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?


“Like Life Itself”: Laurie Colwin, A Big Storm Knocked It Over

She watched the sky light up and flash. She watched the sparkling drops that burst into brilliant sprinkles and disappeared into the velvety sky. It was magical: that deep, echoing noise, that glowing tension, that unexpected, magnificent, beautiful release, like the unexpected joy that swept you away, like life itself.

Not much goes on in Laurie Colwin’s A Big Storm Knocked It Over: a marriage, a new baby. It’s a novel about life on a small scale, but that doesn’t mean it’s trivial: as Carol Shields said about Jane Austen’s fiction, it’s a novel that “demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.” I was reading Colwin’s earlier novel Family Happiness when I wrote about this topic before, and I reported not finding that book entirely satisfactory as an example of this genre: “it seems to me a small space filled by a small narrative . . . nice as it is, it feels trivial.” I don’t remember Family Happiness clearly enough to affirm or correct this impression of it, but I can say that A Big Storm Knocked It Over seemed to me to reach further, to gesture beyond its own immediate details. It still didn’t strike me as a particularly profound book: it didn’t seem resonant with new insights. What it does, which is also what other writers of this kind that I appreciate do (Carol Shields, Anne Tyler, Joanna Trollope at her best, Lynne Sharon Schwarz especially) is seize a moment and clarify it: they can bring something ordinary into the kind of focus that shows why it matters more than you thought before. Here’s a small example from A Big Storm Knocked It Over:

She and Teddy had simply merged their possessions and were now thinking about buying a sideboard. Jane Louise had never bought a piece of furniture with another person in her life. It seemed to her an act of almost exotic intimacy. After all, anyone can sleep with anyone, but few people not closely connected purchase furniture in common.

That little bit immediately got me thinking about the furniture in my own house, which in turn reminded me of Jane Smiley’s description of Trollope as “a great analyst of marriage as a series of decisions that turn into a relationship and then, as time goes by and the children grow up, into history and architecture.” Both comments articulate the way relationships, which can seem very abstract and psychological, also have concrete, tangible aspects that oddly merge the literal and the metaphorical.

When Colwin comes up, people seem to talk a lot about her prose, and I can see why. The strength of A Big Storm Knocked It Over isn’t really its characters, though they are crisply delineated and believable (an achievement I certainly don’t mean to underestimate). Its plot, too, is well executed but minimal. It’s the voice of the novel that matters, which is often the voice of the protagonist, Jane Louise, since it is narrated in close third person with lots of free indirect discourse: wry, sharply observant, occasionally but self-consciously sentimental. There are lots of good epigrammatic moments (“Soon the holidays would be upon them like an oncoming train, loaded with complicated feelings”) but also, more rarely, passages that (like my epigraph) expand into something more and unexpectedly poetic.

I think that if I were in a different phase of my own life I might have reacted more strongly to Colwin’s depiction of early marriage and the transition into parenthood. Instead, I was most moved by the scene in which Jane Louise, her own child only five months old, happens across a father loading his college-age son’s possessions into the car:

It was nearing the end of the academic year. Everywhere she looked students were lugging boxes of books, clothes, and standing lamps out of their dorms. She stood on the sidewalk and watched a serious young boy haul two duffel bags into the trunk of his father’s car and dash into a building. His father, a gray-haired man with a wide chest and a linen sports jacket, was loading the trunk. Jane Louise stood perfectly still, blinded by the sunny glare. Hazy light poured down around her.

Someday Miranda would grow up and go to college. Day would follow day: She would lose her baby teeth. Her adult teeth would come in. She would go to school, learn to read, go to high school, have boyfriends, leave home. To her amazement, Jane Louise found herself in tears. Her throat got hot, and tears poured down her cheeks. She felt powerless to brush them away or to move.

“You must think I’m a nut,” she says ruefully to the man when he asks her if she’s okay. “When my kid went to sleep-away camp for the first time,” he replies, “I wanted to lie down in the driveway and eat dirt.” This moment of understanding fills Jane Louise with relief and happiness: “Thank you,” she says; “Oh, thank you.”

