“My Own Way”: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes

“Say you won’t leave us, Lolly.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“But Lolly, what you want is absurd.”

“It’s only my own way, Henry.”

In many ways, Lolly Willowes is a familiar book. Like Villette or The Odd Women or The Crowded Street, it is the story of a woman whose life does not conform to the expected story of love, courtship, and marriage. Single women were both a social and a fictional (and thus a formal) problem from at least the mid-19th century on into the 20th. The statistical overabundance of women in the earlier period led to articles with titles like “Why Women are Redundant” and “What Shall We Do With Our Old Maids”; the terrible losses of World War I created a similar feeling of crisis, at least among those who saw marriage as the only natural and desirable aim for women’s lives. That was never everybody, of course, especially not all women, but it was an assumption that one way or another affected the horizon of expectation for most people.

Stylistically and tonally, Lolly Willowes is most like The Crowded Street, which makes sense, I suppose, as they are close together chronologically: Holtby’s novel was published in 1924, Townsend Warner’s in 1926. The world they depict is quite similar: for their heroines, it is one of stultifying limitations, well-meaning but hampering advice and attention, and near-debilitating mental suffocation. Lolly Willowes is brisker, though, and (for want of a better term) quirkier: Holtby plods along realistically with Muriel until finally she makes a little space for herself in the world — at last, most readers are likely to exclaim! — because the vicarious experience of her life is really very depressing.

Lolly Willowes feints in that realist direction. In fact, for most of the book you wouldn’t necessarily know it’s going to take a turn into the weird and wonderful unless you knew it already and so were watching (as I was) for signs — Lolly’s interest in herbs and potions, for instance, and the faintly uncanny way she has of not being altogether present in her immediate place and time. What’s so important and subversive about her story is that her cry for liberation — her demand to have her own way — arises from the most ordinary circumstances of her life. Nobody is intentionally cruel to her; she’s not abused or harassed or tormented … except by being an unmarried woman expected to find sufficient meaning for her life in being an accessory to other people’s plans and purposes. The complaint, in other words, is explicitly not personal but political, not individual but systemic: it’s an indictment of normalcy.

Once Lolly has removed herself from the benevolent tyranny of her family, establishing herself in the wonderfully-named town of Great Mop, she reflects on their disapproval:

There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature; and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayerbook, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilization. All she could do was to go on forgetting them.

Lolly does find contentment when she has thrown off and (mostly) forgotten these “props of civilization,” but it turns out to be harder to shake them off than she’d hoped. I loved that it was her nephew Titus who followed her to Great Mop: again, precisely because he’s the one she likes best, the one who seems least threatening, the threat he does represent turns out to be most revealing. “Where are you off to, Aunt Lolly?” he cries cheerfully as she passes him; ” Wait a minute, and I’ll come too.” But Lolly doesn’t want him to come along; she doesn’t want him anywhere near her new life:

She walked up and down in despair and rebellion. She walked slowly, for she felt the weight of her chains. Once more they had been fastened upon her. She had worn them for many years, acquiescently, scarcely feeling their weight. Now she felt it. And, with their weight, she felt all their familiarity, and the familiarity was worst of all.

Happily for her, that familiarity turns eventually into a familiar, and Lolly is able to draw on forces outside “civilization” to break those chains once and for all. The turn is sly and mischievous and almost disturbingly gratifying: things turn against Titus (milk curdles, bees swarm) until he’s driven safely away. Lolly never seems overtly in control of these events: even as she feels a new power, her disperses. She’s certainly not innocent, though, as she openly and unrepentantly allies herself with Satan.

Lolly’s final dialogue with Satan (winningly in the guise of a common gardener) is the pay-off for the somewhat slow burn of the first two thirds or so of the novel. In fact, it’s mostly a monologue, in which Lolly makes a compelling case for Satan’s intervention. “It’s like this,” she explains:

When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. . . . Well, there they were, there they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk, and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull.

“Some may get religion,” she concedes, after more bitter musing about women’s wasted potential, “and then they’re all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft?” It’s not about exercising malevolent power, or benevolent either, for that matter:

One doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that–to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others . . .

It’s the mordant genius of Lolly Willowes that this conclusion makes such perfect sense, in context–that Sylvia Townsend Warner has done such a good job bringing out the menace of the everyday that Lolly’s escape from it by such morally equivocal means is itself unequivocally something to celebrate, rather than fear or judge. She’s only trying to go her own way, after all: that should not be too much to ask.

“On the Sea”: The Optician of Lampedusa

I was on the sea that day. And I don’t rule out that it could be me on the sea again tomorrow. There will be another time, another boat. There will be more hands, more bodies thrashing, more voices begging. Every time I am on the sea now I’m searching for them, scouring, breathless.

