Unusual and humiliating desires: Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories. Virago Modern Classics, 2012.

There are more than 60 stories in this wonderful collection, and nearly every one is a gem. I may have to post separate pieces to try to do some of them justice; for now I’ll just give an overview and first impressions, using just the opening story as illustration.

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-75) surely no longer merits the adjectives often used of her in recent years: underrated, overlooked. Several book bloggers whose opinions I value have praised her novels highly. I was given Mrs Palfrey for Christmas, and intend reading it as soon as my backlog has reduced. I picked up the Complete Stories with a view to dipping in occasionally, but found myself hooked from the start, and couldn’t stop until I’d read the lot.

Elizabeth Taylor, Complete Short Stories coverThe opener, ‘Hester Lilly’, is the longest in the collection (53 pp.; most are much shorter, some just a couple of pages), and one of the best. It introduces several of the themes and scenarios found in many of the other stories: a bourgeois couple, Robert and Muriel – he’s head of a small private boys’ school, she (like so many of Taylor’s female protagonists) doesn’t work – have a childless, emotionally sterile marriage. Their complacently dull life is wrecked with the arrival of young Hester, a cousin of Robert’s. She’s an impressionable, romantic young woman and has developed a crush on him that he reciprocates. The story shows with forensic acumen the self-destructive impulses that take each character into dangerous, desperate situations.

Here’s Muriel at a dance, dreading the music stopping during a ‘Paul Jones’ circle dance and finding herself without a partner:

She had not learnt how to mind less than as a little girl at parties – the panic of not being chosen, the first seeds of self-mistrust.

Her thin veneer of social sophistication is stripped away to reveal a different person: lonely, frustrated, frightened. Hester, the young house-guest, in her innocence has thrown Muriel’s moral state and her empty marriage out of equilibrium, and uncovered the poisonous corruption beneath the surface.

Despite the suburban, middle-class settings in most of these stories, Taylor isn’t coy or maidenly: as this marriage begins to implode, she shows Robert and Muriel, who is weeping after a bitter quarrel, in this sharply observed scene:

She began angrily to splash cold water on her eyes. When she was in bed, she said shakily: ‘After all, you don’t make love to me.’

He got neatly into bed and lay down, as far from her as he could, his back turned.

‘Do you?’ she wept.

‘You know I do not, and you know why I do not.’

‘If I didn’t like it, perhaps that was your fault. Did you ever think of that?’

The prose is always lucid, her style sinuous and elegant. It’s not extravagant or florid, but the apparent simplicity and understated clarity are deceptive: they convey unerringly a complex of emotions and tensions in these seemingly smug, uneventful provincial households. The dialogue is pitch perfect., as I hope these extracts show.

Here’s Muriel after playing reluctant hostess at the school’s Speech Day:

‘Oh, parents!’ she said later…’Perhaps I just hate them because they have children…’

Her childlessness makes her feel ‘panicky’; she wants ‘to go back, be different, have another chance.’ But life doesn’t offer such bonuses. All she can do is cultivate her prickly outer shell and make people feel as awkward as she secretly does.

In a painful closing scene, Muriel lies in bed with Robert again, this time longing for intimacy, but he ignores her gentle, beseeching touch, his back turned resolutely:

‘I cannot make him come to me,’ she thought in a panic. ‘I cannot get my own way.’ She became wide awake with a longing for him to make love to her; to prove his need for her; so that she could claim his attention; and so dominate him; but at last wished only to contend with her own desires, unusual and humiliating as they were to her.

I commend these stories to you: Elizabeth Taylor is a fine writer.

 

 

 

A hallucinated life: David Clerson, ‘Brothers’

Berserkers went into battle, according to some sagas and skaldic poems, wearing pelts of animals (the ‘ber’ element may signify ‘bear’; ‘serk’ is a Germanic term for shirt): they thus took on the ferocity of the beasts metonymically. This concept lies at the heart of David Clerson’s extraordinary novel Brothers.

Brothers cover

Image taken from QC Fiction website

Clerson’s unnamed protagonist, Older Brother, undergoes similar therianthropy in this pulsating narrative. At the novel’s start he and his younger brother scratch a living on a bleak marshland straight out of Kosintsev’s ‘King Lear’, a Tarkovsky dystopia: a post-apocalyptic or pre-modern zone of sterility.

The brothers are deformed: the Older has one arm, his younger sibling has ‘atrophied’, brachial stumps and ‘the face of a pagan angel’.