Those are the kind of moments we (or I, anyway) read fiction like this for. It’s not simply the solipsistic pleasure of seeing something you’ve experienced reflected back at you, shaped into something more elegant than your own amorphous feelings and memories could create–though that is part of it. Right now my own children are almost gone: one basically moved out, the other, though still at home, less and less tethered to it and to us. My feelings about this are more complicated than I ever would have predicted during the years when the demands of parenthood seemed nearly overwhelming; more than once I have been caught in a wave of nostalgia as intense as what Jane Louise feels just anticipating the changes to come. The recognition I feel reading this scene also brings a comforting sense of connection, reassurance that there is a story to be told about these everyday pains and joys.

“This Piece of Goods”: Rhoda Broughton, Cometh Up As A Flower

“No,” I say doggedly, “leave me alone; I won’t be made up for sale; if he chooses to bid for this piece of goods, he shall see all the flaws in it. I don’t want to cheat him in his bargain.” So I went, limp and crumpled, to meet my fate.

About 250 pages into Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up As A Flower (which is just under 350 pages in total), things get real. Our first-person heroine, Nell LeStrange, who has spent most of the book so far yearning after, flirting with, and eventually canoodling with, a tall handsome soldier named Dick M’Gregor, has finally given in to her sister Dolly’s pressure and agreed to marry another man — the kindly and much richer but not nearly so desirable Sir Hugh Lancaster — to give her beloved ailing father some peace of mind before his death.

Nell has resisted Sir Hugh’s clear overtures for pages and pages because of her passion for Dick, but she is vulnerable now not just because she’s so worried about her father but because she has not heard from her lover for months. Later we learn that Dolly has interfered in order to maneuver Nell into marrying Sir Hugh. Dolly, you see, has none of Nell’s romantic notions or scruples. “I believe you would sell your soul for gold,” Nell says to her disdainfully.

“I certainly would,” answered my sister sedately; “one’s soul does not do one much good that I could ever find out; if I could have my body left me, my nice, pretty, pleasant body, with plenty of money to keep it well fed and well dressed, I’d give my soul its congé with the greatest sang froid imaginable.”

Later in the novel Dolly secures a rich husband for herself. Nell is as horrified at this as she is at her own mercenary bargain, not just because it is yet another clear example of a woman selling herself for profit, but because it undoes Nell’s “story-book code of morality”:

Where is the whipping for the naught boy? Here is a young woman who has told lies, has forged, has wrecked the happiness of her sister’s whole life, and she is punished, how?–why by marring a lord with £80,000 a year. Truly poetic justice is confined to poetry indeed; and comes down never to the prose dealings of everyday life.

Nell knows of Dolly’s perfidious behavior because poor Dick has come back since her marriage, believing himself the wronged party because of Dolly’s forged letter asking him (as Nell) not to write. Their reunion is by far the most sensational part of Cometh Up As A Flower:

The rainy wind still blustered and wailed and stormed outside; but yet the storm within our breasts was mightier.

“I cannot stand it any longer,” Dick said, vehemently, clutching his hand, and bringing it down like a sledge hammer on the marble slab. “I must go, or I shall make a beast of myself. Nell! I’m sailing for India to-morrow; say one kind word to me before I go. Oh, Nell! Nell! you belonged to me before you belonged to him, damn him!”

Looking into his haggard, beautiful, terrible face, I forgot all I should have remembered; forgot virtue, and honour, and self-respect; my heart spoke out to his. “Oh, don’t go!” I cried, running to him, “don’t you know how I love you? For my sake stay; I cannot live without you!” . . .

He crammed me to his desolate heart, and we kissed each other wildly, vehemently: none came between us then.

Shocking! A married woman throwing herself on another man and begging him to run away with her? In the words of one contemporary reviewer, “There is no excuse for allowing the imagination thus to run riot.”

This is definitely exciting stuff, as is the unusually explicit way in which Nell frames her choice between love and prosperity as a degrading and openly sexual kind of barter:

Half an hour after I am sitting on the green settee by the library fire, with the gentleman by whose library fire I am to sit through my life, with what patience I may.

