About Simon Lavery

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Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me

Last summer I posted on Elaine Dundy’s 1958 novelistic debut, The Dud Avocado – I found it frothy but funny, with a silly plot but some great jokes, and an engaging ingénue of a first-person narrator.

Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me cover

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition, a reissue that first appeared in 2005.

 The Old Man and Me fell flat in comparison. Mostly, for me, because it’s too close in form and content to Avocado: an frivolous, immature and free-spirited young expat woman (London this time, not Paris), not long out of college, crashes through a series of disastrous escapades involving louche, selfish men, catty, bored women, with a fair smattering of marijuana, booze, sex and jazz.

The plot is just as silly and trivial, based on assumed identity, mutual passion weirdly mixed with murderous vengefulness. The narrator-protagonist is implausibly (and, it turns out, falsely) named Honey Flood. Like Sally Jay, Honey’s name suits her gushing, demotic narrative flow.

Elaine Dundy’s introduction, written some forty years after the novel’s first publication, sets out her intentions. She wanted to provide an anti-heroine counterpart to the Angry Young Men so fashionable in late fifties English literature. Their bile was directed at ‘everything phony, pompous, priggish, prudish and pretentious’ (she must have run out of synonyms beginning with P). She wanted her female equivalent to be as exhilaratingly angry – a tricky task at the time when women were ‘depicted as passive and put upon’.

She realised ‘Bad Girls are more interesting’, so she made Honey hate everything about the English: ‘Soho, Mayfair, the West End and country houses.’ She’s opinionated, operates ‘on a short fuse’, and has a dastardly plan – ‘to kill the Englishman [the Old Man of the title is overweight, ugly and in his fifties] because he has the money.’

This is the England of 1962, before the invention of the Beatles and sex, as Larkin famously lamented — pre-Swinging London. The scars of WW2 are still apparent – physically and psychologically. Honey of course has no interest in this.

To her credit, Elaine Dundy has Honey’s English target, the Old Man named C.D. McKee, as vitriolic and intolerant about America as she is about England. But these jokes wear thin after a while.

There are just too many scenes in seedy clubs or jazz dens full of socialites and bores all lined up tamely for our Anglophobic narrator to tear to pieces. Trouble is, she’s no better herself. She somehow lacks the charm of Sally Jay – or maybe I was just immune second time round to this kind of humour.

There are some fine set pieces and sentences, which just about make the book worth persevering with. By Chapter 2 I was seriously considering giving up on it, then was jolted back into life by this lovely dash of nastiness about the pseudo-posh, ultra-pretentious London restaurant, the Truite Bleu.

The chapter opens with Honey’s unimpressed take on the ‘battered neon trout sign’ hanging outside, impressing her only with its sense of ‘frank senility’. Inside all is shabby and squalid. The staff are brilliantly evoked, like rude, elderly trout themselves – ‘you had to admire that kind of professional slackness,’ Honey sourly observes as the coat-check guy drops her coat with disdainful carelessness on the floor.

The description of the interior is priceless: it’s hideous, stuffy and smelly.Then there are the waiters. They

looked as if they’d staggered out of an old dark hole. They creaked and wobbled and limped and trembled under their loads, their turkey-gobbler necks rising pink from their stiff wing collars.

Their rudeness and incompetence goes unnoticed by the English diners, who look (to Honey) unaccountably contented:

Their genuinely old-fashioned bad service that was being meted out impartially was instantly recognizable as the real thing: a subtle sophisticated Old World incompetence we Americans can never hope to emulate, the best our rustic efforts can produce being a superficial smart-alec surliness not to be spoken of in the same breath as this lofty disdain which was both thoughtful and thorough…These waiters were hand-picked for pleurisy, deafness, and a variety of speech defects. They were flushed of skin, gnarled of hand. The dishes that jumped on to the floor from their palsied hands were never referred to again, as it were, but just lay there for the rest of the evening to be ground under foot by passers-by.

There’s a great line at the equally dire country house Honey is invited to with her would-be seducee, the Old Man. He tells her of a woman he needs to avoid there: she’s a notorious gold-digger, who married a wealthy Italian nobleman who ‘treated her vilely’, ran through his money and ‘had the appalling taste to die practically penniless.’ He goes on:

“Anyone can buy nobility”, she said to me soon after, “but who can buy money?”

And that’s about it. The two stand-out funny bits.

There’s a fuller account of plot and a less jaundiced reading of the novel at HeavenAli’s blog from Dec. 2018; she found it ‘wickedly funny’. Like Ali, I found my copy of the VMC paperback in a charity shop. It looked unread.

 

 

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart (Black Swan paperback. First published 2014)

After a rather slow start this novel becomes a highly enjoyable, touching comedy-drama. Mrs TD, who normally finds my taste in fiction too depressing, also liked it.

I first heard about it on the Radio 4 book programme, A Good Read – I posted on this with a bit of background on the author here.

What’s so heartwarming about the novel, as the contributors to the programme said, was the developing relationship between the mismatched central characters: scrawny ten-year-old orphan Noel, a vulnerable and lonely evacuee from Blitz-torn London (this is early WWII), and Vera Sedge, 36, who takes him into her scruffy home in St Albans, some twenty miles north of the metropolis, only because of the allowances he’ll generate from the state. At first she has no interest in him as a person, and even less intention of passing on to him the rations she’ll claim on his behalf.

Lissa Evans, Crooked Heart coverInstead she indulges and dotes on her no-good, overweight sponger son, Donald, who has scams of his own going on, while tolerating her dotty, aged mother-in-law – both of these housemates are a burden to her, contributing nothing financially. Much of her time is spent, when not devising hare-brained and illegal schemes to raise funds, evading the rent collector. She’s always broke and in debt – so Noel is for her an economic godsend.