The Optician of Lampedusa is written by journalist Emma Jane Kirby, but it is not her story: it is the story of Carmine Menna, an optician on the island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily. Because of its proximity to Libya, Lampedusa has been a key destination for people crossing from Africa to Europe, often in overcrowded and ill-equipped boats run by unprincipled smugglers. Like many on Lampedusa, the Optician (as he is referred to throughout) was aware of the migrants and refugees mostly as an inconvenience, an occasional distraction from the ordinary business of his life:

His neighbors collected food and stuff for them; there was always someone rattling a tin. A woman, presumably from the parish, had called round that morning asking if he had any old clothes or shoes to donate but he’d been drowning in paperwork and hadn’t had time to stop. Apparently the migrant center was full to bursting again; maybe that’s why they preferred to wander the island like this.

Crazy, he thought, that they all turned up here when this country had precious little to offer them.

The Optician of Lampedusa is the story of Carmine’s awakening to the horrors–literal and moral–of the situation he’s been living in with such indifference for so long. He and his wife and some friends are on a boating holiday when they awaken to a sound he thinks at first is seagulls. As they steer the boat towards the disturbance, they realize that they are hearing the desperate screams of hundreds of people, drowning:

The ocean reverberated with their screaming, the terrible sound bouncing off of and coming from under the water, gargling and rupturing. The Optician recognized the screams as the music of the dying, the final dirges of the drowning. In the chorus of voices he could pick out each individual soloist. Everyone was begging to be noticed.

He and his friends manage to pull 47 people out of the water; exhausted but frantic to save more if they can, they are finally sent back to shore by the Coast Guard, their own boat dangerously overloaded.

Only two chapters of The Optician of Lampedusa are about the rescue. The rest of it is about the context of the event, both personal (in the lives of the Optician, his wife, and their friends) and moral. The first chapters focus on normalcy: the everyday business of the Optician’s life, the nice dinner out before the boating trip, the pleasure of the time away from land and work. The chapters after show the same life stripped of its protective layer of willed ignorance. Once the Optician hears the roar on the other side of silence, he cannot go back to his previous wadding of stupidity. He can’t understand how he could have been so impervious to so much nearby suffering. He can’t understand why the catastrophes have continued for so long, why the response of governments and aid agencies and local people hasn’t been better, or done better. He can’t bear the memories of the people they couldn’t save; the only saving grace, for him and all those on the boat that day is the connection they maintain with the people the could save–and that doesn’t seem like much when so many were lost.

The Optician of Lampedusa is as clear an example as we’re likely to get today of literature written with the kind of intense social purpose we associate with Dickens. “And dying thus around us every day,” Dickens says in Bleak House, both the switch into neat iambic pentameter and the first-person plural making the line instantly memorable and easily portable. The Optician is appalled at his own failing of conscience: as he went about his business, people were dying thus around him every day. He is deeply touched when the survivors present their rescuers with a gift:

a simple but beautifully executed drawing of a grasping hand coming out of the water being met by another hand which clasped it in a fierce grip.

Though this is a lovely representation, it is more comforting than The Optician of Lampedusa itself, which ends not with uplift or salvation but with a stark reminder, in the Optician’s own words, that there will be more boats, more deaths.

Kirby’s Foreword notes that she and her BBC colleagues met the Optician while looking for ways to keep their audience interested in the migrant crisis:

We were aware that our listeners were feeling saturated with the migration story and had begun to switch off from it, so we were keen to find a way to recall their attention to the enormity of this news story.

They are all, is the clear implication, in the same situation as the Optician: grown indifferent, not from cruelty or callousness but from familiarity and a sense that this is not really their problem. The Optician thus serves as a kind of Everyman (which is presumably why Kirby doesn’t use his name), a stand-in for all of us who have somehow allowed this human disaster to go on and on without trying to help.

It’s a powerful book with a morally inarguable message. It doesn’t offer any simple solutions, or really any solutions at all: it doesn’t delve into the reasons people are undertaking these appallingly dangerous journeys, or suggest any particular policies for the receiving countries that might ameliorate either their risks or their reception. The focus is entirely on the human aspect. Just as Dickens’s novels have been criticized since their first publication for failing to offer solutions, I suppose The Optician of Lampedusa could be met with reasonable questions about what exactly is the right thing to do, given finite resources and complicated domestic situations, economically and politically. There’s also the hard truth of competing demands on people’s attention and sympathy and personal resources: Eliot wasn’t wrong when she said we could die of the roar on the other side of silence. It’s only when you let people dissolve into abstractions, though, that these seem like adequate replies. The Optician knows he isn’t going to change the world, but what he’s learned is that he should pay attention to what’s nearby and do what he can. That response to suffering leaves a lot of big questions unanswered, but at least it isn’t doing nothing.

