trailing brambles, loaded with ripe blackberries; when the air is full of the farewell whistles and pipes of birds, clear and short—not the long full-throated warbles of spring; when the whirr of the partridge’s wings is heard in the stubble-fields, as the sharp hoof-blows fall on the paved lanes; when here and there a leaf floats and flutters down to the ground, although there is not a single breath of wind.

Oh, and there are indeed lots of invalids in Wives and Daughters. From kind Mrs. Hamley to crusty Lady Cumnor — and even, on occasion, Molly herself — my friend had plenty of fellow sufferers. I’m so glad that she found at least this comfort during her darkest days — and I hope her recovery continues!

Jennifer Weiner, In Her Shoes: On Adapting ‘Good’ vs. ‘Great’ Novels

weinerWhat with all the winter around here, and everyone being cooped up and kind of off their routines, I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on much serious reading, so a couple of days ago I plucked Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes off the shelf for a reread. My copy has the movie tie-in cover, so I must have picked it up around 2005. I own the DVD of the movie and have watched it several times, but I can’t remember the last time I read the original. I knew I liked it enough to hang on to it, though (it has survived numerous purges) and I thought, rightly, that it would be a good choice to pass the time in between bouts of shoveling and attempts to get some writing done.

I enjoyed rereading In Her Shoes for just the reasons I expected: it’s a well-told story with well-drawn characters; it appreciates the emotional complexity of close family relationships, especially between sisters; it is comic but not mean, touching but just the right side of sappy. It’s well-written, too: I’ve complained a few times here about books with awkward exposition or tedious padding, but Weiner moves us along like the pro she is. It doesn’t make a lot of intellectual demands on us as readers, which is why it’s engaging but also relaxing, yet it includes some unexpected elements that give it extra dimension, such as the courage reading poetry gradually gives Maggie about her own insight into the world.

I’m not saying any of this in order to damn In Her Shoes with faint praise. I think it’s a genuinely good novel. If you think there’s a “but” coming, though, you aren’t entirely wrong. As I was reading it this time, I was struck by how close reading it was to watching it, and that got me thinking about what makes the difference for me, not just between books and movies, but between books I consider “good” and those I think of as “great.” Maybe this is already obvious to everyone else, but it occurs to me that every book I think of as great is one that — whatever else goes on in it — does a lot of things in the writing that really can’t be neatly transposed to another medium, and more than any difference in content between what gets labeled “chick lit” and what is considered “literary fiction,” this — let’s call it bookishness, rather than “literariness” —  is the element that determines a novel’s overall place in my hierarchy. Ease of adaptation (or, easy congruity between book and film) is a symptom of literary limitation: how’s that for a working hypothesis?

I don’t mean that I’m against adaptations: I’m not such a book snob that I think nothing can also be gained by moving to a different medium: as has often been argued, film adaptations can do really interesting things on their own terms. (That said, the many people who tell me they haven’t read, say, Bleak House but they have watched it usually seem to be ignoring that adaptations are also, immediately and inevitably, interpretations or readings of the novels, not “just” cinematic renditions.) Still, almost always when I watch an adaptation — even one I like a lot, like The Remains of the Day, or A Room With a View, or the version of Persuasion starring Amanda Root — I’m always very conscious of what has been lost in the transition from book to film.

I guess when it comes to adaptations, at heart I’m a reader first and a watcher second, and that affects my reactions and my preferences. What I usually feel about adaptations of books I admire is that they are stuck with being quite literal: what they convey is typically just the plot and characters, and then whatever they can of the themes, as far as these can be made visible (or audible). What is lost is everything else that writing can do, from deft metaphors to sharp irony, from prolepsis to retrospective or intrusive narration. A prime example of this for me is, inevitably, the mostly adequate but in no way outstanding BBC version of Middlemarch, which tells the story (well, most of it) with some fine actors and a lot of sincerity, but which completely abandons Eliot’s experiments with form and language:  her play with chronology, her unifying metaphors, her dedication to alternative points of view — and of course, except for one short voice-over at the end, any sense of the narrator and thus all of the wisdom, humor, and philosophy she brings. Adaptations of Jane Eyre can’t do anything to convey Jane’s narrating voice or, more important, the interaction between the older perspective from which she tells her story and her youthful actions. Bleak House becomes just a series of interrelated story lines without the alternating narrators, even though Gillian Anderson makes a splendid Lady Dedlock … and so on. And this isn’t even taking into account details at the level of language itself — the way in which individual words matter.

