Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle

Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle. Virago Modern Classics, 2012. First published 1950

Belinda Bede has loved the pompous, indolent Archdeacon of her local church, Henry Hoccleve, whom she first knew when they were undergraduates, for thirty years. But he married a bishop’s daughter, the spiky and rather scary Agatha. When a new young curate moves into the parish, Belinda’s sister Harriet adopts her customary mode of girlish devotion – ‘she was especially given to cherishing young clergymen’despite being, like Belinda, in her mid-fifties.

In ch. 6 Belinda calls on the Hoccleves in the vicarage, ostensibly to see Agatha, but of course this screens her sublimated passion for Henry.

Pym Gazelle coverA typical Pym scene has been set up: the good but dowdy woman’s unrequited love for a feckless, selfish man is only dimly perceived or appreciated by him. It’s a scene full of female poignant longing and male preening, treated with a delicious light comic touch by Pym – but there’s Pity and Fear present, ‘like Aristotle’s Poetics’, as Belinda thinks in a different context of a visit by a woman of dubious social status.

She finds Agatha ‘in the drawing-room, mending the Archdeacon’s socks’. It’s a novel in which one of women’s most successful romantic overtures involves making or darning socks – the most intimate scene between Belinda and Henry occurs when his wife is away and Belinda notices one of his socks has a hole; she promptly takes out her needle and darns it, his foot in her lap, her heart racing. He remains, of course, oblivious. Later she wonders if she might dare to up the stakes and knit him a pullover – but decides, like her timorous male counterpart Prufrock, that this would be ‘too dangerous’.

Their conversation turns to the new curate, Edgar Donne (most of the characters are named after the pre-modern English poets – more on that shortly). On hearing Agatha hint that Henry ‘was well, considering everything’, Belinda is bemused.

Considering what? Belinda wondered, and ventured to remark that men were really much more difficult to please than women, who bore their burdens without complaining.

I’ve written now about several of Barbara Pym’s novels (list of links at the end), so shan’t go into detail about this one. It has all her usual preoccupations: spinsters with hopeless passions for even more hopeless men, often ‘high’ clergymen, leading to flirtations and obsessions; sisters or female friends either supporting or undermining each other; village fêtes; references to English poets. (On this last topic I’d recommend the essay by Lotus Snow, ‘Literary Allusions in the Novels’ in Dale Salwak, ed., The Life and Work of BP (1987)).

The epigraph to this novel indicates its theme: it’s from a poem by a minor poet , Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839), ‘Oh, something to love!’ – ‘some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove/Something to love, oh, something to love!’ That’s all that these sisters want – though they tend to ignore eligible men and set their hearts on the unattainable ones.

Some samples of Pym’s delightful comic style: here on p. 1 Belinda says to her sister, after one of Henry’s more portentous sermons, sprinkled with obscure poetic quotations – he’s addicted to showy references to Gray, Young, etc.:

‘If only we could get back some of the fervour and eloquence of the seventeenth century in the pulpit today’…

‘Oh, we don’t want that kind of thing here,’ Harriet had said in her downright way, for she had long ago given up all intellectual pursuits, while Belinda, who had been considered the clever one, still retained some smattering of the culture acquired in her college days.

 

So much is revealed about these two women here; their suppressed longings, discordant views on what would fulfil them; an oversensitive appreciation of what’s right. That emphatic ‘here’ is priceless. Unlike Henry, who parades his literary learning to show off, Belinda – like her counterparts in many other Pym novels – finds ‘solace in the love poems of lesser seventeenth century poets’. And here’s Belinda again:

Belinda, having loved the Archdeacon when she was twenty and not having found anyone to replace him since, had naturally got into the habit of loving him, though with the years her passion had mellowed into a comfortable feeling, more like the cosiness of a winter evening by the fire than the uncertain rapture of a spring morning (p. 11)

Later we’re told much the same about this ‘hopeless passion’; she felt that ‘no spinster of her age and respectability could possibly have such a thing for an archdeacon’:

The fierce flame had died down, but the fire was still glowing brightly [a quotation from Thomas Carew with a similar image follows] How much more one appreciated our great literature if one loved, thought Belinda, especially if the love were unrequited!

Pym has a lot of fun with clothes again, using them as an index of confidence, frivolity or staidness: flamboyant Harriet, for example, appears at one point

radiant in flowered voile. Tropical flowers rioted over her plump body.

Belinda tends to favour unflattering green (which makes her complexion look yellow), or for gardening, galoshes and a raincoat, or sensible shoes, ‘a crêpe de Chine dress and coatee.’ I have no idea what a coatee is, but know for sure that it’s exactly what Belinda would wear. Henry’s chic wife Agatha, on the other hand, looks ‘very elegant in dark red, with a fur coat and wide-brimmed hat’ at a wedding near the end; she’s ‘poised and well-dressed’ – ‘It was Belinda Bede who was the pathetic one’.

If you’ve not read Barbara Pym before I’d suggest this is a good place to start, being her first novel. It’s not as sharp or as tightly written as the later ones, but still highly entertaining. A good companion for the Trollope ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’ I’m working through; he deals with many of the same themes, but far less succinctly.

‘We really ought to love one another’, thinks Belinda at one point; ‘it was a pity it was often so difficult.’

Other Pym posts:

Quartet in Autumn

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnett

Jane and Prudence

A Glass of Blessings

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.