Puccinian love is merciless: Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart

Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart. QC Fiction (an imprint of Baraka Books). Paperback. Published 1 July, 2018. First published in French as La Fiancée américaine by Marchand de feuilles. Translated by Peter McCambridge

On the first page of Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart we learn that

everyone loved to hear Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne’s tall tales. Before television, his stories were the best way to pass the time in Rivière-du-Loup.

All the Lamontagne men must marry a woman called Madeleine: the penitent sinner-saint is the icon of the narrative, incarnated several times across the generations, as the name passes down the family’s female line.

The setting is a real town on the St Lawrence River’s south bank in Quebec province. The novel is full of tall tales, anecdotes and stories within stories. It’s a long book – over 600 pages – but never flags, largely because of Dupont’s extraordinary panache in story-telling. All of his characters are full of incident-packed stories of varying authenticity, and they delight in sharing them with each other, often in epistolary form, which adds another potential level of partiality. As Magdalena in Berlin tells the Canadian, Gabriel Lamontagne:

“Canadians love stories. If they didn’t tell them, there wouldn’t be a Canada today.”

A prominent feature is its intertextual, synaesthetic relationship to music, as its title in English suggests; Wittgenstein wrote, ‘Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think’. This is a novel that reinterprets, deconstructs and reassembles Tosca (jealousy; obsessive, transgressive passion; suicide), and Puccini’s opera is a leitmotif in the narrative: ‘while ordinary love is cruel, Puccinian love is merciless,’ one character comments near the end.

Other musical works weave in and out of the narrative, from Schubert songs (one is said to be ‘for the cold of heart’) to hymns in church. It’s a novel that engages all the reader’s senses, in a way I can’t recall experiencing before in a literary work, though the epiphanic, transformative, almost mystical influence of heard, performed or imagined music on central characters calls to mind the impact of a lovesong overheard by Gretta Conroy in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.

Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart coverJust as in music, especially opera, there are recurring motifs and themes (foregrounding the way characters replicate or defy their forebears’ personality traits – a postmodern spin on Zola, perhaps): birthmarks in the shape of a bass clef (hence the image on the cover); a painting of the Death (or Entombment) of the Virgin; teal-coloured eyes (many of the Lamontagne family have them, and they’re mesmeric, ‘achingly beautiful’); a lost gold cross fatefully inscribed with its owner’s initials; anorexic opera singers; sugar as a murder weapon; arrows that find unaimed-for targets across the space of continents and time.

Names of people and places reappear in different languages as significant echoes, for language is a medium of communication and separation: Magdalena Berg in Berlin is a German equivalent of Canadian Madeleine Lamontagne; Montreal is Königsberg. An aphorism from Hannah Arendt about victims and executioners acts as a summary of 20C horrors, and as a haunting refrain to this novel. Dupont is too subtle and innovative a writer just to iterate such symmetries for the sake of pleasing design; each recurrence resonates in a cunningly different way, wrong-footing and intriguing the reader, and springing further surprises. He’s a consummate, exuberant storyteller who, like all the great ones, from Chaucer and Cervantes to Borges, employs symbolic, traditional stories to tell profound truths about the human condition.

Dupont has been called a magical realist; I prefer to think of him as an illusionist – which is, after all, what all artists are. So there’s ‘A dead woman acting as a welcoming committee for a funeral home’: old Ma Lamontagne, ‘the grandmother who just won’t die’, but who died in 1933, just as Hitler became Chancellor (the novel is punctuated by momentous historical events). She continues to function for several more decades, until she leaves to join a community of nuns of equally liminal mortality. In the world of this novel this ‘living death’ is no stranger than anything else that’s narrated here or in any work of fiction. It’s a story with its own internal logic. ‘Who better to reassure a grieving family than someone who had passed to the other side herself?’ our narrator blithely, ingenuously asks – and this seems perfectly reasonable.

It’s invidious to try to summarise the plot: it spans much of the twentieth century, and takes in the traumas of two world wars: Dachau, the Russian incursion into Nazi East Prussia and Germany and the exodus and desperate plight of refugees ahead of them; the modern era of fast-food restaurants and TV celebrity journalists. It’s set in Quebec province, New York City, Berlin, Rome and elsewhere, for each character is on a quest away from the tedium of home in search of fulfilment, and many of them need to find each other to answer their existential questions. The final scenes round things off in ways that take the breath away, and show that every sentence that’s filled the previous 600 pages is an essential, meticulously placed element in the overall structure.

I’ll finish by showing that Dupont isn’t just a novelist who enthrals with narrative virtuosity (which he does); he turns out some beautiful prose; this is Solange, who’s secretly in love with her neighbour, Madeleine, the little girl at the novel’s opening now grown up – their story is at the heart of the novel – and they’re waiting to change buses en route from Canada to New York where Madeleine intends to abort the child whose father’s identity is one of the many mysteries of the novel. Madeleine has confided to her friend that she’s tired and scared; asked what of, she replies: ‘“Of finding myself all alone without you.”’

Upon hearing those words, Solange felt the bones in her ribcage open and a vibration that first stirred in her perineum ran up right through her, rocking her very foundations and rising up heavenward and through her lungs, pharynx, vocal cords, and nasal cavities to leave the back of her head trembling. The sound she produced was pure and clear, carried forth by the words “I will never leave you,” which resounded through the bus station the way the song of an angel will one day burst forth into the world God promised to his followers. It could well have been the moment, in all her life, that Solange was at her most lucid, her most beautiful too.

This novel warms the heart.

I can’t finish without a word of praise to the translator. Peter McCambridge has produced that rarity — a translation that doesn’t sound like one.

