Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season

Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season. Virago Modern Classics, 2006

In a Summer Season takes its title from the opening line of the medieval alliterative poem, The Vision of Piers Plowman. This alerts us to the likelihood of a story that will involve a quest for a good, honest life and essential truth in the face of vice and worldly obstacles – a search for a vision of what the world might be, uncorrupted. This will involve epiphanies and life-changing experiences.

Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season cover VMC editionThe surprising amount of sex in the novel is largely due to the mid-life crisis of the protagonist, Kate Heron, an attractive woman in her early 40s who lives in a comfortable former vicarage in a middle-class commuter neighbourhood of big houses and what Kate sourly calls ‘Underwriter Georgian’ developments (it’s the Thames Valley, just an hour by train from London). It’s the era when Kate’s class of women didn’t work (husbands did that) and kept servants; Kate has the eccentric cook-housekeeper Mrs Meacock and an irascible gardener.

After the death of her first husband Alan she’d quickly married again, a year before the action of this novel begins. Her second husband is a charming but irresponsible ‘drifter’ called Dermot, ten years her junior, only ten years older than her son Tom. His only interests are gambling and drinking and feeling sorry for himself. Kate’s maiden aunt, Ethel, who lives with her in a state of sadly genteel dependency, considers Dermot a fellow ‘parasite’ – a view that’s harder on herself than on Dermot. At least she teaches cello to Kate’s untalented 16-year-old boarding school daughter Louisa, on the long summer holiday during which the novel’s action takes place, emphasising that sense of change and mutability that the title hints at. Ethel encourages in Lou the passion for classical music that Kate’s late husband shared with his wife and daughter, and which bores Dermot and Tom (who prefers jazz) – they’re like twins, not stepfather and son. Two Hamlet types (more on that later).

Most other people in this affluent, worldly neighbourhood assume Dermot married Kate for her money. Even he dimly perceives the truth of this, though he likes to think he’s passionately in love with her – hence all the sex – and this enables him to convince himself that he is no parasite. Kate’s self-deceit mirrors his: for her the sex sustains and justifies this mismatched marriage; she’s allowing lust to cloud her judgement and overcome her growing sense of guilt and shame. Even teenaged Louisa perceives that her mother is competing with her older brother Tom’s string of girlfriends, of whom Kate feels jealous, and that in marrying Dermot she thought she’d be getting a sexually fulfilling partner and a loving son. He’s the Oedipal Hamlet to a Gertrude who doubles as Ophelia.

In a series of keenly observed scenes characters and relationships are revealed: Kate at the hairdresser’s, apparently unaware that dyeing her greying hair and ‘making herself look young for her husband’ makes her seem pathetic – or maybe she chooses not to see this. In the opening scene she visits Dermot’s wealthy, elegant mother Edwina, who never rises from her bed before noon, and who greets Kate superciliously:

“That’s a nice suit,” she said in a surprised voice.

Kate had felt just right, perfectly dressed for a day in London, until Edwina had come downstairs. She still thought she could not have chosen better and wondered if what was wrong with the effect – and something was now seen to be – was herself. She hadn’t a London face like her mother-in-law’s, her skin was a different colour and she looked too healthy for the dark suit – a country woman dressed up in London clothes.

In the introduction to this VMC edition Elizabeth Russell Taylor writes that In a Summer Season has a ‘nugatory’ plot, and no ‘concern with consciousness or big themes’. She cites Taylor’s comment that she could ‘never write about tragedies’. But the novel has other elements like those in Hamlet, and there are verbal echoes that subtly indicate this.

When Kate’s closest friend Dorothea died some years earlier, the widower Charles – the two couples had been best friends – left to work overseas, taking his daughter Araminta with him. Halfway through the novel they return, bringing to a crisis Kate’s crumbling confidence in feckless Dermot, as she realises Charles has the cultural sophistication and emotional maturity she’d loved in Alan, and which Dermot so palpably lacks. Araminta has grown up to become a beautiful but shallow young woman, training to be a fashion model. She’s the same age as Kate’s son Tom: 22. He unwisely falls madly in love with her, but she’s not cut out to be his Ophelia, for she enjoys simply flirting and being admired by men, preferring Dermot’s carefree superficiality – and propensity for driving his sports car too fast. All very tangled and ominous.

When the two families resume their intimacy Charles ruefully admits he ‘hardly knows’ his glamorous, vampish daughter. She makes him feel ‘as old as Polonius’, he jokes. Kate’s reply, that she can’t understand why Polonius was always made to look so old, subtly reveals her own discomfort at playing Gertrude to child-like Dermot (and his twin soul, Tom).

Dermot behaves like a petulant child. She gives him ‘motherly smile[s]’, indulging his latest hare-brained money-making scheme (growing mushrooms in an outhouse). When Charles and Kate share a private joke about a woman they know (who’d introduced Kate and Dermot, so it’s not a trivial topic) name-checking a character in Alan and Kate’s favourite novel, The Spoils of Poynton, Dermot, culturally void, is nonplussed and feels excluded – adding to his default emotional state of disgruntled thirty-something moody adolescent, unable to understand why he’s so angry with everyone.