Recent Reading: Tana French, The Trespasser

As usual, the unusual stretch of radio silence here means that I have been writing: the good news is a proposal I sent in some months ago was unexpectedly accepted last week, but the challenge was they wanted it by today and I hadn’t really thought about it once the initial proposal had gone unanswered for a while. I have been focusing pretty hard since then–which was nice in a way, as I’ve been writing on Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic, a book that I have thought about a lot since I first read it and loved it when it was just out. As I have also found with the essay I’ve been writing on Dorothy Dunnett, though, loving and having a long relationship with a book can if anything make it harder to say something you’re pleased with, especially under tight space constraints!

Anyway, I sent in my best effort and now I wait to hear if the editor likes it. In the meantime, I didn’t really have the extra mental fortitude to keep up with the Forsytes, so in the reading time I had, I read Tana French’s The Trespasser. I wish I could say I loved it. I really admired French’s first few novels, but for me this one, like both The Secret Place and Broken Harbour, seemed a lot longer than it needed to be. Since I have also felt this way about all the more recent books by Elizabeth George, I wonder if the problem really is me, not them: have I just lost patience or interest in the kind of character-driven, detail-oriented crime fiction I typically like(d)?

There were certainly things I liked, admired, and was interested in with The Trespasser. French is great at jump-starting her books with a strong sense of the narrator’s individuality (if you haven’t read them, though the books do connect, each of them is told by a different member of the Dublin Murder Squad). The strongest element in The Trespasser was the gradual undoing of its narrator’s own perspective–not on the case, but on her place in the squad. The whole book is about interpreting events, about considering competing stories and weighing them against both the fixed point of fact and one’s own sense of the teller’s character and of what, more generally, makes a plausible or significant story. Our narrator here, Antoinette Conway, operates under assumptions about the people around her that turn out to be both largely mistaken and debilitating; that “reveal” is more important, ultimately, than the unraveling of the crime itself.

Where I got impatient was with the long (loooooong) sequences of witnesses’ accounts of what happened (or didn’t happen), and the constant spinning of alternative versions. Some of the Q&A sessions with witnesses felt like they were in real time! For characters we are meeting for the first and probably only time, I didn’t really see the value in spending so much time spinning out their world views and guessing or undermining their motivations. The investigation itself also could have taken a more gripping turn, I thought — but having said that, I sometimes dislike it when procedurals turn into thrillers, so props to French, I suppose, for staying true to her form.

I still think French is good enough that I’ll keep reading her books as they come out, but I’m glad that the pressure has lifted again and I can get back to Galsworthy. (In an odd coincidence, I see that in the post I linked to about The Secret Place I had just done the reverse, putting The Forsyte Saga back on the shelf so I could move on to other things!)

Interlude: Indian Summer of a Forsyte

In his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Forsyte Saga, Geoffrey Harvey explains that we owe the saga in its completed form to Galsworthy’s goddaughter, Dorothy Ivens. The Man of Property had been published in 1906 but Galsworthy’s attention had moved on. Then in 1918, he published Indian Summer of a Forsyte as part of a volume of stories; when Dorothy read it, she urged the author to “give us more Forsytes!” In Chancery followed, in 1920, then To Let in 1921.

Now I understand not just Dorothy’s enthusiasm but its timing. The Man of Property is very good, but it’s a bit cold; Galsworthy’s intermittently beautiful writing isn’t quite enough to compensate for the more ruthless aspects of life among the Forsytes. I ended it interested but not emotionally invested in anyone except old Jolyon. Even Irene, whose situation ought to be the most touching, is at too much of a distance to sympathize with except in the abstract.

Indian Summer of a Forsyte turns out to be the perfect antidote to this faint chilliness of affect. For one thing, the Forsyte in question is old Jolyon himself: the entire story is about him, and from his perspective. “There was in him that which transcended Forsytism,” the narrator remarks, and that quality is what the story delicately explores. It is probably most simply expressed as love of beauty, but as Jolyon feels and the story shows, it would be wrong to reduce it to an aesthetic response: it leads to love, and to sympathy, and (shades of Forster again) to a desire to connect and belong.

It’s Irene who precipitates the action again in Indian Summer, this time by appearing at the country house built by her lover Bosinney for her husband Soames, and now owned by Jolyon. He’s still a lonely old fellow, and now he’s also pressingly aware that his time is running out, which fills him with melancholy, and a little resentment:

The thought that some day–perhaps not ten years hence, perhaps not five–all this world would be taken from him, before he had exhausted his powers of loving it, seemed to him in the nature of an injustice, brooding over his horizon.

His chance encounter with Irene brings new interest to his life: she is beautiful, she has suffered, she is kind to him, she plays Chopin. Separated from Soames (who had never, Jolyon reflects with grim satisfaction, “been able to lay hands on her again”), Irene now lives on her own, giving music lessons and helping “women who have come to grief”–“the Magdalenes of London,” as Jolyon calls them.