 Thanks to the publishers for sending an ARC.

QC Fiction’s first publication was Dupont’s 2016 novel Life in the Court of Matane, reviewed by Joseph Schreiber at Numéro Cinq (now sadly defunct, but archive materials are still accessible).

Other QC titles I’ve discussed before are:

David Clerson, Brothers

Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening for Jupiter

The story collection I Never Talk About It: posts here and here

Mélissa Verreault, Behind the Eyes We Meet

Ruthlessness. Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton. Penguin paperback, 2016. First published in the USA 2016.

Is the visit of her mother at the hospital overlooking the Chrysler building in NYC, a woman from whom she’d been estranged for so many years, who beat and traumatised her as a child, partly to mitigate (in Lucy’s eyes) the more brutal and disturbed behaviour of her war-damaged husband, Lucy’s father? Is her visit a real event, or does Lucy imagine or hallucinate it? She’s in hospital for a serious somatic condition (or is it?) that requires nine weeks of treatment, but we never learn exactly what it is that ails her. Is her illness in her head? Is she really ill, or even in hospital? All this happened back in the seventies.

After all, the warping events that bent her out of shape as a child make me feel that the unexpected appearance of her mother after such a long separation, and who colluded in her fierce, abusive upbringing, is more of a deus (dea?) ex machina than a realistic event.

This is a mother who did nothing to prevent her PTSD-suffering husband from cruel treatment of his children, such as shutting up Lucy, when she was a little girl, in the cab of his truck when they were both out at work all day. On one occasion a snake entered the cab and so freaked her out she can’t even bear to hear the word ‘snake’ as an adult. He publicly humiliated her little brother when he innocently dressed like a girl; now he seems even more traumatised than Lucy.

Strout Lucy B coverI found the first half of this novel deeply affecting. Then it began to pall a little after such a dazzling start. The fragmentary structure – each chapter is very short, sometimes just a paragraph, and written in lucid, simple prose – perfectly conveys the mosaic of mostly bitter memories the narrator Lucy pieces together as her drug-dumbed mind tries to cope with this unprecedented solicitude from a mother she loves dearly, but who showed little in return when she was little, and is still incapable of saying now that she loves her daughter.

The mother is a damaged Madonna, a vampire nurse, who seems to need contrition and her daughter’s nurture as Lucy needs a gesture or expression of love and kindness from her – which is not forthcoming.

The kids when growing up were so poor they felt deeply the insults and mockery of their peers at school, who sneered at their ragged clothes and unkempt, filthy appearance, their uncouth manners.

If her mother’s sequence of stories is to be believed, nearly all of Lucy’s former female acquaintances married badly and are now divorced or worse. Has she embroidered the truth in order to deflect Lucy’s attention from her own neglect, or to exculpate herself?

This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.

Lucy still meets people who try to denigrate her, as they did when she was a child when she was dirt poor, living in her uncle’s garage:

It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people…Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

The deceptive simplicity of style here and through the novel, the colloquial, unadorned register, are used to express some profound and gnomic insights into the human condition – and in particular into the tribulations and recriminations of the mother-daughter relation.

Lucy found refuge in reading, she tells us, and then in writing. She meets a writer whose work she’d admired, and feels inspired to overcome her lack of self-confidence and do her own writing. These character-assassination stories her mother tells her, Lucy’s own experience in the hospital: all this becomes the novel we’re reading. She shares what’s become her artistic mantra:

I like writers who try to tell you something truthful.

Telling the truth: that’s what she’s trying to do here. In a work of fiction.

That’s partly where I start to part company with this novel: it’s too self-referential, like a creative writing exercise. ‘I had to become ruthless to be a writer,’ she says a friend told her. Even that inspirational writer who set her off on the road to becoming one herself had her struggles:

I think I know how she spoke of the fact that we all have only one story, and I think I don’t know what her story was or is. I like the books she wrote. But I can’t stop the sense that she stays away from something.

Staying away from something, thinking she knows or doesn’t know something: such simple language, such complex concepts – like the need for ruthlessness in a writer. So she’s got herself out of her first, unsuccessful marriage to

hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think./My mother told me in hospital that day that I was not like my brother and sister: “Look at your life right now. You just went ahead and …did it.” Perhaps she meant that I was already ruthless. Perhaps she meant that, but I don’t know what my mother meant.

Refreshing to find a narrative voice that doesn’t profess to know everything. Maybe she isn’t yet ruthless. There’s pity for this cruel mother, for one.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, about which I wrote last December, I found a more fully realised and satisfying novel.

Rebecca West, Harriet Hume

I read somewhere that this would be an ideal companion to May Sinclair’s salutary The Life and Death of Harriett Frean (I wrote about it here). Subtitled ‘A London Fantasy’, Rebecca West’s Harriet Hume (first published 1929) has some of the qualities of that novel (apart from the same name of the protagonists): fable, fairytale, allegory of how a life could or should be lived. The spiritual-supernatural elements are similar to those in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (posted about here) – especially as the eponymous Harriet is endowed with qualities and ‘occult gifts’ that cause her to be likened at times to an angel, and at others to a ‘damnable’ or  ‘lying witch’. She has ‘burgled the mind’ of her young lover, Arnold Condorex, enabling her to read his thoughts and predict his future actions. This both attracts and alarms him.

Harriet Hume cover

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition shows a detail from ‘The Studio Door, Charleston’, by Vanessa Bell

He abandons her after their idyllic post-coital first chapter because she’s a poor concert pianist who, like him, has no ‘family or fortune’. He’s ambitious, determined to use his skills of ‘negotiation’ (i.e. treachery, duplicity, cunning and ruthlessness) to ‘rise’ in the world – he has a fatal inferiority complex.