Their dessicated, moribund mother tells them endless stories ‘of the fearful far away’, and etiologies including their own: she amputated Older’s arm when he was born to create the Younger’s body (as God did Adam for Eve in Genesis). She invents these stories to protect them from unpalatable truths. What those truths might be we can only speculate – that’s one of the mysteries that gives this novel its eerie power. It’s full of dreams – and nightmares.

Her core lesson through these stories lingers with the boys:

‘The world is a cruel place, too cruel to be faced alone.’

The sea-creatures washed up by the ‘Great Tide’, the ocean (that ‘infinite expanse of surging black water, unpredictable and menacing…sealing off their world’), are also deformed, monstrous – a giant dog, bug-eyed cephalapods. The boys construct ‘bone beasts’ from the detritus. They are taunted by neighbouring ‘leech-boys’, reacting to them with ‘a dumb, screeching rage.’ Is this a post-nuclear catastrophe? Or some hellish alternative world? ‘Everything was death.’

I don’t recall reading a novel with such visceral impact. The elemental imagery and saga ferocity are intense. Brothers packs a punch way above its 150-page weight. I don’t normally enjoy ‘fantasy’ genre fiction, but this transcends the genre.

The brothers traverse the estranging sea in a leaky boat to find their ‘dog of a father’ who ‘came from the sea’ – another of mother’s legends; her accounts vary, ‘his lore changing over time and according to the woman’s mood’. Their fraternal odyssey becomes mythic and terrifyingly violent. They are at first ‘still boys but becoming men.’ They are convinced ‘our future is the sea.’

Like St Brendan and his monks, they endure terrifying ordeals on their voyage. Older Brother transforms in a way that seems to confirm his father’s canine nature. Cynanthropy. Starving and emaciated, ‘His body thinned out, the body of a wandering saint, with dried blood encrusted in the hollows of his face, and the cruelty of the world in his belly.’ Brothers becomes an inverted hagiography, a legend of a heroic devil-saint.

Initially more timid than his exuberant younger brother, he gains confidence when isolated. After excruciating experiences with the pig-family who confine him to a dog-kennel, and the transcendent sexual encounter with a grey bitch, he flees and transforms again into a vengeful humanoid beast, with a new-found taste for blood, and a grim resolution to survive whatever the world tests him with.

His growing power and berserker ferocity are signified initially by his wearing the pelt of a drowned dog the boys found washed up on the beach. (There are aspects of Brothers that bring to mind the novel and film My Life as a Dog). This mantle enables him to channel his bestial savagery. When the grey bitch is killed, he takes on her pelt, too: his powers increase. This is White Fang without the sentimentality.

Myths and legends (and other novels) from all times and places resonate throughout the narrative. Apart from ancient Greek epics already alluded to, there are echoes of the Old Testament: the brothers are aptly described early on as ‘children of the valley of Hinnom’ – an alternative name for Gehenna, or Hell. They glimpse other worlds through their father’s imagined eyes:

Worlds of darkness and brutality, untamed worlds, unleashed.

There are flavours of Norse legend. Ravens accompany the older brother in the latter stages of his bloody quest, even appearing to talk to him (or is this part of his hallucination?) and perching on his shoulder, as they did with Odin. The first raven to land on the questing boat is an allusion to the Noah story. As he sails, the brother tells the birds stories of his past:

[B]ut he embellished his tales, telling them the stories his mother had told him, stories in which his younger brother dug tunnels under the hill…a realm of wonders…and sometimes a raven cawed at him in thanks.

When he hunts obsessively for the dark, submarine shape he takes for his father, under ‘the red of a falling sky’, the novel adopts the lyrical weirdness of Moby Dick:

He was getting closer to his dog of a father, like a whale he was going to harpoon…a sharp weapon, forged in steel.

His shape-shifting tendencies are found in shamanic societies from the North American First Nation to eastern Europe and Asia. So is the function of narrative to dramatise creation and growth: it’s a bildungsroman, but Older Brother is a sort of demented Holden Caulfield.

At times it becomes a little muddled. Just what is the Puppet the brothers find washed ashore meant to represent? It becomes a prosthetic arm, a war-weapon and ship’s figurehead, a ‘tribal totem’or Queequeg figure to the Older Brother’s wandering Ishmael; it’s also an obvious Pinocchio substitute. Maybe that’s the point: nothing in the narrative is what it seems.