Anyway, my point here is that I think of the books I’ve  mentioned above as great books (or as great books?) not just because of their stories and characters, or even because of the ideas they circulate or the insights they offer, but also because of the ways that they are written: because of the amazing things their authors accomplish with the selection and placement of words on the page. That’s one of the necessary (though not in itself sufficient) measures of greatness for me, and at the same time it’s exactly what makes adaptations of books I love almost always a disappointment.

In-her-ShoesIn Her Shoes, however, adapts perfectly: the plot is tweaked a bit in the film version, but my feeling on rereading the novel was that the two versions were otherwise remarkably interchangeable. The story and characters as told to us by Weiner are conveyed really effectively on screen; there’s no theme or idea in the book that’s not there also in the film; and, crucially, there’s nothing remarkable — and thus nothing to be missed — about the way Weiner writes, whether her style or the formal structure of the book. It’s all fine, but it’s also very straightforward (which is also true of the movie version).  That such a smooth transition from one form to the other is possible seems to me like a sign that there are limits on Weiner’s accomplishment (and thus presumably on her ambition) as a novelist.

Again, maybe this is all terribly obvious! And it isn’t meant as any kind of manifesto for or against one kind of book or the other, or, for that matter, for or against adaptations, whether in principle or in particular cases. As I said, I enjoyed rereading In Her Shoes and I think it is a genuinely good book — much better than any of the covers for it suggest! But I do think that to be truly great, a book has to somehow make us revel in its incorrigible bookishness (a quality that, happily for all of us, comes in many different varieties), and I hadn’t quite put that together with the issue of adaptation. If the more “literary” books in that respect — the ones that make (or even aim to make) the absolute most of their own medium, you might say — are the ones that end up getting most of the critical attention and all of the awards, well, that actually seems reasonable enough. Ironically, though, I’m likely to find the film versions of good books that aren’t so thoroughly and ambitiously bookish much more satisfying.

February Reading: Open Letters Monthly and Vera Brittain

FoxTeaPhotoI’ve been so overwhelmed by winter (last night’s storm was another big one, but at least the 6 inches of fresh snow was of the light, powdery variety rather than the ice-encrusted kind!) that I almost forgot to give a shout-out to the new issue of Open Letters Monthly, which went up almost a week ago. I hope you have already checked it out. But if you haven’t, here are some teasers that I hope will entice you on over:

My brilliant colleague Alice Brittan writes on Norwegian phenomenon Karl Ove Knausgaard. I love reading Alice’s pieces: she wears her erudition so gracefully, yet there’s an intellectual severity that also keeps us on our toes: “When reviewers praise Knausgaard for liberating the novel — as though it were a rigid and relatively parochial form like a haiku or a villanelle— all I see is evidence of amnesia.”

Regular contributor and now, happily for us, our newest editor Robert Minto writes one of my favorite kinds of essays: a smart and heartfelt appreciation of a cherished classic, in his case John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: “in my irreligious adulthood, the book remains one possession from my childhood secure against retrospective distaste.”

Fox Frazier-Foley writes about the “kitchen witchery” she learned from her remarkable grandmother, and about the ways women have always passed down much more than recipes as they shared their wisdom — and their sometimes scary, sometimes funny, ways of using food to get what they want, whether it’s revenge (beware the “Punish and Banish a Bully” brownies!) or love (“Engagement Chicken”!). I could use some “Let’s Be Friends Cobbler” right about now, actually.

There’s much more, as always, including 19th-century photography, a new series featuring literature from and about China, translations of Anna Karenina, and new poetry. Go take a look — and while you’re there, notice some of the renovations we are undertaking, including a new widget that shows related reading at the end of every new piece. We have a rich archive, and this is one way we hope to keep more of it in sight!