When he finds James’s novel lying around and reads the inscription in it that Alan had written for Kate – a couplet from Donne’s ‘The Anniversary’, with the line ‘Who is so safe as we?’, he again feels excluded and ignorant, ashamed when he realises he’d missed the literary allusion, and that the grown-ups had pretended not to notice in order not to embarrass him. Kate, on the other hand, is aware that the “safety” she’d found with Alan has been lost with Dermot.

Dermot’s mother Edwina, briefly mentioned above, ‘a proper Harrods woman’ in his dismissive opinion because of her passion for shopping, is a poor role model for him. When Kate in the opening scene pays her a duty call (Dermot is too feckless to endure visiting his mother and exposing himself to her misguided attempts to find him a job he might hold down) Edwina proposes her latest business scheme for Dermot – as hare-brained as his mushroom-growing. Sensing Kate’s resistant embarrassment, she says she’s worried about her reprobate son, and had hoped that marriage would ‘make him settle down.’ Her elder son Gordon had ‘always said so’, and he’s a ‘model husband and father… An actuary. “Whatever the hell that may be,” Dermot had said.’ As ‘industrious’ and ‘utterly selfless’ as his father had been (a Claudius figure?). She’d always wondered why Dermot was ‘so different’:

“Perhaps he takes after you,” Kate said. Her voice was bold, and no longer under control.

To her surprise, Edwina’s face softened. She looked dreamy and pleased with herself. “I was certainly a handful when I was a girl,” she said. “Gracious, the escapades, the parties, the young men. ‘She is like a butterfly and no one will ever manage to catch her,’ they used to say.”

“Then Patrick [Dermot’s father] caught you and shut you up all alone in the drawing-room, while he went off to work on his papers.”

“It was the beauty of his voice I couldn’t escape. The Irish in it.”

 

The ironies in this brief exchange are typical of the novel’s subtlety throughout. For Edwina goes on to mention that although Gordon has no ‘trace of it’, Dermot has that Irish brogue ‘only when he was trying to get round [her].’

“Oh, it was a very happy marriage. I had everything I wanted. He worshipped the ground I walked on . I was just a little bored sometimes in the evenings.”

“Harrods being closed,” thought Kate.

 

Kate allows herself this moment of superiority over Edwina’s shallow complacency, but is blind to the similarity of her own Freudian-Shakespearean domestic/marital trap with Dermot.

I’ve posted in the past about these ‘Madame Bovary’ narratives that deal with commuter-belt middle-aged women in despair at the dreariness and lack of fulfilment in their lives, their dim sense of being defined only in terms of their husbands, from Evan Connell’s Mr and Mrs Bridge to Taylor’s own short stories. The ‘summer season’ in which the narrative takes place heightens the sense of temporariness and looming disaster for the meticulously, perceptively anatomised central characters, all with their own defects and thwarted dreams. I particularly like prurient Aunt Ethel, and teenage Louisa with her hopeless schoolgirl crush on the virginal curate with the wonderful name of Father Blizzard.

Apologies for writing at such length; this novel is packed with so much understated, apparently inconsequential but essential and artfully constructed detail that it’s difficult to do it justice in brief.

PS 11 July: I asked fellow bloggers to supply links to any posts they’d done on IASS: in case you don’t scroll down through the comments to find them, here they are:

Liz Dexter, Adventures in Reading, Running and Working From Home

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has links to four of her own posts HERE

…and this link is to her roundup of other bloggers’ posts who’d joined in her readalong – including HeavenAli’s

Trollope’s Framley Parsonage – 2

Yesterday I looked at Anthony Trollope’s unheroic heroes in Framley Parsonage. By this the fourth Chronicle of Barsetshire he’s starting to get the hang of women, too. So far the romantic heroines have tended to be typically demure Victorian angels in the house, with maybe a hint of feistiness. There were some dragons among the older women, and some bourgeois and aristocratic snobs. But then in Doctor Thorne he introduced Miss Martha Dunstable and several other strong, clever women, and upped his game.

There she served as a recipient of innumerable unwanted marriage proposals from gold-digging men anxious to get their hands on her fortune. It was Frank Gresham’s honest half-heartedness in this task, put up to it by his mother, who was anxious to save the mortgaged family estate, that endeared him to that wealthy heiress, and showed she had more depth and class than the landed gentry among whom she moved with amused scorn.

In Framley Parsonage she’s mysteriously aged a decade, for she’s now said to be in her forties. This time it’s the irresponsible gambler and cadger Sowerby who’s interested in marrying her money, but it’s the resourceful  Mrs Harold Smith (née Harriet Sowerby) who shows more mettle and spirit than her reckless, irresponsible brother. She loves him, and is his true ‘ally’ in seeking to save him from destitution, and again Trollope shows how well he can do a morally murky character and make her attractive:

He was probably the only human being that she did love. Children she had none, and as for her husband, it had never occurred to her to love him. She had married him for a position; and being a clever woman, with a good digestion and command of her temper, had managed to get through the world without much of that unhappiness which usually follows ill-assorted marriages. At home she managed to keep the upper hand, but she did so in an easy, good-humoured way that made her rule bearable.