The relationship between these two forlorn souls is delicately drawn. It’s unusual but not improper: Jolyon wants nothing more than to be in Irene’s company, and she seems to understand and to take comfort herself in sharing what remains of the old man’s time, in making this interlude more beautiful for him:

And so a month went by–a month of summer in the fields, and in his heart, with summer’s heat and the fatigue thereof. . . . There was such delicious freedom . . . about those weeks of lovely weather, and this new companionship with one who demanded nothing, and remained always a little unknown, retaining the fascination of mystery. It was like a draught of wine to him who has been drinking water so long that he has almost forgotten the stir wine brings to his blood, the narcotic to his brain. The flowers were coloured brighter, scents and music and the sunlight had a living value–were no longer mere reminders of past enjoyment.

These pleasures are all temporary, however, as the title reminds us: even the best of times still passes away. Alone again, Jolyon wonders if Irene was ever even there, “or was she but the emanation of all the beauty he had loved and must leave so soon?” The end of the story is inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less poignant. Galsworthy handles it so beautifully, too, without melodrama or overt sentimentality, simply following Jolyon as he fades out into the waning beauty around him: “Summer–summer! So went the hum.”

“Bitter Waters”: John Galsworthy, The Man of Property

Nothing in this world is more sure to upset a Forsyte than the discovery that something on which he has stipulated to spend a certain sum has cost more. And this is reasonable, for upon the accuracy of his estimates the whole policy of his life is ordered. If he cannot rely on the definite values of property, his compass is amiss; he is adrift upon bitter waters without a helm.

The Man of Property is the first installment of Galsworthy’s The Forstye Saga. Two more novels (In Chancery and To Let) and a novella, “Indian Summer of a Forsyte,” complete the saga.

I’ve owned my nice Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Forsyte Saga for a few years now and had even begun it once before. I know that I got at least as far as page 39, because there was a notation in the back of the book that says “39 Wagner 😀.” Apparently old Jolyon’s reflections on Wagner amused me the first time too: “That fellow Wagner had ruined everything,” he grumbles; “no melody left, nor any voices to sing it.” I found it hard going then, though, and abandoned it without getting much further. I don’t know why this time was different, though I expect most readers have had a similar experience–something about my mood, or the timing, or the lighting. Sometimes books just have to ripen on the shelf, or I just have to grow into them.

Mind you, this read hasn’t been altogether smooth sailing so far either. Galsworthy’s prose has something of the stuttering quality I’ve complained about in Henry James. Here’s a bit of the opening paragraph, just as an example:

He is like one who, having watched a tree grow from its planting–a paragon of tenacity, insulation, and success, amidst the deaths of a hundred other plants less fibrous, sappy, and persistent–one day will see it flourishing with bland, full foliage, in an almost repugnant prosperity, at the summit of its efflorescence.

That’s not nearly as dense or perverse as some of James’s atrocities: by the end of it, you can still more or less remember where it began. Still, it doesn’t exactly propel the reader forward. It took me a while to accept the pace and rhythm of the writing, and to have attached myself sufficiently to the characters and their situations to feel involved in the book. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of Forsytes and I kept forgetting how they were related: happily, my edition has a family tree, which for a while I referred back to a lot.

Once I was more at home in the novel, though, it quickly became quite engrossing. For all the large cast of characters, The Man of Property is not a particularly plot-heavy novel, which makes Galsworthy’s aside that a novel without a plot is “well-known to be an anomaly” amusing. The main event is the unhappiness and eventual infidelity of Soames Forsyte’s wife Irene, which has ripple effects on the lives of various other Forsytes, particularly Soames but also young June, who when the novel opens is celebrating her engagement to Philip Bosinney, the man who becomes Irene’s lover. Galsworthy’s attention is less on the adultery plot itself then on its significance as a symptom of more abstract problems in the world of the Forsytes. Irene’s dissatisfaction is not just emotionally unsettling: it is also thematically weighty, because it challenges the values of the family she has married into. Why isn’t she happy? What more can she want? How can property, in all its forms, not be enough? Isn’t she herself ultimately Soames’s property–and given that, how can she resist his claims on her?

The country house Soames undertakes to build becomes a focal point for these puzzling questions, a symbol of the intractable difference between his view of the world and his wife’s as well as the larger clash of values the novel explores. Ironically, he is prompted to build it by June, who wants work for her architect fiance. Bosinney is regarded with some skepticism by the rest of June’s family: he is disconcertingly indifferent to the social norms they vigorously enforce. (The bit about his “soft hat” is quite funny, as is the riff on the Forsytes’ fixation on “saddle of mutton,” which characterizes them all with comic acidity.) As the house progresses, he and Soames wrangle repeatedly over the budget: Bosinney refuses to be constrained, rejecting practical considerations in pursuit of his aesthetic vision. Throughout the novel it’s increasingly clear that he stands for something the Forsytes by and large don’t even understand. Galsworthy never lets us out of the Forsyte point of view, but this immersion in it means we experience its narrowness firsthand. This aspect of the novel reminded me very much of Forster’s Howards End, which also pits crass materialists against people of a wider vision–though so far, Galsworthy has certainly not set up the Bosinneys of the world as heroic or even particularly admirable antagonists to the Forsytes and their ilk.