He is a nerdy, reclusive child, made even more introspective by the recent death of his surrogate mother, the ex-suffragette Mattie, an eccentric, educated and seemingly quite wealthy middle-class woman who finally succumbed to the dementia from which she’d been increasingly suffering – a tragic Prologue shows the terrible disintegration of this formidably intelligent, independent woman. She’d raised Noel in her rambling Hampstead home as if he were another adult and radical free-thinker. As a result his naturally precocity has matured him well beyond his years – but it takes Vee a long time to recognise this.

When he first arrives she can’t make him out at all, but slowly starts to perceive his deeper qualities, as here when he’s unexpectedly revealed his extensive vocabulary (including some impressively adult slang) – Mattie used to pay him a penny a synonym for random words she selected from the thesaurus:

Vee shook her head. She was beginning to relish Noel’s oddness; it was like talking to someone who’d been raised on the moon.

Like Donald’s, her own illegal, ill-conceived money-making schemes fail – everyone around her, it seems, is a spiv, gangster or thief. The evocation of this seedy side of wartime Britain is entertainingly and colourfully done. Then Noel teams up with her and this odd couple, from such different worlds, starts to thrive – he tweaks Vee’s scams using his superior insight, intellect and research skills. Vee is shrewd enough to let him.

The plot moves along at a lively pace, with plenty of unexpected twists and developments that arise as much out of the characters and their relationships as from the wartime events and exigencies.

Lissa Evans’ background in TV drama serves her well in this respect: Noel and Vee in particular come across as warm-blooded, three-dimensional human beings, flawed but destined to find a kind of redemption and fulfilment in each other, but there are some vividly drawn secondary characters, too.

Unscrupulous Vee, for all her superficially worldly cunning, comes to realise she has far more to learn about humanity, morality and the social system with all its inequities (there’s some deeply moving and sympathetic stuff about the suffragette struggle) than the gifted, unprepossessing, ill-mannered and damaged little boy she’s ostensibly caring for. Their need for each other, meanwhile, deepens into something closer to love than either of them had known previously, and which neither could have foreseen.

 

 

 

George Gissing, The Odd Women

George Gissing’s novel The Odd Women, published in 1893, evinces an ambivalent and sometimes distinctly odd attitude to the hot topic of the time: the ‘woman question’, and more particularly that of female emancipation from the cloying paternalism of late Victorian society. On the one hand he takes seriously the desperate economic plight of women of the lower classes who, if they don’t inherit enough to live on, are condemned to a life of ‘barrenness and bitterness’. In this novel such women are represented by the three Madden sisters, who almost starve as low-skilled teachers, companions or governesses, or else work in slave-like conditions for little pay in a London shop.

If they fail to make a ‘good marriage’ – that key theme in so much Victorian fiction – there is little prospect of their ever living much above the bread line. The youngest sister, Monica, escapes into a loveless marriage with a much older wealthy man (ominously named Widdowson), who takes the Ruskinian view of women (domesticity, motherhood, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually weak and stunted) and becomes violently jealous of any contact she has with other people.

This plot intertwines with dramatic consequences on the other in the narrative.

My two editions: Oxford World's Classics on the left, and Penguin

My two editions: Oxford World’s Classics on the left, and Penguin

This involves the titular ‘odd’ women – Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn – so called because they are among the half million women who are unmarried – ‘no making a pair with them’, explains Miss Nunn:

“The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally – being one of them myself – take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve.”

She and Miss Barfoot have set up a kind of training academy for young unmarried women to ‘make [them] hard-hearted’ as Miss Nunn puts it – hence that curious military metaphor. This takes the form of clerical-secretarial work – so still not exactly intellectually or spiritually rewarding, but less stultifying than the kind of low-paid drudgery noted earlier. When young Monica protests at this brutal formula, saying that ‘married women are not idle’, Miss Nunn retorts contemptuously:

“Not all of them. Some cook and rock cradles.”

She has become a radical, militant feminist, fiercely opposed in principle to marriage as a desirable goal for women. Gissing doesn’t portray her in a flattering light – she’s unsympathetic to a young protégée named Bella who leaves the academy to live with a married man; when she repents and asks to come back to them, Rhoda is adamantly opposed: she’ll set a bad example to the others. Once girls like Bella have ‘fallen in love’ – an expression she considers sentimental claptrap – they’re irredeemable. Her hard-heartedness doesn’t waver when the poor girl later kills herself – to the horror of her softer friend, Miss Barfoot.

When Miss Nunn (the names aren’t particularly subtle in this novel) is first introduced aged 15, visiting the Madden sisters in Clevedon, Somerset, she’s described thus:

Tall, thin, eager-looking, but with a promise of bodily vigour…[full of] nervous restlessness, and in her manner of speaking, childish at times in the hustling of inconsequent thoughts, yet striving to imitate the talk of her seniors. She had a good head, in both senses of the phrase; might or might not develop a certain beauty, but would assuredly put forth the fruits of intellect.

A budding bluestocking, then. She’s said to treat the younger girls ‘condescendingly’, favouring ‘intellectual talk’ (how unwomanly!), and speaking of gaining an education in order to earn her own living, speaking with ‘frankness peculiar to her, indicative of pride.’

Gissing’s hostile attitude towards her is clear from the start: she has only a ‘certain beauty’ to look forward to. Career aspirations in a person like her indicate not strength of character but ‘pride’.

This unflattering portrait is vitiated when the narrator goes on to tell us that she’s ‘fallen in love with’ a local widower called Smithson, 35 and with a consumptive daughter. Remember how sardonically (and hypocritically) she later dismissed that sentiment when told of the fate of Bella.

Young Rhoda is impressed by Smithson’s ‘aggressively radical’ views and parrots them proudly, such as the belief that women should be allowed to sit in Parliament. Dr Madden – father of the sisters – dismisses such views as unfortunate signs of the influence of her ‘objectionable friend’.