So she’s clever, ruthless and scheming, but has a sense of humour and fierce loyalty to that undeserving, extravagant scoundrel Sowerby (though even he is shown to be not all bad). She’s befriended Miss Dunstable with a view to helping him. She’s quick-eyed enough to realise that this heiress:

was to be won, not by indulgence of caprices, but by free and easy intercourse, with a dash of fun, and, at any rate, a dash of honesty…[She] was not, perhaps, herself very honest by disposition; but in these latter days she had taken up a theory of honesty for the sake of Miss Dunstable…

This astuteness had enabled her to become ‘intimate’ with Martha. She advises Sowerby to ‘tell her the truth’- not hide the fact that his ‘first object is her money’. When he chickens out of doing this ungallant act himself, she does it for him. Enterprising and bold, too. She’s discerned that those countless other suitors annoyed Martha by pretending to love her; she’s far too perceptive to fall for that, and simply despises their duplicity and transparent greed.

Ch. 24 is called ‘Magna est veritas’ – the truth is mighty – a Latin tag that Miss Dunstable cites when Harriet makes her pitch on behalf of her brother. She’d been taught it, she says with typical irony, by the Bishop of Barchester, who’d added some more, ‘but there was a long word, and I forgot it.’ She too has a wicked sense of humour, and her interlocutors often have trouble figuring out her true meaning – which is what she intends.

Miss Dunstable urges her on, but Harriet falters at this obviously deceptive pose of self-deprecation:

There was a hardness about Miss Dunstable when matters of business were concerned on which it seemed almost impossible to make any impression.

These two are well matched. Even though she does what she’d intended, saying her brother isn’t dying for love of Miss Dunstable, but harbours ‘as true a regard’ for her ‘as any man of his age does have’ (he’s 50)…’For any woman of mine’, returns the heiress – ruthlessly honest and tough. ‘They are very hard to manage,’ says Harriet to herself, ‘thinking of her own sex’.

It’s not going well, she knows. When she says Sowerby intended coming himself to make his proposal but thought she’d speak more ‘openly and freely’, Miss Dunstable sees through this, too. His intentions were ‘honourable’ she’s sure, she says: ‘He does not want to deceive me in that way.’ Implying, of course, that his deception is of another order:

It was impossible to help laughing, and Mrs Harold Smith did laugh. ‘Upon my word you would provoke a saint,’ said she.

This is arguably a funnier, more subtly done scene than anything in the previous three Barsetshire novels (though I’ve probably forgotten some already), and the humour arises naturally out of the characters and the carefully observed situation that’s been created for them. Both women are shown as resourceful, quick-thinking, shrewd and sharp (a word much used hereafter in the novel about Miss Dunstable) – and able to laugh at themselves and at the absurdity of life. There’s not much laughter of that rich quality among the men, that I recall.

Miss Dunstable refuses this ungracious (if unflatteringly honest) proposal: she explains bluntly to Harriet:

…he wants to marry me because I have got that which he wants. But, my dear, I do not want that which he has got, and therefore the bargain would not be a fair one.

She pays Harriet the dubious compliment of using the language of commerce, for the proposal was presented as a commercial transaction – one in which Miss Dunstable, with admirable frankness, acknowledges she has nothing to gain.

There are other finely portrayed women characters in this novel, but that’s perhaps enough on them for now. I need to read something very different to clear the mind from rural Barsetshire before the fifth Chronicle.

 

Trollope, Framley Parsonage – post 1

In my final post on Trollope’s third Chronicle of Barsetshire, Dr Thorne (1858) I suggested a central theme was the revitalising effect of marriages between the jaded old land-owning families like the Greshams, or the atrophied aristocrats like the de Courcys, and the energetic new blood of the rising moneyed classes as represented by Dr Thorne’s daughter Mary, who conveniently became a suitable match for Frank Gresham in the eyes of his family (and her own) only when she inherited a vast sum of (new) money. Marriage was shown to be, in many ways, another way of accessing power or sustaining privilege; love matches like Mary and Frank’s were a rarity.

cover of Framley Parsonage

The cover of my OWC paperback is a detail from ‘The Statute Fair’ by George Bernard O’Neill

Similar themes are central to Framley Parsonage (started in serial form in Cornhill Magazine in 1860; published in book form 1861). In fact the ‘marriage plot’, such as it is, involves an almost identical situation: young Lord Ludovic Lufton wants to marry penniless but spirited Lucy Robarts, who had come to live with her 26-year-old brother Mark, a childhood friend of Lord Lufton, whose autocratic mother had gifted the living of the local church of Framley to the young cleric, but who strongly opposes such an unsuitable (in her lofty opinion) match.

As in the previous novels, the heroes are far from perfect, the villains hardly villainous. Mark is less than enthusiastically identified by Trollope’s narrator as the hero of this novel as early as p. 5:

…he was no born heaven’s cherub, neither was he a born fallen devil’s spirit…He had large capabilities for good – and aptitudes also for evil, quite enough: quite enough to make it needful that he should repel temptation as temptation can only be repelled.