You may notice that once again there is nothing by me in the main Table of Contents. That’s not really by design: it’s more a matter of how I’ve been ordering my writing priorities, as well as a few external writing obligations I’ve had, including the forthcoming review for Belphegor that I mentioned here, the essay on Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf that ran in 3:AM Magazine, and, appearing just today, a small but, I hope, not trivial “listicle” on Vera Brittain for the website For Books’ Sake, for their regular “10 Reasons to Love” feature. I’ve also been trying to step up the pace of blogging here, as I had been missing the energy I get from writing exactly what I want, without worrying about guidelines or audiences or whatever else.

I’ve also, just by the way, written nearly 16,000 words of my book chapter. It is still very much in the shitty first draft phase, but 16,000 words that need a lot more work sure seems like progress over no words, even if my faith in the whole project wavers daily (sometimes hourly). I am so glad I signed up for Jo Van Every’s Meeting With Your Writing sessions: you wouldn’t think something so simple would make such a difference, but not only is the scheduled “meeting” a great motivator, but her prompts are pitched just right to help you get moving without feeling harrassed.

My Open Letters silence will be broken next month, however, as I will be reviewing Diana Souhami’s new novel Gwendolen. “Souhami has breathed fresh life into a classic in ways that will appeal to readers entirely unfamiliar with Eliot’s fiction,” promises (or threatens?) the blurb. But what about readers who are familiar with it? Let’s just say that so far this reader is … skeptical. It hasn’t helped that Souhami seems to have gone to the Brenda Maddox school of how to write about George Eliot, who appears, god help us, as a character in Gwendolen — but no more about that now! you’ll have to wait for my review. In the meantime, happy February reading!

This Week in My Sabbatical: Winter Reflections

WP_20150203_004The thing about being on sabbatical during the winter term is that no matter what else changes, it’s still winter! And boy, have we had a reminder of that this week, with three storms already in the past seven days and another one apparently barreling up towards us tonight.

It’s no secret around here that I don’t cope well with east coast winters. Yes, it is very bright when the sun shines on the snowy landscape, and bare branches look better frosted with ice than not. But that’s really not very cheering when you spend your sunny day chiseling out the driveway and hoping the roads will be cleared in time to make it to appointments, lessons, and rehearsals, not to mention just to school and work.

Since I finally gave up on my dream of relocating, I have tried to find ways to make winters here less stressful, and I have actually narrowed down the problem to one main issue: winter driving. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned here before that I am fairly phobic about driving anyway — not everyday city driving, but I experience intense anxiety when driving (or, worse, being driven) on highways, for instance, or across suspension bridges, or on snow- or ice-covered roads. People who never suffer themselves from stomach-clenching pulse-racing anxiety are often disbelieving, impatient, or irritable about it and about the inhibitions it creates. I have struggled with it a lot myself, because I know that my fear leads me to pass up opportunities. Feeling guilty, ashamed, or self-critical has not, however, turned out to help at all (as other anxious people will probably understand). So a while ago I decided to give myself a break and spend less time either facing down or smiling bravely over the fear, and to live as much as possible within my comfort zone. I have enough stress about things that I can’t choose to avoid. Driving long distances, however? Not required. Going over the bridges to Dartmouth? Almost never necessary. The things I miss out on just, for now, don’t matter to me as much as the bad experience I’m spared.

Driving in the winter, however, is hard to escape altogether. If I could get by without driving when it’s snowy, though, I think I might not find winter stressful at all. Unpleasant, sure (I’m just never going to be one of those “take the lid off winter” types, and I don’t think anybody likes shoveling), but not anxiety-inducing. The problem is that walking isn’t a realistic option for everything we need to do, especially since a typical winter mess here is not just fluffy snowflakes but includes nasty ice pellets and freezing rain. (Today’s lovely variation is rain falling on top of 2 inches of ice that formed over about 6 inches of snow: huge lakes are forming where drains are blocked, and pedestrians are clambering precariously over mountains of encrusted slush.) Even if I were OK with dressing like some kind of Arctic sea explorer and sloshing doggedly through it, it’s a bit much to make the kids do the same, and add doctors and orthodontists and music lessons and extra-curricular activities to the basic demands of work and school and we really can’t manage without going in the car, however stomach-clenchingly pulse-racingly awful it makes me feel.