Rhoda Nunn next appears a few chapters and several years later, in the scene mentioned above, as Monica Madden pays her a call for the first time since that Clevedon scene, and Rhoda quizzes her about the hideous conditions in which she has to work in a London shop. Although she sympathises, she disapproves of her having succumbed to social pressure, rather than making a stand and precipitating reform:

“I wish it were harder [she says, when Monica had said how hard it was for a girl to find work]. I wish girls fell down and died of hunger in the streets, instead of creeping to their garrets and the hospitals. I should like to see their dead bodies collected together in some open place, for the crowd to stare at.”…Tolerance was not one of the virtues expressed in her physiognomy.

Her apparently unrequited love for the radical Smithson when she was younger has hardened her. Gissing is often considered a supporter of women’s rights, and it’s true that he does show sympathy with this cause in this novel. But it’s a highly ambivalent support. Miss Nunn is shown here and in the rest of the narrative as intolerant, little short of a fanatic.

She has little sympathy with the lowest classes (a trait Gissing tended to share). She tells a lady philanthropist that she has no interest in working for the reform of girls from ‘the lower classes’. These ‘uneducated people’ and ‘servant girls’ are beyond redemption in her view – they’re literally incomprehensible.

Where Gissing problematizes his position on feminism is in his portrayal of the potential love interest for Rhoda. Her unflagging commitment to asceticism and celibacy and her scorn for love (“a sickening sameness of vulgarity” she dismisses it as to Mary Barfoot), the ‘sexual instinct’ and marriage are tested by the profligate, idle Edmund Barfoot, Mary’s playboy cousin. Although he admires Rhoda’s strength of character and intellect, he ultimately wants to subjugate her, and is excited by the prospect of ‘taming’ this shrew. His thoughtless rejection of a working-class girl who he’d made pregnant – because in his view she deserved her fate, having thrown herself at him – reveals his amoral selfishness. Generally (like Gissing) he finds women ‘barbarous’. His tepid support for his cousin’s cause is largely because he feels educating women will benefit men.

So where ultimately does Gissing stand in this novel of shifting, oscillating sympathies? He seems to favour a sort of ‘soft’ feminism of the more ‘human’, less ‘fervid’ kind shown by Mary Barfoot – that stops short of fanaticism. “Your zeal is eating you up,” she says accusingly to Rhoda when they fall out over Bella. “Don’t enrage yourself.”

Yet Gissing portrays several kinds of masculine supremacy over women as reprehensible. Meanwhile he deprecates the ‘evils of celibacy’, and describes several marriages as disastrous for the husbands because of the stupidity of the wives. There’s much debate and discussion of what is connoted by the terms ‘womanly’ and ‘manly’, and some tilts in the direction of free love as an alternative to the social trap of conventional marriage.

And a rousing speech to her trainees by Mary Barfoot on the theme of Woman as an Invader (of the male sphere).

It’s not the role of the novelist to answer the difficult questions posed in novels that dramatise these complex issues. That Gissing poses them in such interesting – sometimes infuriating – ways is much to his credit. That Rhoda emerges from her encounters with Edmund a better and wiser woman is perhaps the main message.

Combinational delight: Nabokov, Pale Fire

I’ve tried to write this post several times. How to even begin to discuss a text as dense and as teasing, as multifaceted and astonishing, as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, first published in the US in 1962.

Scholars have been poring over this chess puzzle of a text since it was published; I’ll put some links at the end for those who’d like a more profound and challenging account. Much of what’s been published, and I’ve just scratched the surface of a daunting amount of scholarly interpretation and comment, involves exactly who on earth is the ‘only begetter’ of this…novel.

I hesitate to use that word because Pale Fire refuses to conform to most definitions of novel, from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary: ‘A small tale, generally of love’ – when the novel was still closer to what tended to be called later Romance – to the OED online:

..A long fictional prose narrative, usually filling one or more volumes and typically representing character and action with some degree of realism and complexity; a book containing such a narrative….

After a Foreword by an American university scholar called Charles Kinbote, in which he explains that his neighbour and alleged ‘very dear friend’, the poet John Shade, was killed on July 21, 1959, just one line short of completing his magnum opus, a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets (he calls them ‘heroic’, but they are too ‘open’ in structure to fit this term, beloved of the Augustans; and Shade shows a heavy debt to Pope in the poem, as Kinbote does in his commentary). It was completed, Kinbote claims, in the last 20 days of Shade’s life.

Already my problem in trying to give an idea of this Russian doll of a novel appears: how to describe it coherently, when it defies coherence itself.

Nabokov Pale Fire cover

My Penguin paperback edition

The poem itself follows the Foreword. Its four cantos consist mostly of autobiographical details about Shade, his wife Sybil, and their daughter Hazel, who apparently killed herself at a young age, after experiencing ‘psychokinetic manifestations’ and some kind of mental collapse. There follows a long section in which he questions the notions of existence and ‘le grand néant’.

The largest portion of the text consists of Kinbote’s supposed ‘commentary’ on the poem. He’s stolen the MS (record cards, like the ones Nabokov himself composed on) of the poem and hidden himself away in an obscure American hotel to edit it. It rapidly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary scholarly exegesis or approach – despite his disingenuous claim that these notes ‘will certainly satisfy the most voracious reader’.

Kinbote reveals himself to be increasingly deranged and pompous. If there is a narrative, it’s in this slow self-revelation: he deludes himself that Shade had become an intimate friend, and that he, Kinbote, had told him in the months before he died that he was actually the exiled King Charles the Beloved of his native northern country, Zembla – he’d been arrested by the Shadows, who resemble the secret police of the Soviet regime that Zembla closely resembles. Kinbote insists, however, that its resemblance to any such place is illusory; it’s very name, he explains unconvincingly, means ‘semblance’ (his claim that his name is Zemblan for ‘regicide’ is equally duplicitous). He and his country are shape-shifters. He even uses the word ‘versipel’, which can mean ‘werewolf’ – a creature of dual nature. The commentary lingers on such wordplay, puns, and relishes its own obscure vocabulary and elegantly sinuous but ostentatious prose style.