Of course, Harriet is able to read all these ignoble thoughts. She tries to warn him against this single-minded, selfish course of action, but she also knows it’s futile: he’s doomed. ‘Advancement’ to him is what music is for her.

So in several subsequent meetings over subsequent years we see him gradually acquire the trappings of power and worldly success he craved: a grand house, servants, ostentatious wealth, a title, political power. On each meeting he finds Harriet bewitching, enchanting – and terrifying. She’s like his bad conscience. Yet she never importunes him. Variously described as like a doll or indolent cat, she has a ‘face almost insipid with compliancy’; not the most prepossessing oracle

Arnold’s downward moral and spiritual trajectory accompanies his mundane rise. In a final, bizarrely fantastic scene he enters another zone of being where he and Harriet can commune on a different level, watched by two comic policemen. Suicide or murder are involved.

So what’s this fantasy or fable about? As Victoria Glendinning suggests in her Introduction, it’s perhaps the ‘opposites’ with which Arnold becomes increasingly obsessed that drive him and Harriet: the male and female principles, perhaps. Yin and yang. Or the public, status-conscious versus the private and intimate, emotional life. Political chicanery v. art (especially music – a key feature in much of West’s other fiction).

He marries a woman for her wealth and rank, then grows to despise her. The moral here is clearly to be careful what you wish for. His ultimate failure, he comes to realise, wasn’t Harriet’s fault:

[I] have contrived my own ruin by my own qualities.

Unfortunately such portentous themes are less than engagingly narrated. The message at times comes across as a blend of Jiminy Cricket and a fortune cookie motto. There’s some of the digressive supernatural stuff about the changeability of matter that is seen in other novels by Rebecca West (poltergeists, etc.) – Arnold sees by the end that Harriet simply shapes ‘the random elements of our existence into coherent patterns’. Obviously.

But my main difficulty was with the prose style. It’s so florid, poetic and mannered as to make the narrative turgid at times – despite occasional flights of beauty. Here’s a random example of what looks almost like blank verse; Harriet is addressing Arnold, coming as close as she ever does to admonishing him for the ambition that has led him into criminality:

“Oh, Arnold! This is the midnight of your destiny. Bit all your principles and motives doff their masks and sever all connection with this scheme!”

Arnold has an odd habit of referring to Harriet – to her face or to himself, as a ‘little trollop’, ‘slut’ or – in Shakespearean mode – ‘jade’. Not an endearing quality.

I wrote about Rebecca West’s ‘Aubrey trilogy’ and The Return of the Soldier in various previous posts, link here. They’re all, to my mind, much better than this curiosity.

 

Bristol visit

Last weekend Mrs TD and I spent in Bristol, where I’d been an undergraduate many years ago. Our hotel was in the city centre, next to the cathedral, so on our first morning, Saturday, we went inside. To my shame I don’t think in my three years there as a young man I ever entered it.

Bristol cathedral

The rose window in the west end of the nave

It was founded as an Augustinian Abbey in the twelfth century, and traces of this original building can be seen today. There’s a fine Chapter House with intricately carved walls.

The east end, according to the guide leaflet a kind lady gave me, is one of the world’s finest examples of a medieval ‘hall church’: the vaulted ceilings in the nave, choir and aisles are all the same height, creating a lofty, light space with a series of elegant arches.

Henry VIII began to dissolve the monastic houses in 1532 for reasons too well known to go into here, and the abbey church became a cathedral in 1542, but the incomplete nave wasn’t finished until the 1860s.

The altar

The altar

 

As a medievalist I was particularly interested in the carvings in the side chapels, dating from the 13C, and the tombs of the abbots, 15-16C.

Abbot's tomb

Abbot’s tomb

Abbot's tomb with decorative head

 

 

 

 

 

Abbot's tomb

Abbot's tomb with dog

Abbot’s dog lies curled at his feet. Not a sign that he’s been on a crusade.

I liked the touches of decoration around the peacefully reposing figures of the abbots: peasant-like heads, solicitous cherubs straining like Lilliputians to levitate the giant figure; a snoozing dog…

There’s a lovely tranquil garden outside, where pigeons pick among ancient tombs and flower beds.

We left to walk up Park Street, now unrecognisable from how it was in my days there: no George’s bookshop or student-thronged tearoom whose name I forget.

I did go in a charity shop and bought three books: more on that another time.

Then into Clifton and a pilgrimage to my former flat. I’d thought last time I was there a few years ago the whole terrace had been gentrified, but this time I looked more closely, and my building is as shabbily elegant as it was when I lived there. Even my top floor window looked to have the same  sash window that needed propping open with a piece of wood.

We had no bathroom or hot water; I’d  go to the SU building round the corner to shower and swim.

I felt a hankering to live there again, but a look in estate agents’ windows and at websites confirmed that it’s way out of my price range.

But it’s good to revisit these places that are so full of memories.

 

 

 

Detail of a head

Detail of a head of a woman in the archway above a tomb

Student flat

I lived here for two years on the top floor.

 

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers – conclusion. Power games

My second piece on Trollope’s Barchester Towers elicited a comment from Karen that suggested she now felt less inclined to read it; maybe it was the way I indicated Trollope is uncharitable in his depiction of the vapid non-heroine, Eleanor Bold. I do hope she isn’t ultimately deterred from reading it, for it provides many pleasures – and Trollope has some more rounded, spirited women characters to enjoy.