He soon shows his weakness by accepting an invitation to visit the unscrupulous and dangerous Whig MP friend of Lord Lufton, Nathaniel Sowerby. He represents everything about West Barsetshire that the Tory East, reigned over by Lady Lufton, despises, considering his like and his patron the ‘great Whig autocrat’ the Duke of Omnium little short of demonic. In defying her and rebelling against her ‘thraldom’ by visiting first Sowerby and then the satanic Duke himself (though our narrator never shows him doing anything too untoward; this is largely Lady Lufton’s prejudice), he begins the descent into a financial quagmire  among ‘sharp’ and ‘dishonest’ loan sharks and leeches like Sowerby and those he’s deeply indebted to. Like Arnold in Rebecca West’s Harriet Hume, he’s ‘ambitious’ for status and determined to ‘rise’ in the world. Trollope again shows here that ‘Clergymen are subject to the same passions as other men.’

But this is a gentler novel than the previous three. The threats to the stability of traditional, idyllic and pastoral Barsetshire – ‘the old agricultural virtue in all its purity’, as the narrator calls it – are less dangerous. There’s never much doubt that Mark will ultimately be ok, and the happy outcome for the central romance (Lucy and Lufton) even less suspenseful than Mary Thorne’s with Frank Gresham.

As ever, Trollope shows little relish for the romantic stuff. A glance at the title of the final chapter will give the game away. Even his portrayal of Lufton as ostensibly the romantic protagonist is equivocal. When Lucy’s pride prevents her from accepting his first impetuous marriage proposal, even though she loves him dearly, our narrator goes on:

I know it will be said of Lord Lufton himself that, putting aside his peerage and broad acres, and handsome, sonsy face, he was not worth a girl’s care and love. That will be said because people think that heroes in books should be so much better than heroes got up for world’s common wear and tear. I may as well confess that of absolute, true heroism there was only a moderate admixture in Lord Lufton’s composition; but what would the world come to if none but absolute true heroes were to be thought worthy of women’s love? What would the men do? and what – oh! what would become of the women?

Later, when he flirts with another woman, the narrator anticipates a critic saying ‘Your hero…is not worth very much’; but, he continues, ‘Lord Lufton is not my hero’ – and he’s ‘imperfect’. Like Dr Thorne in the previous novel, then.

Back to this scene: even Lucy is under no illusions about him – or herself:

Lucy Robarts in her heart did not give her dismissed lover credit for much more heroism than did truly appertain to him; – did not, perhaps, give him full credit for a certain amount of heroism which did really appertain to him; but, nevertheless, she would have been very glad to take him could she have done so without wounding her pride.

For she’s not behaved because of entirely noble motives, as our narrator, with ironic delicacy, reveals:

That girls should not marry for money we are all agreed. [There’s that cheerfully, slyly open complicity with his readers that we’ve seen in the previous novels] A lady who can sell herself for a title or an estate, for an income or a set of family diamonds, treats herself as a farmer treats his sheep and oxen – makes hardly more of herself, or her own inner self…than the poor wretch of her own sex who earns her bread in the lowest stage of degradation.

As a prostitute, that is. So far, Lucy is positioned on the high moral ground. Not for long:

But a title, and an estate, and an income, are matters which will weigh in the balance with all Eve’s daughters – as they do with all Adam’s sons. Pride of place, and the power of living well in front of the world’s eye, are dear to us all.

It’s obvious where this is going now:

Therefore, being desirous, too, of telling the truth in this matter, I must confess that Lucy did speculate with some regret on what it would have been to be Lady Lufton. To have been the wife of such a man, the owner of such a heart, the mistress of such a destiny – what more or what better could the world have done for her? And now she had thrown all that aside because she could not endure that Lady Lufton should call her a scheming, artful girl! [This that lady duly does, and worse]

It’s this amused, ironic narrative voice, nuanced characterisation and open distaste for sensational or romantic fiction’s stereotypical figures that redeems these Chronicles from the so-so plots and sometimes plodding narrative. Next time I’d like to consider other aspects of this ‘hodge-podge’, as Trollope called this novel with his customarily arch self-deprecation.

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians. Virago Modern Classics paperback, 2004. First published 1930

Vita Sackville-West’s first novel was written, says Victoria Glendinning in her introduction to this edition, ‘for fun, and to make money.’ It achieved both ends, becoming a best-seller for the Woolfs at Hogarth Press, and succeeding as the author hoped in making everybody ‘seriously annoyed.’

Sackville-West Edwardians coverThis is because it’s a gleeful exposition of the shallow hypocrisy, duplicity and decadence of the Edwardian upper classes – a superficially glamorous world she knew well, having been raised in the stately home of Knole, upon which Chevron in this novel is based, an equally lavish and vast country estate that had belonged to the Sackvilles since Elizabethan times. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1929) is a thinly disguised fantasy about Vita’s ambivalent sexuality and personality in the context of this dynasty.