Such inconsistencies don’t impede the narrative surge. It’s a katabasis story refashioned as surreal folklore, and a classic quest into a dark, nether world, a search for Home and Self and a means of forgetting the past, a demonic redemption song: the brothers (then the Older Brother alone) skirt the shores of their blighted land in their ramshackle boat, endure ordeals and battles that test them beyond endurance. Older Brother undergoes liminal rites that transform him from man to beast and back. Much of the time he’s in a trance-like state; he becomes a seer. Everyone tells tales. Like their mother’s tales, told to her by her mother: ‘songs with a little bit of magic, in a forgotten language – some know the words, but no one knows the meaning.’

His final vision is typically enigmatic, indecipherable, ‘the last rattle of a hallucinated life.’

The novel’s end is the beginning of a new story.

Originally published in French as Frères by Héliotrope in 2013, which won the Grand prix littéraire Archambault the following year, Brothers was translated into lucid, haunting English by the poet Katia Grubisic, and published in 2016 by the independent Quebec subscription imprint QC Fiction, to whom I’m indebted for this review copy.

Excellent reviews by other bloggers:

Tony’s Reading List

Joseph at RoughGhosts who uses a terrific quotation from the text for his title: ‘everything here is dead’…

Stu at Winstonsdad

Asides: ex-votos, curse tablets and voces mysticae

I was given a copy of the Complete Stories of Elizabeth Taylor for Christmas, and was hoping to post about them today. I’m about 3/4 through (it’s over 600 pp) and would prefer to wait until I’ve finished, so this will be an interim post.

Defoe, Tour of BritainI’ve been reading a lot of material for a course I’m teaching about literature and sense of place. My elderly copy of Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the whole island of Great Britain (1727), in its ‘Suggestions for further reading’, cites an essay on the text by Edmund Blunden in Votive Tablets (1931) – which I’ve not managed to find a copy of yet. It’s a collection of his unsigned pieces on English authors published in the TLS, where he was assistant editor in the late 40s.

I vaguely knew what ‘votive tablets’ were, but looked up the term to be sure. Wikipedia defines thus:

votive deposit or votive offering is one or more objects displayed or deposited, without the intention of recovery or use, in a sacred place for broadly religious purposes.

These ‘ex-votos’, as they’re also known, are made in the anticipation or hope of supernatural assistance, such as cure of an illness, or as an offering of thanks when such a wish has been fulfilled. In the Catholic church (and many Anglican ones) the practice of lighting votive candles serves a similar purpose. There are also votive paintings, statues, crowns and so on.

I remember seeing near Paphos in Cyprus a tree by a sacred site that was festooned with ribbons and handkerchiefs left as votive offerings. I used to live near Holywell in N. Wales, and the eponymous well was surrounded by votive offerings, often in the shape of body parts that afflicted the supplicant, or items symbolic of affliction, such as crutches. It was a mini Lourdes.

A related object is the defixio or curse tablet. These were common in the Graeco-Roman world. They were usually tin sheets on which an inscription was scratched wishing misfortune on someone. They could also be used in the hope of restoring stolen property or punishing a thief, as a means of facilitating litigation favourably, or as love spells to speed erotic ambitions. (It’s worth checking the related term ‘anathema’, if you’re interested.)

In pagan use they were addressed to infernal or liminal gods like Hecate, Charon or Pluto.

Voces Mysticae were often found on curse tablets. These were meaningless words from no known language, like Bazagra, Bescu, or Berebescu, seemingly in order to lend them a kind of supernatural efficacy. They came from no known language, and were thought to be the language that only demons could understand. Wikipedia again:

Scholars from antiquity, like Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 CE), believed that human language was not appropriate for addressing the gods. Therefore, some of the inscriptions of these curse tablets are not easily translatable, because they were “invocations and secret names” which would only be understood by the spirits themselves. Another possibility is that curse tablets were produced by professionals who wished to lend their art a degree of mystique through the use of an apparently secret language that only they could understand.

This was thought to be a way to control the natural world.

The very early Ephesia Grammata were similar magic formulae or mantras, possibly originally inscribed on cult images of Artemis at Ephesus.

Their power was believed to reside in their sound rather than meaning. If uttered by people possessed by demons, it was believed they would be exorcised.

Spells, invocations, prayers: the magic power of language. Who says ‘words will never hurt’ like sticks and stones?

Some time ago I posted on apotropaic magic – not verbal, but visual.