Mrs Proudie, the wife of the new bishop, it has to be said, is also not very flatteringly portrayed. She ‘rules’ her husband, is ‘despotic’, a ‘virago’, even prompting one of those quasi-ironic metafictional narrative intrusions that are a feature of Trollope’s technique:

Mrs Proudie has not been portrayed in these pages as an agreeable or amiable lady. There has been no intention to impress the reader much in her favour. It is ordained that all novels should have a male and a female angel, and a male and a female devil.

That last role is allotted to her – but, he adds, ‘she was not all devil’:

There was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps, of large dimensions, and certainly not easily accessible.

She shows compassion in this scene with a desperate petitioner for her assistance. Trollope seems to have learnt some lessons from The Warden, where he tended to castigate just about every character’s moral position except the eponym, Harding, thus weakening the effect of the novel. Here he shows more lassitude towards his villains, as we saw in my discussion of his portrait of Dr Grantly.

These narrative intrusions serve to dilute the venom of his narrative, and to pull aside the curtain on his drama (there’s a lot of theatrical imagery in the novel) to show how it all works – or at least to pretend to. In fact he’s drawing our attention to features of the average novel which he disdains. He does this in ch. 15 when he refuses to create ‘mystery’ in the drama of Eleanor’s love interest, telling us at this early stage exactly which of her various suitors she will not marry. He claims to abhor such ‘delightful horrors’ as the revelation with a flourish in the final chapter of the solution to the mystery – this kind of trick is just ‘deceit’. Instead:

Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other.

He doesn’t want to make his readers ‘dupes’ of such teasing plots in which all depends on the big reveal in the denouement, leaving the ‘story’ with little ‘interest’, for ‘the part of a dupe is never dignified.’

As always in these metafictional asides, this is wittily ambivalent. While Trollope does aspire to create a novel that’s more than just ‘sensation’ or suspense-filled, he’s really referring to the love interest that comedies are generically required to dramatise. He’s much more interested in another aspect of the social scheme he’s anatomising in these chronicles. Power. Mrs Proudie wants to dominate her husband and his diocese.

But it’s the male ‘devil’ that’s the best part of the novel: Slope.

Obadiah Slope is the oleaginous chaplain to the new bishop, a protégé of the formidable Mrs Proudie. He’s another Uriah Heep, even down to the slimy handshake and ‘greasy’ manners. She sees in him a useful tool for converting what she sees as the high church idolatry of Barchester into their own austere low church mode – a struggle that was very much a feature of contemporary ecclesiastical life.

Neither of them is particularly devout. The narrator once again makes Slope’s real motivation perfectly clear:

He wanted a wife, and he wanted money, but he wanted power more than either. He had fully realised the fact that he must come to blows with Mrs Proudie.

He’s ambitious, and has no intention of simply playing ‘factotum’ to a ‘woman-prelate’. Theirs becomes one of the major power struggles in a novel full of them: ‘Either he or Mrs Proudie must go to the wall.’ This is the kind of conflict that is Trollope’s true zone of interest, highlighted by the prevalent military or pugilistic imagery.

Let’s end with another attempt to persuade Karen that this is a novel well worth reading. Not all of Trollope’s women characters are shallow, lacking in judgement or excessively masculine. Madeline Neroni, née Stanhope, second child of the cathedral prebendary, is a woman of ‘surpassing beauty’ and a wickedly gifted sexual predator. In Italy she’d chosen a husband badly, ending up crippled, possibly by him, and leaving him to return to her family.

She had become famous for adventures in which her character was just not lost, and had destroyed the hearts of a dozen cavaliers without once being touched in her own.

Duels fought over her cause her ‘pleasurable excitement’. In a wonderful scene at a fête champêtre at a country house she ensnares not just the drooling Slope, but also the squire of the estate, Mr Thorne, and the intellectual but emotionally myopic cleric Arabin. She has that ‘incomprehensible’ instinct of such women to perceive how women are perceived by men, and vice versa. Consequently she detects where Arabin’s affections truly lie – and takes pity on him and the lady whom he would otherwise be too romantically inept to win:

Though heartless, the Stanhopes were not selfish.

So she engages her ‘peculiar female propensities’ to ‘entrap’ Arabin ‘into her net.’ She had not taken much pleasure in the ‘chase’ for Mr Thorne: he was, like pheasants, too easy to pick off, and ‘not…worth the shooting’; he’s just worth ‘bagging for family uses.’ This is not the malicious characterisation that we saw with Mrs Proudie or Eleanor – there’s wit and animated narrative interest and investment in these scenes; this woman is attractive because she’s formidable and beautiful. She snares men because she can, because they’re generally weak, and because she enjoys it as her favourite pastime – ‘she has little else to amuse her’. But she has, like Mrs Proudie, a vestige of a heart.

This engaging and sympathetic portrayal of a strong but selfish character is seen beautifully in the earlier scene when she routs the bullying local aristocrat, Lady de Courcy. When this harridan stares rudely through her lorgnette at the beautiful Signora on her sofa, surrounded by fawning men,

The occupant in return stared hard at the countess.

The countess isn’t used to this: only royals, dukes and the ‘marquesal’ usually dare hold her gaze like that:

But she had now to do with one who cared little for countesses. It was, one may say, impossible for mortal man or woman to abash Madeline Neroni. She opened her large bright lustrous eyes wider and wider, till she seemed to be all eyes. She gazed up into the lady’s face, not as though she did it with an effort, but as if she delighted in doing it. She used no glass to assist her effrontery, and needed none. The faintest possible smile of derision played around her mouth, and her nostrils were slightly dilated, as if in sure anticipation of her triumph.

That ‘one may say’ is priceless. The countess ‘had not a chance with her.’ She makes a humiliated, enraged retreat.