In order to write such an exposé, she needed to create some characters who could provide an outsider’s critical view. The first of these is the flimsily-drawn, implausible polar explorer with the exotic name of Leonard Anquetil. He views this privileged party of ‘easily-pleased’ house-guests balefully: they are, he sees, ‘surely spoilt by the surfeits of entertainment that life had always offered them’, yet never tiring of the endless series of frivolously tedious events like this one, or showing any inclination to ‘vary the programme’ they’d followed every weekend since schooldays. Anquetil reflects:

to take their place in a world where pleasure fell like a ripened peach for the outstretching of a hand…All their days were the same; had been the same for an eternity of years…With what glamour this scheme is invested, insolent imposture! and upon what does it base its pretensions? [ he could see that none of them] were in any way remarkable, nor that their conversation was in any way worthy or exciting the interest of an eager man. He listened carefully, tabulating their topics. They were more interested, he observed, in facts than ideas. A large proportion of their conversation seemed to consist in asking one another what they had thought of such-and-such an entertainment, and whether they were going to such-and-such another.

Money is their other obsession, and ‘other people’s incomes’. Politics features only to provide an opportunity to show off which prominent figures they knew in that world.

Their chief desire was to cap one another’s information. So this is the great world, thought Anquetil; the world of the élite…If this is Society…God help us, for surely no fraud has ever equalled it. These are the people who ordain the London season, glorify Ascot, make or unmake the fortune of small Continental watering-places, inspire envy, emulation, and snobbishness – well, thought Anquetil, with a shrug, they spend money, and that is the best that can be said for them.

I’ve quoted at length to give an idea of the lush, pleasing prose style and genial viciousness of the narrative. Two more key characters also have a jaundiced view of this  world: the handsome duke, Sebastian, who is master of Chevron at 19 (his father died when he was young), and his younger sister, Viola. Both are disillusioned with and ultimately reject this privileged world, with its sham ‘code’ of conduct that involves deception, infidelity and treachery, concealed beneath a veneer of gentility, respectability and brittle honour. It disgusts the siblings, and they rebel – although Sebastian has a deep and genuine love of Chevron; it’s the people who he has to mix with that disillusion him.

Sackville-West clearly had enormous fun writing this, and it’s great fun to read. But ultimately, like the superficial characters it depicts, it doesn’t sustain. It’s true that she makes the best of such an easy target: boring, selfish, superficial snobs. But the characters who she presents as embodying the values of decency and integrity, chiefly Anquetil, Sebastian and Viola, aren’t fully rounded. Like the rest of the cast of characters, they’re more like caricatures.

But I enjoyed this gleeful demolition job and finished it in a couple of binge-reads. It’s like Downton Abbey written as a comical horror story. The prose style, as noted already, is smooth, with occasional poetic touches; here’s the first description of Sebastian’s first lover, the ‘professional beauty’, Lady Roehampton:

[she] was moving idly about the room looking like a loosened rose; she was wrapped in grey satin edged with swansdown.

I’m not sure this visual image quite works; maybe that’s why Sackville-West’s friends and publishers, the Woolfs, didn’t rate her highly as a writer (though they relished the revenue she generated). As an entertainer she’s great fun.

There’s some unfortunate casual anti-Semitism that’s sadly characteristic of the times in which it was written, but one redeeming feature is its foreshadowing of the disastrous slaughter of World War I that was about to happen. We know that whatever summary justice is handed out by the novelist to these shallow, self-indulgent creatures and their social circus, history was to deliver far worse.

I posted on Vita Sackville-West’s 1931 novel All Passion Spent HERE

Liz at her blog Adventures in Reading, Running and Working wrote about it HERE with links to more reviews.

 

 

Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 3: to purify the blood of the tribe

One of Trollope’s greatest strengths is that his good characters are far from perfect, his villains not just all bad. When Dr Thorne was first presented in Ch. 2 he was described ambiguously for the man proclaimed the novel’s hero, preferred over the handsome young squire’s son who loves the doctor’s niece Mary:

No man plumed himself on good blood more than Dr Thorne; no man had greater pride in his genealogical tree.

‘High blood’ is a relative or illusory concept, then, and possession of wealth without ‘family’ not necessarily a barrier to the highest station or moral probity – as the rise of Sir Roger Scatcherd from stonemason to plutocrat shows – another richly drawn character, part drunken oaf, part genius, with a generous heart, morally sickly son, and fatal addictions (so much for blood). Here’s how the narrator carries on his portrait of the hero:

Let it not be thought that our doctor was a perfect character. No, indeed; most far from perfect. He had a pride in being a poor man of a high family; he had a pride in repudiating the very family of which he was proud; and he had a special pride in keeping his pride silently to himself.

Here it must be remembered that the doctor’s brother raped the village girl, ‘of good character and honest, womanly conduct’, Roger Scatcherd’s sister, who resulted in becoming Mary’s mother – even the doctor’s pride in his family isn’t entirely merited.