His arm is round my waist, and he is brushing my eyes and cheeks and brow with his somewhat bristly moustache as often as he feels inclined–for am I not his property? Has not he every right to kiss my face off if he chooses, to clasp me and hold me, and drag me about in whatever manner he wills, for has not he bought me? For a pair of first-class blue eyes warranted fast colour, for ditto superfine red lips, for so many pounds of prime white flesh, he has paid down a handsome price on the nail, without any haggling, and now if he may not test the worth of his purchases, poor man, he is hardly used!

Nell’s ironic tone is almost amusing, but it shades into something more disturbing when she reflects that this ticklish fondling is only the first stage of his possession: “If the prologue is so terrible, what will the play be?” Though quite a few Victorian novels highlight the mercenary aspect of the aptly-named marriage market, sometimes even hinting broadly at this proximity between respectable marriages for money and prostitution, I can’t think of many that spell out the terms quite so clearly.

The problem for me is that things don’t get this interesting until so far along in the novel. Up to that point, though the ground was certainly being laid, very little actually happened: the novel is almost all talk and no action. Why is that a bad thing, you might ask? Well, it isn’t, of course–not necessarily. Nell is an engaging narrator, and as Pamela Gilbert’s smart introduction to the Broadview edition convincingly argues, her unapologetic desire for Dick makes her an unusual and subversive one as well, as the contemporary reviewer I already quoted from indicates when protesting “the unmaidenly manner” in which she “dwells on her lover’s physical charms.” The relationship between Nell and Dolly is unconventionally fraught, and Dolly herself is an interesting twist as a woman who achieves villainy by her unrepentant pursuit of exactly what nice young woman are supposed to win, namely a “good” (wealthy) husband. Perhaps on a second read I would do better at appreciating these subtler effects. This time, however, I was bored by the lack of plot. A great deal more suspense and excitement might have made up for the long stretches of watery philosophizing like this:

Our life is but as a very little boat tossed on the sea of infinity; it is a small breathing space between the tussle with life at the beginning and the tussle with death at the end. Poor little lives! What immeasurable self-pity fills one, when one things of our poor little farthing rush-lights, that often before they are half burnt, great Death blows out. And yet all our reflections and lamentations and moralizations on the brevity of our abiding here, does not do anything towards making one dull minute seem shorter, or greasing the wheels of one tedious our.

I’m actually not sure that Wilkie Collins in all his rambunctious glory could reconcile me to such drivel, but then, he would never inflict it on me in the first place, except of course in the voice of someone he is gleefully sending up (Miss Clack, for instance). Nell, however, is painfully sincere in these moments, without even the excuse of youthful inexperience, as we know from early on that she is actually writing from her pathetic death bed.

I thought Cometh Up As A Flower would be more in the Collins vein because it is cited as an example of sensation fiction. Gilbert’s introduction is good on the issue of genre. While acknowledging that the novel “is not heavily plotted” and has “little of the crime and madness characteristic” of other sensation novels, she notes that “Broughton gives us desiring heroines, women actuated by sexual desire.” She goes on to link Cometh Up As A Flower to novels of different kinds, including “the religious conversion narrative” and autobiographical fictions including Jane Eyre. I saved the introduction to read until after I’d finished the novel; thinking about it in those terms would probably have given me more patience with the first 250 pages. On the other hand, I was reading it in the first place because I’m shopping for an alternative to Braddon’s Aurora Floyd for my seminar on sensation fiction, which I’m offering again this coming winter term. (I have nothing against Aurora Floyd, but including two novels by the same author has always seemed a bit narrow.) I can see ways in which it would work very well with the other readings (The Woman in WhiteLady Audley’s Secret, and East Lynne), both because there are some common themes and because it is so different in tone, style, and treatment. It’s just not as much fun as the others.

I’ve got time to keep thinking about Cometh Up As A Flower before winter book orders are due, and also to read some other possibilities. I’m looking into Hardy’s Desperate Remedies, which I’ve never read before, and also at Ouida’s The Moth, which is not necessarily a sensation novel but still looks pretty sensational. There’s also Broughton’s Not Wisely But Too Well, which I see is available through Victorian Secrets. I’m open to suggestions, if anyone knows a sensation novel not by Collins or Braddon that would make a good fourth! The fifth book on our list will be Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, which I can hardly wait to have an excuse to reread.

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