This novel is worth reading for the gloriously selfish character of Madeline alone – she makes Becky Sharp look like a nun. She makes mincemeat of the odious Slope, too, so she can’t be all bad.

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, continued

Back from my short break in the city of my alma mater, Bristol – maybe more on that another time. For now, I’d like to look at another early chapter – ch.2 – of Barchester Towers. Last time it was the ironically ambivalent portrayal of Dr Grantly I examined; Trollope was careful in The Warden to establish him as not exactly a villain, but in pressurising the saintly warden Harding not to follow his conscience and resign from his lucrative post he was shown to be more adherent to the reputation of the institution of the church than to the moral rectitude of his father-in-law. But as we saw, he is not the villain of this novel; he is still to come.

In Ch. 2 we learn that Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor Bold, has become a widow. Three times he exclaims ‘Poor Eleanor!’, building up a typically sonorous, not over-subtle head of rhetorical steam on her character and her position as a representative of the female sex, in the voice of his garrulous, opinionated and not entirely reliable narrator. This is the third iteration:

Poor Eleanor! I cannot say that with me John Bold was ever a favourite. I never thought him worthy of the wife he had won. But in her estimation he was most worthy. Hers was one of those feminine hearts which cling to a husband, not with idolatry, for worship can admit no defect in its idol, but with the perfect tenacity of ivy.

So she’s a ‘parasite plant’ that follows the defects of its host; she clung to her husband, faults and all. Once she had declared such ‘allegiance’ to her father; she then transferred that allegiance to her husband, ‘ever ready to defend the worst failings of her lord and master’.

It’s not hard to see why Trollope is such a favourite with conservatives (famously, for example, with John Major, former Prime Minister of Britain): this is hardly a radically feminist portrayal. Eleanor is a typically dependent woman, according to this account, one without agency or independence of her own, deriving all her energy, sustenance and raison d’être from that ‘lord and master’. As always there’s a hint of irony in this voice, but the imagery of parasitic ivy is repeated near the novel’s end when she transfers that total allegiance to her dead husband’s successor. She is not a heroine, in other words – either in general terms, or in this novel. And there’s more:

Could she even have admitted that he had a fault, his early death would have blotted out the memory of it. She wept as for the loss of the most perfect treasure with which mortal woman had ever been endowed…consolation, as it is called, was insupportable, and tears and sleep were her only relief.

Our narrator does not hold her in very high esteem, then. There’s an element of sarcastic mockery here that’s maybe not to every reader’s taste. She’s portrayed as irrational, over-emotional, needy and useless without the support of her more sturdy (though deeply flawed) spouse. More to the point, Trollope is lining up his characters for what’s to come; we expect in a social-pastoral comedy like this to have a love interest at the heart of things, but Trollope obliges caustically.

He’s ensuring that we have little trust in Eleanor’s judgement or moral rigour so that when several potential husbands appear on the scene, he’s able to tease out the plot as a consequence of that poor judgement. She leans, in other words, to the wrong man…twice.

But this narrator isn’t too interested in the romantic element; he even warns us at an early stage when the rival suitors are established which ones she won’t end up marrying. Romantic suspense is not his priority.

So what is? More on that next time. It involves a lot of military metaphors.

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers

First published in 1857, Barchester Towers is the second of the six Chronicles of Barsetshire series of novels. It picks up the story that The Warden related (1855), concerning Septimus Harding’s renunciation of the wardenship of Hiram’s charitable hospital for old men, and the forces of opposing factions that pressed him into that course of (in)action, or urged him to stay on.

Barchester Towers cover

My Oxford World’s Classics paperback has a blemish where the charity shop sticker was peeled off; the illustration is a detail from ‘The Suitor’ by Jean Carolus. Oddly, the figure of the suitor has been cropped out.

This second novel picks up the thread four years on. As I’m about to travel for a few days, I don’t have time to say much about it here, so shall limit myself to a general introductory post. First: it’s a far superior novel to The Warden, which I found morally dubious, even though the story itself was entertainingly told. It’s more than twice as long, and has a wider, more interesting range of characters, some familiar, some new. The morality is now handled with much less clumsiness. There’s so much to say about the novel I may have to do a few posts to do it justice.

I’ll focus here on the opening chapter, ‘Who will be the new bishop?’ – the first of many such questions (ultimately, moral dilemmas) the narrative poses. Archdeacon Grantly, the high church stalwart who’d always been strongly opposed to Harding’s resignation (in all senses of that word), is sitting by his father the bishop’s deathbed. His is the first of a number of those moral dilemmas the novel portrays. The outgoing government administration is ‘well understood’ to favour the son’s succession to the mitre, and the local rumour machine has ‘whispered’ a similar opinion (there were similar whispers and rumours aplenty in The Warden). In many respects this is an improved reprise of that novel – Trollope seems to have realised where he went wrong.

Grantly is an ambitious man. He ‘tried to keep his mind away from the subject, but he could not. The race was so very close.’ For the ministry would be ‘out’ within five days, and the new administration would favour a different candidate. He gazed at his dying father’s ‘still living’ face,

and then at last dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death./The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man, sank on his knees by the bedside, and taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

Trollope excels at showing conflicting traits and impulses in his characters, especially at crucial moments like this. Grantly had been presented in The Warden (as I attempted to show in my posts on it) as too worldly and ambitious, so that he bullies those who dare oppose him, like meek, warm-hearted Harding. Here he shows a potential for generosity and, almost, love. He’s not an out and out villain – he will appear a few chapters later.