Kinbote boasts that Shade was intrigued by his stories of his royal exploits in Zembla, and isn’t daunted by the complete absence of any reference to Zemblan material in the poem; instead he sets about a ludicrous, often hilariously outlandish hermeneutically distorted set of pseudo-scholarly notes in which he interprets extracts from the poem as a coded version of his own Zemblan story.

Either that or he just digresses into long rambling reminiscences, full of non sequiturs and dead ends, of his own putative life as King, including his bizarre escape from captivity and arrival in the US. Or riffs on waxwings, cicadas and butterflies, in the register of TS Eliot (sometimes echoing Conan Doyle), Pope, Shakespeare (the poem and novel’s title may come from Timon of Athens, but Kinbote dodges accuracy by claiming not to have any books with him to verify his literary claims). He’s almost pathologically hostile to his fellow scholars, who find him ‘disagreeable’ and ‘insane’ (with reason!), and who he denounces as frauds and fools who envy his intimacy with the great poet and his superior intellect; only he perceives the truth.

To try to give any fuller a picture would require a post almost as long as the novel.

The poem famously begins with one of nature’s ‘pranks’:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the window pane…

The bird had died by flying into a reflection of the world in the poet’s window-glass. The text is full of such ludic language (‘shadow’/Shade; ‘pane’/pain; strictly speaking the bird has ‘slain’ itself unwittingly – the suicide theme is established obliquely at the outset), doublings, deceptions, mirrors and false notions – like Kinbote’s deluded gloss on the poem.

Instead of being Boswell to Shade’s Johnson (the Epigraph is taken from Boswell’s Life of the great man; but who is supposed to have inserted the Epigraph?!), Kinbote reveals himself to be a slightly modified, super-vain version of a Shandean (ie interpreter of Sterne’s vast comic shaggy-dog story), calling himself a ‘Shadean’.

All the reader can do is try to make sense of things, knowing that with Kinbote as guide, claiming as he obfuscates that he’s ‘clearing things up’ authoritatively, we’re unlikely to succeed. That’s where I went wrong at first; once I’d relaxed into glorious failure, the novel took off and took me where it liked.

It was exhilarating and not a little scary. It’s about authors’ lack of…authority. A postmodern labyrinth of paratexts or hypertextual cross-references and metafictional asides, word games, parody, and looping paradoxes, offering impossible solutions to imaginary questions, prolix and dazzlingly allusive. Even the foreword advises how to read the text (preferably using two juxtaposed copies) – in a non-linear, reflexive manner similar to the way today we read e-texts full of hyperlinks. As Shade concludes, near the end of the poem, he understands his existence, or part of it,

…through my art,

In terms of combinational delight.

And as Kinbote teasingly boasts at one point in his faux commentary: ‘for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.’

It’s cerebral and very funny.

As I was about to start this post I came across this by Anthony at his brilliant blog, Times Flow Stemmed: thesis 20 (of 33) published today to mark his blog’s tenth anniversary:

20: Difficulty in fiction is normally pleasurable

Very apt for a reader of Pale Fire. See Frank Kermode on St Mark’s gospel in The Genesis of Secrecy, and Jesus’ disturbingly opaque explanation of why he spoke in parables.

Here are those links to some of the academic studies of the novel:

Brian Boyd on his theory that Kinbote is really another scholar named in passing in the novel, Botkin:

Zembla website has many more such links.

 

 

A martyr and a ruler: Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head (1935)

Ivy Compton-Burnett has possibly the most idiosyncratic and instantly recognisable literary method and prose style of any modern writer. I’ve written about her technique extensively in my previous two posts about her:

The Present and the Past – several posts

A Family and a Fortune

In A House and Its Head she sticks to the formula that works so well for her: a forensic portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional upper middle-class family – the Edgeworths – living in a large country house in the 1880s. The villagers with whom they come into contact are mostly hypocritical, outwardly pious, virtuous types in the vein of Dickens’s ‘telescopic philanthropist’, Mrs Jellyby, or just malicious gossips.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, A House and its Head - coverDuncan Edgeworth is the most interesting character in a novel full of them. He’s a monster – straight out of her usual pool of Jacobean revenge-tragedy nasties. “He behaved like a god,” one of his daughters says at one point, part in awe, part rancorously. “He is always a martyr and a ruler,” is another description of him near the end.

In the opening chapter he starts in a minor way to show his tyrannical, oppressive control of his family: of his downtrodden wife Ellen, two spirited daughters who rebel as far as they dare, but ultimately succumb to his bullying, and of his more courageous and rebellious nephew, Grant, who for a while looks like he’ll be the one to refuse to be constrained by Duncan, but turns out to be just a self-serving, shallow hedonist.

First, he berates innocent, timorous Ellen for the tardiness in coming down to breakfast of the younger generation – as if it’s her fault. When they finally appear, his sarcasm is vicious. It’s Christmas day, and they open their presents. Grant’s is a book ‘inimical to the faith of the day’ that Duncan disapproves of: ‘on every page there is poison’. Presumably it’s Darwin. Duncan places it on the fire to burn. When elder daughter Nance mildly objects (‘Oh, Father, really!’), this is his characteristically venomous response:

“Really? Yes, really, Nance. I shall really do my best to guide you – to force you, if it must be, into the way you must go. I would not face the consequences of doing otherwise.”

“Would not the consequences be more widely distributed?”

“I shall really do what I can to achieve it,” went on Duncan, as if he had not heard, “and I trust it will not be impossible. I do not do it in my own strength.”

His coercive control here is revealed as a combination of patriarchal laying down of the law (i.e. his), personal attack on what he sees as heinous moral turpitude in those around him, and ridiculing of the linguistic-semantic shortcomings, as he pedantically represents them, of his victims’ attempts verbally to resist his strictures and oppressive behaviour.