I have been doing better in the last couple of years, actually, and the more times I actually go out and drive in conditions like, say, yesterday’s or today’s, the more I know that it’s really not that bad if you have snow tires (I do) and take it slowly (you better believe I do!). But I still really hate it, and I hate the uncertainty associated with it too: I’m someone who likes to plan, to know what’s happening when, and the combination of unpredictable weather and hard choices between not driving and not going somewhere (or not getting someone else where they want or need to be) … let’s just say it doesn’t bring out the best in me.

There is something different this year, though, and that’s my perspective on winters in Halifax. I have been realizing that this whole mess is a problem that I might, one day, actually be able to solve, or at least work around. For one thing,  the kids are growing up. Owen starts at Dalhousie in the fall, and he’s probably moving into residence; Maddie is almost in high school. As their independence grows, so does mine. OK, so I couldn’t make a lateral career move to Vancouver. I almost certainly won’t be able afford to retire there either, and even if I thought I could, retirement’s a long way away. But eventually things like taking sabbaticals out of town won’t seem implausible, and maybe down the road I can figure out other ways to split my time between here and there. “Halifax is so nice in the summer,” people always enthuse. Well, so are most places, so that’s never seemed like a compelling argument in favor of Halifax in particular! But if I could get out of Halifax when it isn’t so nice (and spend more time, also, with the friends and family I miss so much when I’m stranded out here), I wouldn’t be so grudging about its charms.

It’s not a lot to hang on to, but when things are grim here at least I can keep playing with different scenarios, trying to figure out how I could make them work when the time comes. For now, though, I guess I’d better go see if I can clear any more ice away while it’s mild outside, because it’s supposed to drop to -14 again overnight (-26 with the wind chill!) and if all the stuff that’s melting now just freezes in place, I might never leave the house again.

“The Air a Library”: Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

doerr

Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves travelling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived — maybe a million times more. . . . And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel these paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

All the Light We Cannot see makes me resent the way our book reviewing culture has cheapened words like “luminous,” “lyrical,” “evocative,” “poignant” — because All the Light We Cannot is all these things, and yet to describe it this way sounds like succumbing to cliches. Its story — which also risks sounding hackneyed — is simple in outline, and in conception: two young people on either side of an inhumane war, the counterpoint of their stories resisting its reductive cruelties by its tender attention to their humanity. Does that sound a little too easy, perhaps, a little too predictable? Do we need another novel telling us that war is horror, that people are capable of great evil but also of moments of transcendent courage or kindness, that literature is both an escape and an illumination — that listening can lead to either betrayal or love? Do we need to learn, again, the lesson that everyone has a story, and that in ways we cannot always see, those stories are always in some way connected?

Yes, is my answer after finishing this beautiful book. There are other things novels can do, but one of the things they do best is explore the infinite variety of human life, imagining its possibilities and shaping them into forms that will touch and surprise us. For me, Doerr’s novel did exactly this. I read it with rapt interest, and also with mounting suspense as the story moved forward through a series of short, delicately calibrated parts that might, in other hands, have seemed mannered in their very brevity. Doerr balances the kind of lyrical sensibility shown in the passage above (reminiscent for me of Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and In Shadow) with restrained understatement that gives us room to feel for ourselves. We come to know the main characters — the blind, curious French girl Marie-Laure, and the young German radio engineer Werner Pfennig — by following them from their childhoods to the climactic siege of Saint-Malo, where the novel actually begins. The novel moves between that terrifying present and a past that helps us understand not just the literal movements that set up the final crisis but the subtler forces that have shaped them — Werner especially — into people who act as they finally do.