But just as we warm slightly to this brittle, morally compromised man, Trollope shifts the ground again: the bishop dies, and he needs to get a telegram off immediately if the PM is to be notified and able to make his decision about a replacement before he goes out of office. How to do this without seeming indecently hasty? ‘Now that life was done, minutes were too precious to be lost…useless to lose perhaps everything for the pretence of a foolish sentiment.’ That sympathy Trollope had gently adduced for Grantly begins to wane.

Harding enters and comforts him; his dilemma deepens:

But how was he to act while his father-in-law stood there holding his hand? how, without appearing unfeeling, was he to forget his father the bishop – to overlook what he had lost, and think only of what he might possibly gain?

Grantly writes the telegram himself and gets Harding to send it under his own name – so he doesn’t seem too importunate. Harding is surprised to find Grantly, ‘as he thought, so much affected,’ but reluctantly complies.

What’s so satisfying in this scene, and the novel, is Trollope’s adept manipulation of his readers’ responses. We’re coaxed into feeling for Grantly, then let down with a bump as his stronger impulse triumphs over filial love. Look too at that sly aside as Harding surveys his son-in-law’s apparent grief: ‘as he thought’. Our narrator knows more, and hints at it.

There follows the first of many narrative intrusions. A long passage ironically defends Grantly, ostentatiously refusing to condemn him as he grieves – not for his father, but for his lost bishopric:

With such censures I cannot profess that I completely agree…A lawyer does not sin in seeking to be a judge…A young diplomate [sic] [is ambitious]…and a poor novelist when he attempts to rival Dickens or rise above Fitzjeames, commits no fault, though he may be foolish…If we look to our clergymen to be more than men, we shall probably teach ourselves to think that they are less, and can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.

The irony is double-edged. He is censuring Grantly for his vaulting ambition, but acknowledges that he’s a flawed individual, not a representative of the clergy – this is Trollope’s principle; groups cannot be universally judged on the flaws or merits of individual representatives.

He goes on:

Our archdeacon was worldly – who among us is not so? He was ambitious – who among us is ashamed to own ‘that last infirmity of noble minds’? He was avaricious, my readers will say. No – it was not for love of lucre that he wished to be Bishop of Barchester. [He would be rich without it]…But he certainly did desire to play first fiddle; he did desire to sit in full lawn sleeves among the peers of the realm; and he did desire, if the truth must out, to be called ‘My Lord’ by his reverend brethren.

But these hopes, ‘were they innocent or sinful’, were not ‘fated to be realized’. The rhetorical symmetries in that passage are perhaps a little heavy-handed; a greater writer would have done this more subtly. Trollope may not be too interested in subtlety; he’s content to weave in and out of the positions we might normally expect of a narrator of a comedy with a moral message and keep unsettling us. Hence that piquant use of the first person plural: he turns the table on the reader, acknowledging Grantly’s venality, but confronting us with our own – and his. In refusing to preach, Trollope’s narrator demonstrates that moral rectitude is rarely straightforward.

My posts on The Warden are HERE and HERE

 

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado. First published 1958. Virago Modern Classics 2011

When I think of Paris in 1958 I picture smoky Left Bank cafés filled with proto-beatnik students from the Sorbonne earnestly discussing Sartre and Camus, or the Algerian War or communism. Sally Jay Gorce, the fun-loving protagonist of The Dud Avocado, haunts similar places, carpeted with students in ‘old boots, checkered wool and wild, fuzzy hair’, but she shows little or no knowledge of or interest in intellectual or political life – though she sometimes gets drunk near these intellectuals. Her life revolves around parties and sex, financed for two carefree years by a kindly rich uncle back home in the States.

Dud Avocado coverAs for culture: well, she does pose in the nude for one of the rare artists of her acquaintance who’s got a modicum of talent. More to her taste, as a would-be sophisticate, is the married-with-a-mistress Italian diplomat who plies her with champagne at the Ritz and sex at his bachelor pad – though she admits with typical candour in this breathless first-person narrative that she lacks ‘the true courtesan spirit’. It’s this ingenuous sequence of failures to prove herself as mature and sophisticated as she aspires to be that makes her so charming. It’s that free-spirited, freewheeling voice that propels this novel through a rather silly plot and large cast of characters of varying degrees of decadence and selfishness.

Like a good stand-up comedian, her verve and rapid delivery carry the reader through the less successful jokes and escapades – even the duds (sorry about the pun) are entertaining. Let’s start with the gushing, self-deprecating self-portrait of this Parisian Sally Bowles. From the opening scene we’re told she’s (as usual) inappropriately dressed in her evening gown (it’s 11 in the morning) as her clothes haven’t come back from the laundry. Her hair is the shade of pink ‘so popular with Parisian tarts that season.’

The dialogue she quotes herself as using is as demotic and fizzing as the narrative voice; when Larry, the poised, untrustworthy American friend she meets in this opening scene takes her to task for using ‘ridiculous expressions’ like “Holy Cow!” – the only other Americans he’s heard using such colloquialisms are ‘cartoon animals’ like Micky Mouse – she corrects him: “Micky Mice”, and feels the pleasure of someone who’s just scored a debating point, oblivious to the absence of linguistic dazzle she believes she’s just displayed:

Incidentally I haven’t the faintest idea why I do talk the way I do. I probably didn’t do it in America…Maybe I just assumed it in Paris for whatever is the opposite of protective colouring: for war-paint I guess.

Now that is linguistically smart and insightful. This apparently effortless naiveté our heroine specialises in is what gives this otherwise pretty frothy novel an element of literary solidity: that kind of double-edged innocence takes a great deal of ingenuity and wit to pull off – as if Holly Golightly was being tutored by Dorothy Parker.