The novel can be seen, then, as a dramatization of the ways a symbolic blood transfusion can serve to revitalise a decadent and atrophied upper class; blood and money can mingle. Sort of reverse vampires. There are frequent repulsive images of upper-class ‘blood’ being ‘diluted’, ‘sullied’ or even ‘polluted’ by upper class types marrying beneath them, ‘paving the way for revolutions’, as the Lady Amelia de Courcy – a ‘consummate hypocrite’, we learn later, when she betrays her cousin despicably – puts it to her cousins Augusta and Arabella.

Trollope shows throughout the novel that the aristocracy and gentry, intent on preserving their blood’s supposed “purity”, are prepared to ‘marry money’ if they can’t marry each other. Ch. 39 is called ‘What the World Says About Blood’ (no prizes for guessing what that might be), and it ends with besieged Frank proclaiming: ‘Will my blood ever get me a half crown?’ He represents the new generation of gentry, rejecting the snobbery and hypocrisy of his elders and embracing change, ‘human quality’ rather than rank.

Wealthy, spirited Miss Dunstable – one of Trollope’s most appealing female characters so far – urges Frank after his half-hearted proposal (forced upon him by his mother, Lady Arabella) not to ‘sell [himself] for money!’ It’s she who encourages him to follow his heart and persist with his love for Mary, rather than to submit to the edicts of his rank-obsessed, gold-digging mother (his father, the squire Gresham, is a far kinder, more decent example of the gentry; Trollope doesn’t praise or dismiss social groups, but individuals, as we saw with his first two in this series about clergy). Wealthy people without ‘family’, that is, can be virtuous, unselfish and morally stalwart.

The status quo can be maintained, however, and stability restored, without a revolution. That inoculation of better blood is provided by the truly ‘perfect’ Mary — a much more significant role for her, as Trollope presents it, than that of her father’s ‘angel who brightened his own hearthstone’, the romantic heroine, the ‘base born’ and ‘nameless’ protagonist of the inheritance plot mentioned last time. Her importance resides in her purity of spirit and moral integrity, inherited from her father, but divested of the pride, pretensions, arrogance and contrariness which prevents him from effecting such a social change himself. He can challenge the aristocracy, force it to regroup, but not defeat it definitively.

That’s Mary’s role – and she does it by sticking to her own principles to win her battles against the snobs. She’s ultimately able to ascertain what her own ‘rank’ might be – a question she often asks herself since she only learns about the true identity of her parents at the novel’s end – and that discovery neatly resolves all the class conflicts that have occupied the rest of the narrative:

On one point Mary’s mind was strongly made up. No wealth, no mere worldly advantage could make anyone her superior. If she were born a gentlewoman, then was she fit to match with any gentleman…If she were born a gentlewoman! And then came to her mind those curious questions; what makes a gentleman? what makes a gentlewoman? What is the inner reality, the spiritualized quintessence of that privilege in the world which men call rank, which forces the thousands and hundreds of thousands to bow down before the few elect? What gives, or can give it, or should give it?

The narrator calls the characters who think like this (Dr Thorne is the other main example) ‘democrats’. Not entirely an insult from this conservative writer: he’s learning to show latitude.

So instead of this ‘bastard child’ potentially infecting what ‘the world’ calls her social ‘superiors’ like the Greshams with her ‘ill blood’, as even her own father worries at one point, bringing about ‘poverty’ and ‘sullied’ offspring, tainting or defiling the family line, she will reinvigorate it, restore its dwindling vitality.

Not ultimately a particularly revolutionary novel, then. But it’s not an entirely reactionary one.

Property and human quality: Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 2

In Dr Thorne the dangers threatening the pastoral, idyllic, conservative world of Barsetshire appear not in the ‘clerical aristocracy’, as in the first two novels in the Chronicles, but in ‘the old, feudal and now so-called landed interests’. The novel poses the question, What makes a gentleman (or woman)? It’s another way of asking, What makes one person another’s superior? The answers he provides are more complicated and ambivalent than might have been suspected of a novelist with the reactionary reputation of Trollope.

Raymond Williams (in The English Novel: From Dickens to Hardy) concedes that assessed against certain ‘abstract criteria’ Trollope is George Eliot’s superior as a writer, but lacks the perception she shares with Hardy of the ‘creative disturbance’ of that ‘unprecedented time’, that capacity to question ‘in a profoundly moral way’ the ‘real and assumed relations between property and human quality’. Trollope, I’d suggest, shows that it’s not a sufficient or even necessary qualification just to be nobly born, and does attempt to explore ‘human quality’. Trollope is assuredly no George Eliot, but he’s not entirely blind to the corruption and venality of the inheriting classes he portrays; neither does he idealise the rising moneyed middle classes.

In the first chapter it’s the Greshams of Greshambury who largely represent this imperilled upper class, facing ‘[s]uch changes’ that ‘had taken place in England’ since their estate was founded that they find themselves having to ‘protect themselves like common folk, or live uprotected’. In other words, there’s not much to distinguish them from these ‘common folk’; their sense of superiority is deluded. Our narrator continues:

But the old symbols remained and may such symbols long remain among us; they are still lovely and fit to be loved. They tell us of the true and manly feelings of other times: and to him who can read aright, they explain more truly than any written history can do, how Englishmen have become what they are. England is not yet a commercial country…and let us hope that she will not soon become so. She might surely as well be called feudal England or chivalrous England.