As always, it’s the brilliantly contrived dialogue that’s the main vehicle for ICB’s mordant, witty take on the corrosive nature of this privileged, borderline deranged cast of characters. She makes little attempt at the usual novelistic technique of presenting what’s meant to be naturalistic dialogue (it never is, even in writers noted for their “realistic” dialogue; it’s always a literary contrivance), and this heightens the sense of artificiality, pomposity and egotism in the characters who deliver the dialogue.

Here’s Duncan still being cruel to Nance near the end of the novel, when her friend Cassie has called to announce the death of her mother:

“Nance, here is Cassie, out of sorts and out of heart. So listen to her, and let her talk herself out. She hasn’t come to you, for you to be of no good to her. See you are of some use as a woman, as you can be of none as anything else.”

So accustomed (and cowed) are the others in his house to this kind of casual unpleasantness that his comment receives no response.

The plot enables ICB to show the nastiness and defects in her characters in full flow: there are many deaths, an infanticide, incest and adultery – plenty for the salacious gossips in the village to indulge in. See what I mean about Jacobean tragedy? Oh, and there’s an insulting marriage proposal that Trollope would have been proud of (“you and I would be a charming couple”, the young woman is told by her would-be husband, whereas if he married her sister, who had just turned him down, they would have made “such an awkward pair”. How could anyone resist this charmer?)

It’s never easy to read a Compton-Burnett novel: the style is arch and dense, and it’s necessary for the reader to keep alert as multiple characters converse with minimal identification of who says what. But she’s well worth the effort.

Scott at his Minor Moderns blog wrote a perceptive, more detailed account of this novel (I liked his summary of it as a modernist Gothic comedy), with a useful biographical portrait of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sally Rooney, Normal People

Sally Rooney Normal People. Faber and Faber hardback, 2018

This is going to be controversial.

Two young people are finding their feet in post-crash Ireland as they leave sixth form for university and beyond. Published when she was just 27, Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People has had a sensational success. Costa Winner, Waterstones book of the something – year? Month? I know when I bought a copy for Mrs TD they had it stacked high everywhere, and the staff at checkout were all wearing Normal People badges. At first I thought it was an off-colour statement about their view of their customers.

When she’d finished it Mrs TD insisted I read it to compare notes. I’m afraid I was less enthusiastic than she was, and certainly less than most of the gushing reviews in the media.

Sally Rooney Normal People coverIt’s been hailed as a zeitgeist novel, capturing the ‘collective precariousness’ (Guardian) of our times – not just personal but economic and political. I can’t say that’s what I took from the novel. And Rooney is said to have got into the heads of her two love-lorn protagonists, Connell and Marianne as they learn to come to terms with their sexual and emotional hangups.

That same Guardian piece by Sian Cain added the rider that these two are ‘over-educated, neurotic, and slightly too self-aware’ – Connell sees himself early on as politically astute and feels poised to engage in intelligent, sophisticated discussions about the Greek crisis at smart dinner parties when he leaves home. But, Cain concludes, Rooney avoids the pitfalls of ‘hysterical realism’ by showing, for example, how sincerely engrossed Connell becomes in his reading of Jane Austen. She insists we’re less concerned with the overblown context and focus on whether these two insecure adolescents will manage to find happiness together as they do their damnedest to break up.

I never became that invested in their fate, I’m afraid. I found them rather irritating – a sort of Roddy Doyle version of The Inbetweeners (both of which, I think, do what they do in a less ambitious way, but more successfully). Maybe because I taught that age group for so long. It was like reading an account of a normal day at work.

The dialogue is brilliantly handled, as others have said – but to what end? Sure, this is a sensitive and deftly done examination of maturing sensibilities, learning to realise that love is complicated and often painful, and sex is more than recreation.

There’s a lot of graphic sex, angst and teen slang and syntax – Yeah, he says. No – is one of Connell’s habitual contradictory responses to questions (Rooney dispenses with punctuation of direct speech, for some reason). I suppose he’s so shy and messed up he can’t commit to even the simplest of prompts, let alone negotiate owning up to his laddish mates that he’s having sex with a girl thought to be a weirdo, and who harbours masochistic tendencies as a consequence of her abusive upbringing.

I know this response sounds a bit harsh, and I did find the emerging horrors of the cruel treatment Marianne endured from childhood at the hands of her brutal father and brother almost unbearably moving. Normal People does give an unusually frank and (so far as I can tell) honest and accurate portrayal of young love’s traumas, mistakes and betrayals.

But I still prefer Jane Austen’s approach in Emma.

Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger

Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger. Penguin paperback. First published 1987

An old lady – Claudia – lies dying in a hospital bed, appearing out of it most of the time, but we are privy in this novel’s first-person sections in a multi-voiced narrative to her still functioning, brilliant mind as it savours memories.

‘“Was she someone?” enquires the nurse’, who patronises her and fails to acknowledge the humanity and intelligence of this impetuous, spirited woman: to the nurse she’s just a delirious, rather querulous and troublesome patient, who needs placating and humouring.

But the doctor, reading her notes, confirms what Claudia’s thoughts had alerted us to a few lines earlier: ‘”Yes, she does seem to have been someone’ – and he recites her history as recorded there:

…”evidently she’s written books and newspaper articles and … um…been in the Middle East at one time…typhoid, malaria…unmarried (one miscarriage, one child, but he does not say)…” [ellipses in the original text]

Penelope Lively Moon Tiger coverMoon Tiger, Penelope Lively’s tenth novel, won the 1987 Booker Prize, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a moving account of Claudia’s tempestuous, richly textured life in the context of the history of the world in which she lived. That terse list of her achievements – of the scars life left on her and the legacy she left – is brought dramatically to life in this novel. Claudia lives on in the reader’s memory long after finishing it – a difficult, prickly, assertive woman who scared many who knew her with her uncompromising confidence and glamorous good looks: ‘sometimes she squashes people,’ is one comment about her from someone who loved her.

The novel opens with Claudia saying that she’s writing a history of the world, ‘And, in the process, my own’:

fact and fiction, myth and evidence, images and documents.