Let me give a favourite example of this faux-artless technique; this is Sally Jay musing on her on-off lover, that talented artist Jim, a ‘country boy’ from Delaware, who’d managed to turn Paris from the anguished ‘champagne factory’ of tortured artists into a ‘country village’. After posing naked for him she tells us he ‘smelled like new-mown hay.’ As their affair begins Sally Jay knows he really needs ‘some nice, simple, outdoor bohemian girl’ – she has no idea what he sees in her or she in him:

Jim was a bundle of virtues.

See what I mean about D. Parker. Not surprisingly the relationship with Jim is doomed.

This is her with that diplomat, Teddy, who’s just accused her of being a ditzy bobby-soxer, and she agrees cheerfully:

So he gave up. And in a way I kind of gave up myself. I gave up wondering if anyone was ever going to understand me at all. If I was ever going to understand myself even. Was I some kind of a nut or something? Don’t answer that.

As she says, he should be ‘having witty, elliptical, sexy conversations’ with urbane types, not ‘wasting his time with a sulking, skulking, bad-tempered and very recent schoolgirl.’ Except this narrator is capable of using adjectives like ‘elliptical’, hinting at qualities even Sally Jay doesn’t yet know she possesses deep down. She can show party animals behaving badly (including herself) and reflect on the ‘lubricity’ of ‘these old biddies’. That telescoping of registers is what makes this such a scintillating read – the narrator’s pose of ‘callowness’ enables her to make screwball comedy highly entertaining.

For me the novel was best taken in small doses. Read too much of it and it’s like eating chocolates. But I thoroughly enjoyed those small doses of this nuclear-age Daisy Miller from the New World colliding with a kind of cultural fission with the Old, just emerging from its trauma of the war and finding a new kind of energy and philosophy, but with a transfusion of vivacity from across the Atlantic with this kind of person. Each world benefits and learns from the other, which isn’t always the case in the sober, observing Henry James.

There’s a good lexicographical joke in the final sentence, too.

 

 

 

Julian Barnes, The Only Story

Julian Barnes, The Only Story. Published 2018 by Jonathan Cape, London.

Some of the best parts of this novel are the epigraphs, like the one at the beginning from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary: ‘Novel: A small tale, generally of love.’

This is ‘the only story’, then: the unlikely love story of Paul, a late-teen university student, and Susan McLeod, a married woman in her forties. But this isn’t The Graduate: she doesn’t seduce him – this is a mutually conceived passion that, not surprisingly, goes comprehensively and terribly wrong.

Barnes Only Story cover

Front cover

That’s the plot, really, and I find I have little more to say about this. I thought some of Barnes’s earlier fiction was among the best of his times, especially Flaubert’s Parrot. A History of the World was spoilt for me by having to teach it to recalcitrant teenagers, but it has some excellent moments, especially the woodworm trial. Woodworm generally, in fact.

I found this one a bit slow. Barnes tries to up the interest by playing in a vaguely postmodern way with the narrative voice: there’s a lot of direct address to the reader and second-person speculation of this kind:

If this is your only story, then it’s the one you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself.

So what’s the point? It’s not the ‘Call me Ishmael’ buttonholing technique of Melville; we seem to be invited to consider this to be a kind of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ confessional, but not a diary or a recording – the narrator even tells us at one point that he did keep a diary for a while, but this narrative is of a different order. What is it then? Therapy, of a Holden Caulfield type? I couldn’t work it out. And saying: ‘I’m not trying to spin you a story; I’m trying to tell you the truth’, rings only too true: there’s not enough story. That it’s the Only Story doesn’t help. The colloquial anti-storytelling mode keeps yielding up the likes of ‘I see where you’re going’ and ‘You think I’m being naïve’ (that ‘you’ is we, the readers, as if in a teenagers’ chatroom, not a novel for grownups).

And that ‘talking to yourself/reader’ trope became wearing after a while, especially when the predominantly first-person vaguely autobiographical voice shifts in part 2 to pretty much full-on second person, ‘You believe her’, etc.

Then in Part 3 an omniscient third-person narrator takes over, with this slightly glib and tricksy justification:

But nowadays, the first person in him was stilled. It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person. Which allowed him to assess it more accurately, he believed.

The back cover of the dust jacket

The back cover of the dust jacket

This voice reveals to us details like Paul’s keeping another notebook in which he simply records what other people have written about love. Often he crosses these entries out as events in his life, or his modes of thinking, cause him to change his mind about them – hence the rather unattractive cover images on the dustjacket.

I can’t find any particular reason for that narrative voice-shifting, other than the obvious effect it has on perspective on what’s being told – but it’s of little consequence, I find. Mrs TD read this before me and asked me to, so we could discuss it, as she wasn’t sure about her opinion. When I’d finished and told her (briefly) what I’ve written here, she looked relieved, and said she’d had exactly the same reservations about it.

I’m afraid I find Paul’s endless picking over the detritus of this doomed affair and reflections on time, memory, etc. – not much else happens – are of more interest to him as a character than they are to me (or Mrs TD). It’s like having to listen to someone telling you in detail what they dreamt last night. There’s way too much tennis, too, for my taste.

I can’t bring myself to write entirely negatively about such a fine writer. Here are some balancing remarks  that brighten the picture somewhat.

This is an early description of the character who sadly pops up too infrequently, for her portrayal is the best thing in the novel. She’s an eccentric slightly older woman friend of Susan’s, with a sad story of her own to reveal at one point:

She was a large woman in a pastel-blue trouser suit; she had tight curls, brown lipstick, and was approximately powdered.