Marie-Laure is maybe a bit too good to be true, though there’s a deliberate fairy-tale dimension to the novel, which comes complete with ogres and piratical villains (in this case a monomaniacal German officer in pursuit of a fantastic jewel) that encourages us to read it outside the rules of strict realism. She does not change or grow but remains steadfast; while she does in the end need rescuing, it’s her courage and, ultimately, defiance that make her escape possible. Her quest is not for self-knowledge but for trust.

Werner is a more complex and thus interesting character. Doerr avoids the temptation to make him a hapless victim, an innocent cog in the Nazi war machine. Instead, as he gradually and almost belatedly realizes, Werner allows himself to repress the full implications of his actions as his passion for radios is perverted. He loves the technology because it connects him to other people; he ends up using it to calculate their destruction. He comforts himself with the refrain “It’s only numbers,” but of course it isn’t. Against his moral passivity we have the example of his school friend Frederick, nearsighted, unheroic, bird-loving, who said “I will not“; Werner “stood by as the consequences came raining down.”

As Marie-Laure’s literal blindness connects metaphorically to the novel’s exploration of what we see, Werner’s radio waves come to signify the possibilities of connections across distance, time, and enmity. Are these elements too pat? I didn’t think so: any lover of Bleak House is likely to appreciate, rather than disdain, a novel built around multiple refractions of the same idea, not to mention plots that turn on convergences that defy probability to insist on their symbolic and moral meaning. Dickens’s fog is visible, but as Doerr’s elegaic conclusion invites us to recognize, our world is united by invisible elements that we can use either for or against each other. Like Dickens, he commits wholeheartedly to fiction’s capacity for fancy as well as feeling. Though the story he tells is a sad and often painful one, the way he tells it seems to me not just artful but incorrigibly hopeful. What a readerly treat.

Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love Is the Saddest Comic Novel I’ve Ever Read

mitfordWhen I wrote about E. F. Benson’s very funny but also rather nasty Mapp and Lucia, I speculated that one reason I didn’t love it is that “I like my social comedy served up with a hint of conscience, or even of pathos.” “Give me Nancy Mitford any day,” wrote Min in the comments — and that reminded me that Mitford is another writer I keep meaning to read. So I asked for and got The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate for Christmas (thanks, D&J!) and have just finished the first of them. I am still reeling! Because although it certainly made me laugh out loud more than once, The Pursuit of Love is a very sad book. It doesn’t have just a hint of pathos: it is downright riddled with the stuff, right from the melancholy reflection on family photographs on page 1:

There they are, held like flies, in the amber of that moment – click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had from them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups.

Sure, in that same paragraph we get introduced to the weirdly hilarious “entrenching tool” hung over the chimney (“with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out. It is still covered with blood and hairs …”), and immediately after we are treated to a catalogue of the family “dramas” recalled by our self-effacing narrator, Fanny, from her Christmases spent with her cousins at Alconleigh, including one at which Linda (who turns out to be, if not the heroine, at least the main focus of the novel) tells the neighbours’ children about the “facts of life” in a version “so gruesome that the children left Alconleigh howling dismally, their nerves permanently impaired, their future chances of a sane and happy sex life much reduced.” (Don’t you long to know just what she told them?) But the mixture of pleasure and pain in the opening tells us clearly that, for all its brilliant comedy, The Pursuit of Love isn’t going to be altogether a lighthearted romp.

And it definitely isn’t. I think that’s because the pursuit of love turns out to be rather a mournful quest. Linda and Fanny dream of it, even before they are “out” and officially allowed to reach for it:

We were, of course, both in love, but with people we had never met; Linda with the Prince of Wales, and I with a fat, red-faced middle-aged farmer, whom I sometimes saw riding through Shenley. These loves were strong, and painfully delicious; they occupied all our thoughts, but I think we half realized that they would be superseded in time by real people. They were to keep the house warm, so to speak, for its eventual occupant.

The real-life models they have are not very encouraging, especially Fanny’s mother, known as ‘the Bolter’ because “she ran away so often, and with so many different people.” Nonetheless, as young girls Fanny and Linda imagine that married love is a beautiful, unwavering ideal.