The raw material of the historian and journalist that she had been. In writing this personal and universal history in her head, however, she is attempting to make ‘real history’, her story. ‘Everything and nothing’ is her method, a refrain that recurs throughout the narrative.

Coming to this novel after WG Sebald’s The Emigrants was illuminating. Like Sebald, she’s concerned not just with events, evidence, data, but with something more profound and important, more elusive.

She recalls a trip with Gordon, the dying brother with whom she had an intense, even sexual, love-hate relationship. As usual he has challenged her, deprecating her kind of history writing. She vehemently refutes his suggestion that she disdains theory, preferring to write popular histories that appeal to less discerning readers, about ‘action’ and the big names: Tito, Napoleon –

“That’s not real history. History is grey stuff. Products. Systems of government. Climates of opinion. It moves slowly. That’s why you get impatient with it. You look for spectacle…[and this] may mislead. What’s really happening may be going on elsewhere.”

“Oh, come on,” cries Claudia. “You’d tell the prisoner on the guillotine that the action is really somewhere else?”

Yet in that opening hospital scene Claudia had reflected on the nature of her history:

The voice of history, of course, is composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard. Some louder than others, naturally. My story is tangled with the stories of others…their voices must be heard also, thus shall I abide by the conventions of history. I shall respect the laws of evidence. But truth is tied to words, to print, to the testimony of the page. Moments shower away; the days of our lives vanish utterly, more insubstantial than if they had been invented. Fiction can seem more enduring than reality…History unravels; circumstances, following their natural inclination, prefer to remain ravelled.

The novel’s longest and most vivid section – an evocation of the central and most important episode in her ‘composite’ life when she was a war correspondent in Egypt in the 1940s, and met the love of her life – reveals the cause for this philosophy of Claudia’s. She sits trying to file copy in her room while worrying about her soldier lover’s fate. There are the statistics of retreats and advances, tanks and aircraft lost, men taken prisoner:

Figures dance on bits of paper, tenuously related to machines, to flesh and blood. There is out there, where these things or something like them are supposedly happening, and back here where ice clinks in glasses at six and hoses play on the gardens of Gezira.

Like Sebald, she reflects on the ‘disorder’ that follows war, its ‘aftermath’:

The aftermath of war should, correctly, be another war; it usually is. But the conventional aftermath is the struggle to set straight that which is awry; the taking stock, the counting of the living and the dead, the drift of the dispossessed back to their homelands, the apportioning of blame, the extraction of penalties and, at last, the writing of history. Once it is all written down we know what really happened.

Like him, she attempts to articulate a response to reading the entries in a loved one’s diary at the end of the novel. It’s more poignant and revealing than any accumulation of evidence:

I cannot analyse and dissect it, draw conclusions, construct arguments. You tell me about gazelles and dead men, guns and stars, a boy who is afraid; it is all clearer to me than any chronicle of events but I cannot make sense of it, perhaps because there is none to be made. It might be easier if I believed in God, but I don’t. All I can think, when I hear your voice, is that the past is true, which both appals and uplifts me.

She needs these memories:

And I can only explain this need by extravagance: my history and the world’s. Because unless I am a part of everything I am nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Erasures and absences: WG Sebald, The Emigrants

WG Sebald, The Emigrants (Vintage Classics; first published in German, 1993. Translated by Michael Hulse)

But certain things, as I am becoming increasingly aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.

The particular thing Sebald is referring to in this, the first of four sections (as in Vertigo) of semi-fictional (auto)biography/travel writing (I can’t find a suitable term for Sebald’s genre) – ‘Dr Henry Selwyn’ – is found in a report in a Swiss newspaper that catches his eye: the remains of alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, ‘missing since 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later.’

Naegeli was a close friend as well as mountain guide to Dr Selwyn, the elderly Lithuanian-Jewish emigrant owner of the crumbling Norfolk house that the narrator, presumably Sebald, rented with a woman named Clara – presumably his wife, although in real life she was called Ute. The method in most of Sebald’s fiction (for want of a more accurate word) is to present places and exiled people he encounters that interest him, usually because of something in their history that resonates with the Bavarian-born son of a soldier who served in the Wehrmacht through the Nazi era until the end of the war. He collates oral narratives from people who knew his subjects, or writings in scrapbooks, pictures in photo albums (many of which grainily illustrate this text) and other evidence of their lives in an act of literary bricolage and…what? Atonement? He mentions the ‘lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up’. They had, he feels, collectively erased history.

Sebald Emigrants coverThe people who feature in these four chapters come from Jewish emigrant families, most of whom fled the anti-Semitic oppression that surged in Europe (and beyond) from the nineteenth century and on into the early twentieth. By writing about them and their families, the hardships and hatred they endured at the hands of the bigoted and intolerant, Sebald seems to try to exorcise the aching guilt his nation’s terrible past has caused in him and his compatriots – and all those who were complicit in the Holocaust. These fragments he assembles against ruin – his own, and the world’s. But they are as elusive as Nabokov’s butterflies – a recurring image in this novel. (His autobiography has the Sebaldian title, Speak, Memory).

That revenant mountain guide may or may not have existed in reality; such details are irrelevant and elusive in Sebald’s fictional world. He serves as one of countless instances in this strange and haunting novel, of the way the author’s act of testifying in writing simultaneously honours the sufferings of these victims of ultra-nationalism, while failing to assuage his profoundly melancholy unease. The Selwyn chapter ends with a passage that reminds me of Joyce’s ending to ‘The Dead’:

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.