He goes on to concede that in fact England has become ‘a commercial country’ but only in the sense that Venice was –

yet it is not that in which she most prides herself, in which she most excels. Merchants as such are not the first men among us; though it perhaps be open, barely open, to a merchant to become one of them. Buying and selling is good and necessary…but it cannot be the noblest work of man; and let us hope that it may not in our time be esteemed the noblest work of an Englishman.

Trollope appears to side then with the forces of conservatism and against the hostile invasions of the newly rich. Typically, though, he goes on in the rest of the novel to show that some of these dangerous invaders are in many ways morally and personally superior to the effete and atrophied aristocracy and the traditions they represent that he’d defended so stoutly here. His vision of a restored, revitalised rural gentry involves an injection of new blood from a more robust class – as I hope to show next time – and a severe self-examination as their faults are exposed and exploited by smarter and more morally and personally robust characters.

He resorts frequently to the imagery of battle and warfare, as he had in the power struggles among the clergy in the first two novels, to dramatise this social-economic-political shift; it’s a battle between an uneasy alliance of the ‘high blood and plenty of money’ of the haughtily aristocratic but morally deficient de Courcy class – we met the Countess of that ilk in all her supercilious arrogance in Barchester Towers — and their allies by birth the Greshams (albeit they’ve impoverished themselves, and lack the noble title, and who represent the pastoral gentry), and the rising, irresistible, ambitious bourgeoisie – the professional and merchant-commercial classes.

Ch. 26 is entitled ‘War’ – the conflict between stubborn, proud, middle-class professional Dr Thorne and Lady Arabella Gresham, Frank’s mother, sister of Earl de Courcy, ‘full of the de Courcy arrogance’. The chapter shows Trollope at his serious-comic best: Arabella had earlier defeated the upstart doctor by banishing his daughter from her intimate friendship with the Gresham household because Frank had proposed to Thorne’s daughter Mary, illegitimate and dowry-less, and therefore not a suitable match for the heir to the heavily mortgaged Gresham estate; he’d had his orders – to ‘marry money’ and restore the estate to its own family out of the hands of their creditors.

Encouraged by this apparent victory, she’d come to ‘despise the enemy she had conquered, and to think that the foe, once beaten, could never rally.’ She’s condescended to make a rare visit the doctor’s own house to broaden her anti-Thorne campaign by insisting that ‘all confidential intercourse between [her daughter] Beatrice and Mary’ be ended; the two young women had grown up together in the Gresham household and become close friends, but Arabella fears this intimacy will fortify Mary in her betrothal to the foolish ‘boy’ Frank.

It’s a wonderful scene, consisting mostly of fizzing, sparring dialogue almost as sharp and subtle as any in Jane Austen, as Thorne refuses to acquiesce to her imperious, insulting demands. Lady Arabella is routed this time, ‘not destined to gain any great victory’:

It was not the man’s vehemence that provoked her so much as his evident determination to break down the prestige of her rank, and place her on a footing in no respect superior to his own. He had never before been so audaciously arrogant…

This brilliantly depicted defeat problematizes Trollope’s snobbish assertion in Ch. 1 that the landed gentry represent the highest form of civilisation. The way in which the narrator focalises through Arabella in Ch. 26 serves to highlight her own arrogance; the doctor’s lèse majesté is her perception; Trollope’s ironic narrative voice ensures his readers are on Thorne’s side. The class struggle represented in Dr Thorne is more nuanced and complicated than the simple, polar struggle between good and evil that he appeared to present at the novel’s start.

This post is becoming too long, so I’ll stop there, and continue next time with the portrayal of the flawed hero and not-so-awful villains, and examine this notion of ‘human quality’ further.

 

 

Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne, pt 1: narrative voice

Anthony Trollope, Dr Thorne. Oxford World’s Classics, 1994. First published 1858: the third of the ‘Barsetshire Chronicles’.

Trollope’s fiction has often been dismissed as commonplace, conventional and pedestrian, from his own Victorian period to Leavis and after, of ‘low literary worth’ (as David Skilton points out in this OWC edition Introduction). As Henry James sniffily suggested, ‘With Trollope we are always safe’; sinking into one of his romantic comedies of manners is like ‘sinking into a gentle slumber’; he provides ‘a complete appreciation of the usual’. Virginia Woolf wrote that he provides ‘assurance’: a Valium comfort-novelist who provides a cosy, undemanding warmth. This is unfair. After my uncertain start with The Warden and the superior second Barsetshire Chronicle, Barchester Towers, (links to posts here) I’ve come to value his unconventional, idiosyncratic ironic narrative approach, his slippery,  sometimes over-reactionary moral stance, and the duality/complexity of narrative voice and approach. This might take a few posts to show what I mean.