Moira at her Clothes in Books blog would find plenty to get stuck into with this novel: Barnes has a fine eye for the details of appearances and what they signify about character (like the tennis dress Susan wears when she and Paul first meet; it shouldn’t be sexy, but clearly is for him) – here we get all we need to know about Joan’s shambolic loneliness, which doesn’t conceal her emotional wounds or her sagacity and human kindness.

Now I find I’ve flicked through the whole novel and that was the only passage I’d marked as being well done; there’s one other, but would take too much quotation to do it justice.

 

 

Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones: Cornwall

Ithell Colquhoun (1906-88), The Living Stones: Cornwall. Peter Owen, 2017. First published 1957

Ithell Colquhoun was a surrealist painter who became increasingly interested in the occult and arcane esoterica – to such an extent that she was expelled from the English Surrealist Group in 1940 – which must have taken some doing. She was a member of the Druidic Order, and the one to which WB Yeats belonged: Stella Matutina. The Goose of Hermogenes (1961), also published by Peter Owen, is her work of surrealist fiction.

Colquhoun Living Stones She writes here, describing herself as ‘an animist’ rather than a ‘pantheist’, of the mystical qualities of Cornwall, in particular in the wild, rugged landscape of West Penwith, where she kept a studio in the 1940s and moved there permanently in the fifties, partly restoring a near derelict hut at Vow Cave near Lamorna. It’s this move that forms the backdrop to The Living Stones. She writes with passion and poetic fervour about the dramatic windswept moors, with their standing stones, strange stone circles still fizzing with atmosphere and mystery, the outcrops and huge granite boulders that look sculpted by some ancient surreal artificer, redolent of an ‘unattained past’.

It’s best I think just to give a few examples of her unique take – I’m reminded of the almost equally committed, entranced response to Penwith’s savage beauty of DH Lawrence, whose stay near Zennor during WWI I wrote about a few times a year or so back here. Here’s an early description of her local valley:

It is not so much that individual buildings are haunted as that the valley itself is bathed in a strange atmosphere. The weirdness spreads up through the Bottoms to Tregadgwith and up through that more open branch of the valley which runs under Bojewan’s Carn, spreads, indeed, all over West Penwith, thinning out here, coagulating there. One could make a map with patches of colour to mark the praeternatural character of certain localities, but these would intensify rather than vary the general hue. So it is not surprising to find eerie places beyond the confines of Lamorna.

The chapter ‘The Living Stones’ begins memorably:

The life of a region depends ultimately on its geologic substratum, for this sets up a chain reaction which passes, determining their character, in turn through its streams and wells, its vegetation and the animal life that feeds on this and finally through the type of human being attracted to live there. In a profound sense also the structure of its rocks gives rise to the psychic life of the land: granite, serpentine, slate, sandstone, limestone, chalk and the rest have each their special personality dependent on the age in which they were laid down, each being co-existent with a special phase of the earth-spirit’s manifestation.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of thing as New-Age hippydom, but anyone who’s lived in this beautiful peninsula, as I have for over twenty years, will attest to the special quality of its land, air, sea – and the stones; she goes on:

West Penwith is granite, one of the oldest rocks, a byword for hardness, endurance, inflexibility. That is the fundamental fact about Cornwall’s westernmost hundred, and, unless you like granite, you will not find happiness there.

It’s not just the prehistoric aura that she describes; she also writes well about the Celtic Christian layers of mystical presence in Kernow. She cites the old saying, ‘there are more saints in Cornwall than in heaven’, and has clearly researched meticulously those saints, many who crossed from Ireland (in St Piran’s case, by means of a highly unorthodox millstone), and gave their names to so many towns, villages and hamlets. She likes to speculate on the pre-Christian origins of many of the places made holy by these Celtic missionaries – not only the churches and chapels but also the caves and especially the wells and springs with which the county is liberally supplied.

She writes of a group of free-thinking young people, nowadays we’d probably call them travellers or hippies, who try to establish a sort of commune near her hut. It doesn’t end well.

She also records, with varying levels of approval, some of the traditions and festivals of the region, from the Obba Oss of Padstow to the Furry Dance of Helston (Flora is a more modern invention that obscures its misty Celtic origins). She describes the bards and their Gorsedd (the Cornish equivalent of eisteddfod), the Arthurian legends that intrigued Lawrence (not surprisingly she can’t abide the modern commercial exploitation of Tintagel with its ersatz tourist tat).

Although this mystical lyricism can get a bit wearing, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Colquhoun’s palpable love for the living landscape of this region. Let me finish with one of my favourite passages in a book filled with highly evocative, poetic descriptions; she’s been trying to trace the holy well of St Germoe:

The track here was dank, shadowed by soughing trees full of violence and sadness. I hurried upwards, relieved to get clear of the valley. How much primeval gloom can still lurk almost within earshot of a busy road!

See: she does have a sense of humour – though there’s a lot of grumpy railing against the barbaric incursions of modern consumerism: she hates the blare of radios and polluting racket of trippers’ cars. Most of us in Cornwall, I’d have to admit, have been guilty of this kind of curmudgeonly intolerance of incomers as we commune with our pilgrim saints and haunted moors and chough-guarded cliffs, with that ‘tingling magnetism’ that flows along this landscape and that Colquhoun felt and loved.

PS: There are interesting woodcuts by Colquhoun at the end of every chapter, and several WG Sebald-esque grainy black-and-white photos. I’d be grateful if anyone could tell me how her name is pronounced; is it similar to ‘Ethel’? or ‘eye-thul’? The guide at Tate St Ives who showed a group of students and staff around the recent Virginia Woolf exhibition (I wrote a post about it here) pronounced it (for there were several of Colquhoun’s surreal landscapes in the excellent exhibition) somewhere between these two possibilities.