One way or another, the rest of the novel puts paid to this notion: though written with a much (much!) lighter touch, The Pursuit of Love is as much the opposite of “chick lit” as anything by Elena Ferrante. Don’t be fooled by the hot pink cover — no happily-ever-afters here! In fact, there are hardly even any outright happy moments.”Where now was love that would last to the grave and far beyond?” thinks Linda as she travels, alone and forlorn, away from her second failed marriage:

She had found neither great love nor great happiness, and she had not inspired them in others. Parting with her would have been no death blow to either of her husbands; on the contrary, they would both have turned with relief to a much preferred mistress, who was more suited to them in every way. Whatever quality it is that can hold indefinitely the love and affection of a man she plainly did not possess, and now she was doomed to the lonely, hunted life of a beautiful but unattached woman. . . . What had she done with her youth? Tears for her lost hopes and ideals, tears of self-pity in fact, began to pour down her cheeks. The three fat Frenchmen who shared the carriage with her were in a snoring sleep, she wept alone.

The pathos of that scene is, admittedly, a little too much (we’re pulled back from the maudlin brink by the snoring Frenchmen, bless them), but Linda is right about how her life has gone. So was she wrong to seek love in the first place, to place all her hopes of happiness on it? Or did she just make bad choices? She loved both her husbands ardently — at first. Is love itself to blame, for distorting our vision and interfering with our judgment?

Whether we should blame love, or Linda, or just bad luck, to this point, new hope emerges when she meets Fabrice and realizes that this time it’s the real thing: “she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love.” And yet … this coup de foudre is the least believable of all the novel’s romantic scenarios. Is that how “true love” works? Like a fantasy? And it’s an equivocal one, at that, as she becomes a “kept woman,” one of a string of Fabrice’s mistresses.

Linda’s fine with that, though, and no severe moral judgment descends on her from her family either. This time it’s war that ruins everything:

This was 1939, and men’s thoughts were not of relaxation but of death, not of bathing-suits but of uniforms, not of dance music, but of trumpets, while beaches for the next few years were to be battle and not pleasure grounds.

War seems like just a shadow on Linda’s love life, not a main event, but for all the insouciance with which she and Fanny discuss it (“he seems to have had a most fascinating time,” Fanny reports of her husband’s experience at Dunkirk; “They all did,” replies Linda, “the boys were here yesterday and you never heard anything like their stories”) there’s no ignoring its menace. The real threat is finally brought home to Linda — literally! —  when a bomb lands directly on the London house where she has been defiantly waiting for Fabrice.

I won’t give away exactly how things end for Linda and her one true love; I’ll just say that it’s not funny at all. As for Fanny, her quiet life (about which we know little, because, as she tells us, “this is Linda’s story, not mine”) seems for a while to be the implicitly better alternative to Linda’s quixotic adventures. But though Fanny did find love that endures in something like the way she and her cousin once dreamed of, it’s still a bit of a disappointment:

Alfred and I are happy, as happy as married people can be. We are in love, we are intellectually and physically suited in every possible way, we rejoice in each other’s company, we have no money troubles and three delightful children. And yet, when I consider my life, day by day, hour by hour, it seems to be composed of a series of pin-pricks. Nannies, cooks, the endless drudgery of housekeeping, the nerve-wracking noise and boring repetitive conversation of small children (boring in the sense that it bores into one’s very brain), their absolute incapacity to amuse themselves, their sudden and terrifying illnesses, Alfred’s not infrequent bouts of moodiness, his invariable complaints at meals about the pudding, the way he will always use my toothpaste and will always squeeze the tube in the middle.

Ha! But also, oh no! “These are the components of marriage,” Fanny says (resignedly? pragmatically?), “the wholemeal bread of life, rough, ordinary, but sustaining.” Maybe so, but what a let-down! If that’s the best we can hope for from love, aren’t we left wondering whether, all in all, it wouldn’t have been better to pursue something else? Or is the pursuit itself what matters? “Don’t pity me,” says Linda; “I’ve had eleven months of perfect and unalloyed happiness, very few people can say that, in the course of long long lives, I imagine.”

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