The scandal, first of Irene’s inarticulate discontent and then of her actual misconduct, gets the Forsytes all pretty riled up, and much of the novel is clearly satirical at their expense. That their assumptions about property–their reliance on it to define their identity and power as well as their material wealth–are not just funny, though, becomes grimly clear when Soames “at last asserted his rights and acted like a man”:

He was strangely haunted by the recollection of her face, from before which, to soothe her, had had tried to pull her hands–of her terrible smothered sobbing, the like of which he had never heard, and still seemed to hear, and he was still haunted by the odd, intolerable feeling of remorse and shame he had felt, as he stood looking at her by the flame of the single candle, before silently slinking away.

“Had he been right,” he wonders belatedly, “to . . . break down the resistance which he had suffered now too long from this woman who was his lawful and solemnly constituted helpmate?” The terms of his inner struggle are strongly reminiscent of France Power Cobbe’s complaint in her powerful essay “Wife-Torture in England”: “the notion that a man’s wife is his PROPERTY, in the sense in which a horse is his property, is the fatal root of incalculable evil and misery.” These are bitter waters indeed.

Happily, there is some tenderness in the novel too, primarily (and a bit unexpectedly) around the family patriarch, old Jolyon Forsyte, June’s grandfather. His son, also Jolyon, abandoned her and her mother, running off to live with another woman (a rare rebel in the ranks, choosing love over family and property); Jolyon Sr. has raised June, and she has filled his life with quiet happiness now ebbing away as she grows up and moves on. The old man’s loneliness is poignant, and his unexpected impromptu reconciliation with his son seemed like a hint that there might be other ways to hold a family together. Young Jolyon’s children offer the sad old man some welcome comfort.

The Man of Property is a narrow book in some ways: that so many of its characters are related by both blood and behavior could make it somewhat claustrophobic, and in fact that is something of its effect and also, I think, one of its intentions–to enclose us in a world that needs more light and air and movement and change. I’m curious to see what the rest of the saga does with this material. The other thing that will help me keep reading is that when he’s not steering us through the choppy waters of the Forsytes’ social world and mental convolutions, Galsworthy writes some really beautiful prose. Getting out into the country, it turns out, is good for the novel, even if it doesn’t solve Soames’s problems:

It was that famous summer when extravagance was fashionable, when the very earth was extravagant, chestnut-trees spread with blossom, and flowers drenched in perfume, as they had never been before; when roses blew in every garden; and for the swarming stars the nights had hardly space; when every day and all day long the sun, in full armour, swung his brazen shield above the Park, and people did strange things, lunching and dining in the open air.

Bosinney himself may not be a worthy anti-Forsyte champion, but the impression these moments of aesthetic delight give me is that Galsworthy is slyly playing that role himself.

These Girls: Jane Gardam, The Flight of the Maidens

“She’s not all right,” said the grave-digger. “She is clearly not all right. But then I don’t know who is. Our Het’s not. They never had any fun, any of these girls. Never, since the war, and they were only kids before it started. They don’t know where they are.”

Jane Gardam’s The Flight of the Maidens was an easy book for me to like. Its concept is immediately appealing: three girls — Hetty, Una, and Lieselotte — on the cusp of adulthood, spending the summer before they head to university to test the waters — to see what it’s like being themselves, to discover who they are without the influences and protections of home. It opens on an idyllic day in “the late summer of 1946”:

Years ahead, when other days had overtaken it, [Hetty] still felt the glow that almost brought tears in the goldness of summer sunlight, or saw a thick envelope and headed notepaper with her name on it or a blaze of snapdragons in a July flowerbed, or remembered a wide-open front door, her mother singing as she prepared the breakfast in the kitchen at the back.

Gardam is a lovely writer: her prose is crisp but capable of both drama and poetry, sometimes together, especially when she takes us out into the English landscape:

Along the dark railside walk she went, beside the asters and purple heliotropes, through the rose gardens where some papery roses still swung heavy on almost leafless branches . . . The park flower-beds had once held ranks of weedless wallflowers and antirrhinums and chrysanthemums, trussed tight with raffia. In the war they had been left to droop and slouch, die or survive, make countless common friends. Clouds of willowherb and dandelion floated around them and the once-pruned ornamental trees had grown wild above. Lofty sycamores gloomed over the tennis courts, which had become a cracked green asphalt pool in a dark wood. Their surfaces were like creeping jenny lying treacherous on water.