But even as Sebald records these poignant, concrete details from the lives (and deaths) of emigrants, retrieved from the interstices of history (cemeteries and even glaciers can be historical repositories, mute custodians of the disappeared), he conveys the hopelessness of his task. Lives like the eccentric, reclusive Selwyn’s, who eventually killed himself with his ‘heavy hunting rifle’, or the artist Max Ferber’s, with whom the narrator became acquainted during his years in Manchester, or those of his peripatetic, flamboyant Uncle Ambros Adelwarth, whose own ‘infallible memory’ so haunted him he sought its erasure through ECT treatment, or his junior school teacher Paul Bereyter, who committed suicide when his sight began to fail him, but who had become obsessed with collecting his own archive of suicides. These lives are full of incident and similar factual, concrete details, meticulously set down by the narrator. Yet he despairs about his inability to provide the kind of testimony of their existence that he yearns for. ‘Memory’, great uncle Adelwarth had written as a postscript in his ‘agenda book’, ‘often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy…’

In that final chapter on Ferber the artist and the decaying post-industrial city of immigrants, Manchester, that he had made his home, he describes the artist’s obsessive technique of erasure – one that recalls Sebald’s own as a writer:

Ferber had set up his easel in the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades. Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava.

The meticulous accretion of details here, like a scholarly biographer-historian’s reconstruction of a man’s life and its significance, creates the kind of literary verisimilitude that is usually considered essential in a credibly authentic historical account. Near the end of this chapter, and of the novel, Sebald describes his frustration when trying to write this very chapter, using the documents and photos that Ferber had handed him – an archive of actuality:

It was an arduous task. Often I could not get on for hours or days at a time, and not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing. I had covered hundreds of pages with my scribble, in pencil and ballpoint. By far the greater part had been crossed out, discarded, or obliterated by additions. Even what I ultimately salvaged as a “final” version seemed to me a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched.

A postmodernist would doubtless seize upon this as a thrilling example of mise en abîme, a description of the futility of trying to articulate anything with signifiers that fail to adhere to the things they attempt to signify (‘the entire questionable business of writing’). I was discussing this feature with Mrs TD, saying that Emigrants was a fascinating example of Sebald’s self-reflexivity, his frustration with the limitations of language in writing this very novel – the act of narrating simultaneously erases what it tries to record.

She’s very sensible, Mrs TD. That’s ridiculous, she said.

My post on Sebald’s A Place in the Country

One of my earliest posts was about The Rings of Saturn

 

 

Vita Sackville-West, Family History

Published in 1932, two years after The Edwardians (I posted on it here), Family History has the same central themes and milieu. It concerns the familial, sexual and social affairs of the wealthy and privileged upper classes, with the central issue being the struggle for personal authenticity and self-fulfilment, being true to one’s desires, against the negating influence of social convention, family expectations, and the need to maintain ‘standards’ and ‘manners’ in the face of one’s shallow, hypocritical but judgemental peers.

This time, though, the protagonist isn’t male (Sebastian, the young heir to Chevron in The Edwardians): Evelyn Jarrold is a beautiful, chic widow (her husband was killed in WWI) who falls for Miles, a man fifteen years younger. Like Sebastian, she has to contend with that struggle to satisfy her personal desire – she’s passionately in love with him – in the face of their profound differences, and her powerful social ‘training’, which induces her to try to keep up the pretence that she hasn’t lost all sense of propriety by having an affair with a man so much younger.

Even worse, he’s ‘not one of us’, as the Jarrolds see it, and her breeding and upbringing incline her to conform to their self-serving, hypocritical mores. Miles represents everything they fear and despise: he’s an intellectual, left-wing, a rising, progressive Labour politician who writes books and cares for the poor and the downtrodden. They see him as ‘a traitor to his class.’

V Sackville-West, Family History cover

My Vintage Classics paperback 2018 edition

Like Evelyn, however, he’s also a dual personality: he deep down hates ‘democracy’, and is a self-confessed Tory country squire when back where he feels happiest: at his rambling ruin of a castle (presumably based on VSW’s recently acquired Sissinghurst) where he farms a large estate. Yet he despises the affluent, superficial world that means everything to his lover.

His friends are all intellectuals, ‘highbrow’ – a term of abuse when used by the Jarrolds – as it is on one occasion even against Evelyn herself. But he’s attracted to Evelyn by her glamour, not her intellect, and hates ‘clever women’: he prefers his women to be ‘idle’ and ‘decorative’, and becomes irritated by her jealous demands that he immerse himself totally in her and her passionate love. He ultimately values his masculine independence more than her cloying devotion, and can’t understand why she is so demanding. They argue frequently, then make up. He can’t match her emotional fervour, finds it annoying.

And she’s uncomfortable in the company of his bohemian friends, especially of Miles’s closest friends, Leonard and Viola Anquetil (thinly disguised portraits of Virginia Woolf, one of Vita’s many lovers, and her husband Leonard). Viola was the sister of Sebastian in The Edwardians, who chose the ‘highbrow’ path and married the outsider who tried to persuade her brother also to relinquish the deadening world of social hypocrisy and unquestioning acceptance of convention in which they were born.

Evelyn is uncomfortable when they discuss things with passion; instead of the ‘perpetual heavy banter’ and ‘small-talk’, ‘gossip’ about ‘personalities’ of the Jarrold world, these people instead exhibit a ‘desire for the truth’. And ‘their frankness horrified her.’

Glamorous, trivial parties, lavish shopping trips to her society dressmaker’s, expensive trips to exotic watering-holes of the rich, and dull family dinners were Evelyn’s world. They were characterised by superficially good manners – Evelyn was aware of their stultifying vapidity, but struggled to emancipate herself. Here she is, early in the novel, in her sumptuous flat in an opulent part of London, being visited by her teenage niece Ruth, who adores her glamorous aunt:

She [Ruth] chattered. Evelyn lent herself amiably to the chatter; it seemed to her that she was always lending herself amiably to somebody or something, till she ceased to have any existence of her own at all. Would she ever turn round on the whole of her acquaintance, and in a moment of harshness send them all packing? She knew that the necessary harshness lurked somewhere within her; in fact she was rather frightened of it…She disliked it, thinking it ugly. But she felt sometimes that she could endure the emptiness of her friends and the conventionality of the Jarrolds no longer. The two old Jarrolds were real enough, in their separate ways, but the rest of them were puppets, manikins, and their acquired conventions were so much waste paper.