I’ll start with that narrative voice – more subtle in its intrusions and comments than in the first two in the series, and therefore more insidiously suggestive of that unconventional, disruptive, maybe even pre-modernist inconclusiveness, that draws attention to the artificiality of the novel’s own structural and generic nature in order to justify focusing on richness of characterisation and seriousness of theme.

Trollope Thorne cover

Charity shop price sticker damaged the cover when I peeled it off. It’s a detail from a painting by Richard Redgrave, ‘The Walk from the Church’, 1846

The novel’s first three chapters consist of complicated, and frankly rather tedious introductory back-story, in which the narrator begins by ironically insisting that handsome young gentleman Frank Gresham, heir to the large but financially precarious country estate that his father has dissipated, is not the hero of ‘our tale’. That place is occupied by ‘the village doctor’ – an unusual choice; there aren’t many Victorian fictional heroes from the medical world. Like Dr Watson, they tend to be bit-part players. Those who prefer, our knowingly genial narrator concedes, may choose to favour callow Frank; but as far as this narrator is concerned, Frank serves as window-dressing:

It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be. I am too old to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart. Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir of Greshambury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger’.

This ambivalent refusal to admire the genre to which he’s required to conform signals its real focus. He goes on to extol Frank’s creakily stereotypical credentials for this role as romantic pseudo-hero: vigour, good looks, and a ‘pleasant, aristocratic, dangerous curl of the upper lip which can equally express good humour or scorn’. But Trollope is just going through the motions of starting a romantic novel with its familiar ‘inheritance plot’. As EM Forster says in Aspects of the Novel, ‘oh dear, yes’, the novel must tell a story. That’s Trollope’s view, too. He tells his story, but as early as p. 7 has indicated there’s a happy ending. He deliberately disrupts the mystery element of the plot of this sprawling 600-page triple-decker by giving the game away at the outset. He’s not terribly interested in whether the vapid young heroine, illegitimate and therefore a social pariah, not a suitable match for a young scion of the gentry who must ‘marry money’ to save the family estate, will become a wealthy heiress and enable the lovers to marry and save the family estate (who cares?). Trollope knows his readers expect a teasing plot of that kind, so with grudging irony provides it. But don’t expect him to relish the task; his disdain is palpable. His real interest lies elsewhere.

This is not the conventional Victorian approach to writing the ‘cosy’ realist novel his detractors accuse him of, even the popular light comedy kind; Trollope is more concerned with exploring (admittedly with limited subversive intentions) the social conditions and tensions in his changing, doubt-filled, unstable world of landed gentry and rising middle classes; I’ll consider this aspect in another post. Back to that disruptive narrative voice:

As Dr Thorne is our hero – or I should rather say my hero, a privilege of selecting for themselves in this respect being left to my readers – and as Miss Mary Thorne is to be our heroine, a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to any one, it is necessary that they shall be introduced and explained and described in a proper, formal manner.

Really? He knows this is not ‘necessary’. Trollope chooses to get this tedious, predictable plot and character-introduction (preamble to the ‘necessary’ inheritance plot) stuff out of the way so that he can return to his more pressing themes and interesting characters. To counteract the potential tedium he makes a joke of it by foregrounding that shift of possessive pronouns from the grandly inclusive ‘our’ to more personal ‘my’ (ironic echoes perhaps of Jane Austen’s proprietary ‘my Fanny’ in Mansfield Park), thus highlighting the relative frivolity of this conventional aspect of the narrative, and thereby implicitly accusing the superficial romance-loving reader of demanding such undemanding material. This is neatly done, for like all the best ironic-satiric humour, it’s incontestable by the accused reader who demands her/his page-turner and pining lovers. Trollope rolls his eyes and provides that plot, but signposts his (not entirely sincere) distaste for such dross:

I quite feel that an apology is due for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description. I am perfectly aware of the danger of such a course. In so doing I sin against the golden rule which requires us all to put our best foot foremost, the wisdom of which is fully recognized by novelists, myself among the number. It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages: but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise…This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill. Whether or not I can atone for these faults by straightforward, simple, plain story-telling – that, indeed is very doubtful.

I’ve quoted most of this opening to Ch. 2 so you can savour that double-edged self-deprecation, deployed here with feigned ingenuous artlessness that wittily draws attention to its rhetorical artfulness.

Near the end of these ‘dull chapters’ he makes another such joke, by saying he needs to say ‘[a] few words more’ about ‘Miss Mary’ before ‘we rush into our story’ (back to that inclusive ‘we’ again; again he makes a show of suggesting he’s got the reader back on narrative board) with an audaciously inappropriate, romance-deflating metaphor:

…the crust will then have been broken, and the pie will be open to the guests.

Those who want the meaty innards of the suspense-filled rom-com ‘pie’ will just have to put up with the dry, crusty serious stuff. The joke isn’t on the posing-as-humble-and-inept-jobbing author, but on the low-brow reader who demands instant gratification.

He used a similar ironic narrative technique to delightful comic effect in Barchester Towers when he reassured his worried readers early on that Eleanor wasn’t going to marry any of the awful suitors.

 

 

 

 

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.