The damage done by war lurks here as it does all across the country and in the lives of all three girls: Hetty and Una both have fathers who “suffer from something known as The Somme,” and Lieselotte came to England with the Kindertransport, a Jewish refugee from the Nazis who was sent to safety after Kristellnacht and later learns the rest of her family died in Auschwitz. When Lieselotte travels to London, she passes the shells of bombed out homes; a handsomely brooding young man who catches Hetty’s eye tells her how his rear gunner was “hosed” out of their plane after they were “shot up together over Holland.

This is the world these “maidens” know, and also the one they are each, in their own ways, trying to leave, or perhaps (though they haven’t quite seen it this way yet) to change. Gardam limns their individual characters effectively, along with the other people in their lives: Una’s flighty hairdresser mother; Hetty’s kindly father, returned from the trenches “unscathed in body but shattered to bits in mind” and reduced to eking out a living as a gravedigger; Hetty’s pious, meddling mother; the kind and principled Quakers who took Lieselotte in but cannot wholly comprehend what it means to have her experience of the world. It is a differently eventful summer for each of the girls; little happens of immediately visible moment, but by the end of the novel you can feel them all settling into firmer forms, asserting more clearly who they are and will be.

It’s very nicely done — and not at all surprising, in form, concept, or execution. I’m not saying the details are unoriginal, only that when I had finished this novel I felt more or less the way I felt about Old Filth: that Gardam had (effectively, deftly, eloquently) written a book that fits, maybe a little too exactly, into a niche … my niche, right down to the detail that Hetty at one point says to herself “if life were all books, it would be easy.” It’s a book about England in a particular moment in time that allows the characters to represent both generational and historical change; it’s about young women coming of age, intellectually as well as sexually; it has eccentric aristocrats and cross-class romance and the subtle frisson of horror you get by keeping the Holocaust and the Blitz just visible underneath your English country gardens. To paraphrase Miss Brodie, for people who like this kind of book, The Flight of the Maidens is definitely the kind of book they’ll like. I certainly liked it! But that’s more a sign of a good fit than of a great accomplishment.

“My Missing Her”: Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.

I’m really not sure what to do with Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Its subtitle is “A Novel” but I am reluctant to concede the form to something so slight, so fabular, so episodic. I might be more comfortable calling it a “prose poem,” or “a meditation,” or “an unfinished novel”–that last, of course, both obtuse and a bit snarky, because I was irritated by the freewheeling form of the book, its total embrace of ellipsis as a (substitute for) narrative form. What is it these days with leaving everything out? I suppose it’s one way to differentiate your novels from those that get called “loose baggy monsters” for trying to draw everything in.

I didn’t like the crow. I understand that it is the central conceit of the novel; it’s an effective metaphor and clever, probably more than I appreciate, as a way of figuring grief as something that has a real presence, that plays tricks, that demands attention, that even, in its own way, connects you to your loss. I think I would have liked it in a poem. Here I found it a distraction–too clever, with its multiple modes of discourse and its allusiveness. Is grief really so literary? so metatextual?

I wouldn’t be frustrated about the things I didn’t like, though, if I hadn’t found other parts of the book so piercing:

She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.

If you can render the quotidian suffering of grief so brilliantly, with these few perfectly placed strokes, why resort to gimmicks and trickery? Because you want to, and because it will be new and different and memorable, of course, but these lines affected me strongly in a way that none of the crow’s mutterings did. Why not write the whole book of this family? It’s been done, I suppose, and you can do things (try things) with this darting, fragmented form that are different. Fair enough.

Moments and lines from Grief Is the Thing with Feathers will stay with me a long time. I don’t want to diminish that: for a slight book, it is surprisingly weighty. It was hard not to take its lamentations personally: nobody, I thought as I read it, will ever miss me this way, this much. Its grief felt true, and that’s a powerful effect. Still, and I suppose this is ultimately just a matter of taste, I prefer my fiction all filled in.

“The Man In These Pages”: Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Gradually, as my bruised forehead healed, and as I absorbed my own words, I developed a growing sympathy for the man in these pages, the intelligence operative of doubtful intelligence. Was he a fool or too smart for his own good? Had he chosen the right side or the wrong side of history? And were not these the questions we should all ask ourselves?

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is about as impressive a novel as the adulatory blurbs dripping from my paperback edition declare it to be, though I puzzled at some of the ways they characterize the book (“sparkling”?). For me, its interest built as it went along: at first it was gripping, certainly, but the narrator’s self-conscious ironic detachment felt like a trick that might lose its magic over time, unbroken as it is by any alternative voices to inject either critique or sincerity. After a while, though, I realized that these qualities are in fact part of the narrator’s own account–competing parts of it, in a way, as his self-criticism makes his moments of genuine sympathy more about indictment than redemption. That he can sympathize–that he remains so human–makes his acts of betrayal that much worse, and he knows it. By the end, too, we learn that his story–his confession–is not complete, that even as he admits his own duplicity, his own complicity in horrible acts of violence, he has also excused himself, tried to absent himself, from the worst of it.