VSW does such a good job portraying her snobbish, shallow world of philistines that Evelyn lacks the strength to escape from that it’s hard to find her sympathetic for much of the first half of the novel (even harder to find Miles much more than a selfish brute). What redeems her from the outset is this faltering awareness of the fierce, ‘authentic’ self that refuses to be completely crushed by the ‘puppets’ and their soul-destroying conventions.

It’s interesting that VSW is dealing with the kinds of existential crises that were to preoccupy Sartre and the rest of the Left Bank set a decade or so later.

As her struggle diminishes her depleted emotional and spiritual resources, Evelyn becomes a sad and almost tragic figure, with a kind of nobility that astonishes even her. Near the end she finally finds the strength to be true to herself, and to be firm in rejecting attempts to placate or reconcile her:

This firmness was mysterious, even to her. It seemed to be the reverse of the medal. The medal was stamped on the other side with self-indulgence, softness, luxury, egotism; now she had turned it over and found a certain austerity, pride, and self-sacrifice.

The final section of the novel is deeply moving, I found – more so than The Edwardians. It’s more authentic.

I’ve written about some other VSW novels:

The Edwardians (1930)

All Passion Spent (1931)

No Signposts in the Sea (1961)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wilkie Collins tries another thriller

Collins Miss Mrs coverThe third in this OWC trilogy of Wilkie Collins novellas is The Guilty River. It first appeared in Bristol publisher JW Arrowsmith’s Christmas Annual, 1886, three years before Collins’ death, and subsequently in their ‘Bristol Library’ series.

Arrowsmith’s annual festive volume had become a big success, tapping into the contemporary taste for seasonal sensation-thrillers and ghost stories. They’d enjoyed best-seller status with the first of three such one-volume ‘shilling shockers’ (as they were known when published in book form, cheap ‘railway reading’ to rival the cumbersome and more expensive triple-deckers) by Bristolian Frederick John Fargus, writing as Hugh Conway. His first was in 1883, Called Back. When Fargus died in 1885, Arrowsmith turned to the ageing Collins to replicate his success.

But Collins’ health was failing, opium was taking its toll as well, and he fell behind schedule. He produced his final copy in a rush, working long hours to meet the deadline. This shows in the creakiness of the plot in The Guilty River. He also unashamedly adopts many of the plot features of his predecessor, such as a love-triangle, one of whom is a man with sensory deprivation (blindness), and a complicated, fast-paced plot (once it got going) designed to maximise thrills and horrors.

The Guilty River starts quite strongly, with an interesting account of the 22-year-old protagonist, Gerard Roylake, engaged in hunting moths – a pursuit he prefers to the trivial company of his frivolous, social butterfly (pardon the pun) of a stepmother, who he’s just met for the first time. He catches the insects with a process he calls ‘sugaring the trees’ with ‘a mixture or rum and treacle’. This ‘treacherous mixture’ allured and ‘stupefied’ the creatures.

The wood is dark and dreary – it’s a scene of typical Gothic gloom and death. It becomes weirder when Roylake’s familiar flying ‘enemies’ appear.

As I stretched out my hand to take [the moth], the apparition of a flying shadow passed, swift and noiseless, between me and the tree. In less than an instant the insect was snatched away, when my fingers were within an inch of it. The bat had begun his supper, and the man and the mixture had provided it for him.

This strange and stirring moth-hunting scene foreshadows much of the sporadically thrilling plot that follows – and many of its devices. It involves a love triangle: first, a deranged Deaf Lodger who insists on being called The Cur, because of the misery of his condition as a lonely outsider, cut off from society by his disability. Only a year earlier he’d been a beautiful, loving, good young man. Because of the discovery of dark family secrets on his father’s side, and the fear that he has a ‘family taint’ caused by the African slave blood of his grandmother, exacerbated by his ‘deaf man’s isolation’, his mind has broken.

Insanely infatuated with Cristel, the beautiful daughter of the devious miller, Roylake’s tenant, and obsessively jealous of the young landlord, who also falls for the buxom charms of Cristel, he attempts first to murder his hated rival, then, when that is narrowly thwarted, to abduct the young woman.

There are some interesting plot features like the doppelganger theme: the lodger is seen as a dark counterpart to Roylake – the Mr Hyde to his Jekyll. But modern readers will not find congenial the assumption that character was adversely influenced by the lodger’s being of ‘mixed breed’, or that the criminality of his paternal ancestors’ blood flowed in his veins. The benign influence of his much-loved mother’s genes is weaker than that of these malignant forebears – a dramatic struggle of heredity shared to a less extreme extent by Roylake, whose gentle, loving mother was cruelly treated by his father. His jealousy of his innocent wife’s past also caused him to banish his equally long-suffering son to exile on the continent of Europe when his ‘martyr’ of a mother died.

There’s the usual Gothic-sensational complexity of structure, with multiple secondary narratives. One of these, the lodger’s ‘Memoirs of a Miserable Man’, has two further embedded narratives within it, and there are numerous other letters, reports, etc. to spice up the mix – with limited success. That staple feature of so many Victorian novels (Trollope’s in particular) of class-based objections to socially mismatched love-matches is handled in a cumbersome manner.

As in The Haunted Hotel there are overt comparisons of the events in the narrative with a theatrical melodrama: ‘like a scene in a play, isn’t it?’ says Roylake to Cristel after summarising for her the Cur’s ‘Memoirs’. Not a good play.

It’s not surprising, then, that Collins’ attempt to do a Fargus was a failure. Sales came nowhere near those of ‘Hugh Conway’. After its fairly stirring start the plot falters and loses coherence. The ending is a bit of a mess. Too often the narrative tries too crudely to heighten tension by asking ‘How will it end?’, or speculating on how different choices at key moments might have, surprise surprise, resulted in less torturous outcomes.

So: thanks, Twitter folks, for the recommendation of Collins’ Venice-set novella, but I’m afraid this trilogy as a whole isn’t a great success for me.