That this first-person narrator, supposedly writing a full confession, has misrepresented himself is just one of the many ways in which The Sympathizer complicates the kinds of binaries the novel exposes as creations, or at least fixations, of those in power. Himself a double agent, both a member of the Secret Police and a mole for the Communists, the narrator is on both sides at once, “a man,” as he says, “of two faces.” He is also, as other people constantly remind him, “a bastard,” child of a French father and a Vietnamese mother, never able to be quite one thing or another. In a way that turns out to be characteristic of the novel as a whole, this is a problem that operates on two levels: it is about him in particular, and about the specifics of his history and situation, both personal and national; and it is a universal issue, because his is not the only context in which a destructive idea of purity is part of a larger structure of oppression. The “reeducation” camp where the narrator ends up is just the horrific extreme of a world in which all too often enemies are defined by their resistance to the kind of single-mindedness that is antithetical to the narrator.

My edition of The Sympathizer includes as appendices a New York Times opinion piece by Viet Thanh Nguyen called “Our Vietnam War Never Ended” and an interview with him by Paul Tran called “Anger in the Asian American Novel.” I read both of these through before I read the novel (cautiously at first, ready to turn away if there seemed to be significant spoilers). I did this because I thought I might not recognize important features of the novel given my own limited knowledge of the Vietnam War, or of other representations of it. I have never, for example, read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American or Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (both discussed in these articles); I have never seen Apocalypse Now, and though I’ve seen Platoon, I have no particular memory of it. Growing up in Canada, the Vietnam War was never a big part of my historical mythology except insofar as it featured largely in American history, particularly (in my own intellectual experience, anyway) in the form of anti-war protests and draft dodgers.

The additional materials did give me a heads-up about some of the novel’s goals, but I think I would have grasped the key issues in any case. Though it’s not a novel that flaunts its metafictionality, it is overtly concerned with representation, which inevitably highlights its own status as an alternative story of the Vietnam War. “Not to own the means of production,” observes the narrator, “can lead to premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death.” Within the plot, he attempts to seize the means of representation–or at least to have a small share in them–by his work as a consultant on “the Movie.” When he first sees the script, it is for “a movie about our country where not a single one of our countrymen had an intelligible word to say.” “The lack of speaking parts for Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam,” he points out to the famous director (sardonically called “the Auteur”) “might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity.” In his interview with Paul Tran, Nguyen says that he meant The Sympathizer to fill a gap: “I felt that there still wasn’t a novel that directly confronts the history of the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese American point of view.”

Not only does The Sympathizer as a whole offer a different perspective on the war that (Nguyen points out) is called “the American War” in Vietnam, but it addresses the “lack of speaking parts” formally, because in it the narrator himself obviously has the only “speaking part.” Nguyen does not, however, use the narrator’s voice as a tool to “humanize” the Vietnamese for an American audience accustomed to the kind of reductive, two-dimensional portrayals he resists in the Movie. This is something, again, that he addresses in the interview:

Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time.

Everybody in this book, especially our protagonist, is guilty of some kind of terrible behavior.

I thought Nguyen’s explicit interest in reclaiming the right to be inhuman was really interesting: it includes but goes beyond insisting on complexity. The narrator certainly is complex, and he is guilty of terrible behavior, and he is also subjected to terrible behavior. He is highly critical of America, but his criticism isn’t based on a tidy dichotomy between American evil and Vietnamese victimization. Being sympathetic, the novel insists, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for humanity–and neither is sympathizing.

The Sympathizer is a fairly high concept novel, then, but it is also a compelling read as a war novel and a spy novel. I didn’t find it as funny as a lot of other reviewers apparently did, but it is certainly a stinging satire, of American hypocrisy and self-delusion in particular but also of pomp and corruption and ideological posturing on all sides. I did think at times that it was a bit overwritten: Nguyen is fond of extra-super-clever metaphors in particular (“Longing flooded the basement of my heart . . . The vodka, when served, was . . . the paint thinner I needed to strip down the stained, flaking walls of my interior”). There’s a certain flamboyance to this that wore on me, although it could be argued that these are the narrator’s flourishes, not the novelist’s, and meant as evidence of what he is later accused of by his interrogators: that he has been corrupted by the West. “In practice,” says the Commandant to whom his confession is nominally addressed, “you are a bourgeois intellectual. . . . your language betrays you. It is not clear, not succinct, not simple. It is the language of the elite. You must write for the people.” Once again, the threat is to his voice, to his role as a speaking part. That makes the narrator’s confession, the novel itself, a revolutionary act. As a result, in spite of everything he has said and done–maybe even because of it–it’s hard not to find the narrator himself, “the man in these pages,” a sympathetic character.

Weekend Reading: Two by Maggie O’Farrell

A friend recently mentioned that she’d been reading and enjoying Maggie O’Farrell’s novels, so the next time I was at the library I checked out two of them: Instructions for a Heat Wave and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Both are essentially family dramas; both turn on long-held secrets and their repercussions, though in Instructions for a Heat Wave the consequences are mostly moral and emotional, while by the end of Esme Lennox two people have paid (in very different ways) with their lives. Both are very good–well written, evocative, psychologically astute, and thematically layered — but it’s Esme Lennox (both the novel and the eponymous character) that’s really going to stick with me.

Instructions for a Heat Wave follows its family members through a few fraught days during a grueling heat wave that hit Britain in 1976. Robert Riordan tells his wife he’s going out for the paper and then he doesn’t come back: his disappearance brings his children together again, face to face with each other and with an array of unresolved issues from their family history. O’Farrell uses the sweltering temperatures both literally and figuratively: the characters’ physical discomfort in the inescapably stifling heat matches their inner restlessness as the narrative shuttles us back and forth between their childhood memories and the complications of their current situations.

Instructions for a Heat Wave ends on a faint note of optimism: the novel’s ultimate revelations may be initially devastating, but as people’s secrets come out, healing seems possible — no harm is ultimately irredeemable. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, on the other hand, offers no such soothing hope: some wrongs, it suggests, can never be made right, at least not through forgiveness. The novel is a compelling blend of chilling and heartbreaking: as it takes us from Esme’s childhood to the present-day life of her grand-niece Iris, splicing in segments from the point of view of Esme’s sister Kitty, now suffering from Alzheimer’s, we gradually realize just how Esme came to spend 60 years confined to an asylum. One of O’Farrell’s sources is Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980; Esme’s story dramatizes the horrors of a society that conflates nonconformity with “hysteria” and madness, and punishes it accordingly.  I was a bit disappointed in the novel’s ending, but it’s a haunting story, both poignant and gripping.

The Muddy, Muddy Middle: My Writing Process

Do any of you know the delightful children’s rhyming book The Piggy In the Puddle? For the last couple of days, as I sat at desk or table, staring at my computer screen and messing around with the pieces of what I hope will eventually be an essay on Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, lines from it kept running through my head:

See the piggy in the middle

Of the muddy little puddle.

See her dawdle, see her diddle,

In the muddy, muddy middle.

If you don’t know the book, the gist of it is that the piggy (silly piggy!) is having great fun in the mud while her distraught family tries to persuade her to come out and clean herself up with “lots of soap.” But the piggy is resolute (“NOPE!”) and so in the end they jump in with her, right into “the very merry middle.” Hooray!

In my case, I wasn’t feeling particularly merry — just a bit muddled and very much in the middle, and that was (is) stressing me out. Even though I understand the concept of the “shitty first draft,” I still find the phase of writing in between the taking-notes-and-doing-pre-writing stage and the producing-a-reasonably-decent-draft stage psychologically taxing. At that point I usually have all kinds of material to work with, and often lots of ideas about what to say about it — in this case, in fact, I have too many ideas about what I’d like to include, considering that I’ve only got 1500 words to talk about 3000 pages — but they are all in a kind of virtual heap and I can’t yet see what order to put them in, or how to choose among them, or how to say properly (clearly, eloquently) what in the rough material can be loose or incoherent or inarticulate. At first it all just has to be down somewhere in some form, but eventually it has to be honed and shaped. In between, there’s just so much uncertainty!

I’m learning to trust my own process more: I know from experience that this muddy middle is a phase of its own, one that — because lately I’ve been working on fairly short pieces — doesn’t even really last very long. It’s taking longer this time partly because the task is quite open-ended: a review has a pretty formulaic overall shape, but an essay has to find its own intrinsic purpose and logic. I’m also paradoxically inhibited by caring much more about this piece than about almost any of the other things I’ve written recently: precisely because I cherish and admire Dunnett’s series so much, I really (really) want to do it, and my feelings about it, justice. The stakes feel absurdly high, even though I know this essay only really (really) matters to me, not to anyone else. (I mean, I’m sure the editor who agreed to it will be happy if it’s good, but otherwise I don’t expect he cares much about it.)

Eventually, though, I know I will get out of the mess. Today I actually started to think I had cleaned up some parts of my shitty first draft: I did a bit of new writing, but more important, I cut and compressed what I’d done already so that I have room to keep going with the other topics I want to get to. I can almost see now, too, how the parts will fit and flow together–almost! I didn’t make enough progress to make me “very, very merry,” but today’s work did help me believe in the process again and feel more confident that the next phase will come. I know there are some writers who claim there’s nothing hard about it at all (OK, I know only one such writer, and if I weren’t so fond of him, I’d really hate him for this!). But for mere mortals like me, while writing is certainly sometimes exhilarating and, somewhat more often, is interesting and satisfying, there are times when it is both difficult and profoundly discouraging. I think I might make the piggy in the puddle a kind of mascot for those times. Who could stay scared and cranky in such cheerful company? And really, what’s so bad about the muddy middle?

 

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