People should stay in their own homes. Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train (first published 1926)

 Rose Macaulay (1881- 1958) wrote 23 works of fiction, many of which, like Crewe Train, were light social comedies. Affinities can be seen with many writers of this genre, from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh –  pretty auspicious company. She’s no match for either of them, but at her best comes close.

Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

My Virago Modern Classics edition

There’s little in the way of plot. The protagonist is a 21-year-old woman named Denham – after her mother’s favourite Buckinghamshire village. She’s described on the opening page as ‘a very self-sufficing and independent child’ – which is putting it mildly: she’s one of the ‘barbarians’, ‘philistines’ and ‘unsociable’ to whom the book is dedicated.

Within the first few pages her Anglican clergyman father dies, leaving her an orphan. After his wife died he’d abandoned the church (he found the duties of attending to his congregation tiresome, with ‘never an hour to [himself]’ – easy to see where Denham got her antisocial tendencies from) and escaped English society by hiding in Mallorca, until the expats and tourists (referred to as ‘born invaders’) found him. From there they headed to even remoter Andorra. Denham is left to grow up more or less feral. Like her father she’s ‘selfish, idle, unsociable’, prefers solitude to company, silence to conversation, her dog and other animals to people (and likes maps, inanimate things, physical activities like ‘boating, fishing and walking’).

When he dies there, her mother’s sister, Evelyn, takes her back to her fashionable Chelsea home where poor, gauche Denham becomes ‘a stumbling débutante’. The rest of the novel relates how she resists ‘the higher life’ that Aunt Evelyn tries to force her to adopt, with varying degrees of success. As Jane Emery says in her introduction to my VMC edition:

It is the story of the trapping of a child of nature by sex, love, marriage, social convention, domesticity, pregnancy, and gossip.

Much more than the two Rosamond Lehmann novels I wrote about last, it gives a jaundiced portrayal of that social world and its viciously back-biting, self-absorbed ways.

The plot is inconsequential, and leads to a narrative with some structural flaws and too much repetition. The romantic interest is neither convincing nor particularly interesting, so I’ll focus on that aspect of the novel I enjoyed immensely – the caustic humour. Through tomboy Denham, often described as ignorant and ingenuous as a 12-year-old boy, Macaulay takes delight in skewering the pretensions and hypocrisies of the privileged literary/publishing and upper-middle-class, ‘fussily conformist’ chattering set in London at the time.

Here’s a typical scene of Denham at one of her first formal dinners:

Denham’s aspirations towards the higher life were earnest but fitful, and meals were, for her, off times. She ate stolidly through them, an indifferent Philistine within the gates, gay, informed chatter frothing round her like a play to which she was not listening.

The parents of the literary young man she falls for, Arnold, see her as ‘an untutored savage’.

She converts to Catholicism with stoical boredom, since Arnold expects and wants it. Religion is an area of life to which she is as indifferent as she is to frothy dinner-table chat. Interesting, given that RM was a devout Anglo-Catholic, and had a life-long affair with a former Catholic priest. She doesn’t necessarily expect us to endorse all of Denham’s sociopathic traits, but depicts her as more admirable in her flight from ‘civilisation’ than reprehensible in her uncouth philistinism.

An illustration of this irreverence towards pretentious social cultivation: when Denham visits her paternal aunt, in the far less fashionable role (compared to swanky Aunt Evelyn) of a Torquay dentist’s wife, she’s assured there’s ‘plenty to do’ there at the seaside resort:

‘We have some very bright evenings [says the aunt]. There’s a nice reading circle, too.’

‘A what?’ Denham was apprehensive.

‘A reading circle. You all study some book together, and meet and talk about it.’

‘What for?’

Two final excerpts which I hope encourage you to ignore the fallow parts of this novel and savour the spiky humour in the numerous fertile ones. Arnold publishes a novel. His addition to the fashionable stream-of-consciousness school of writing isn’t openly condemned by the narrator; she simply quotes a piece and leaves us to snort with derision:

‘My religion, all the novelists, is marriage worth while? Love, dove, shove, glove, oh my love I love you so much it hurts, yes marriage is worth while, oh yes, oh yes: oyez all round the town…’ [author’s ellipsis]

 

There were several pages of this.

‘I suppose,’ said Denham doubtfully, ‘Jane did think like that. I suppose she was a little queer in the head.’

‘If you’ll think it over,’ said Arnold, rather vexed, ‘you’ll discover it’s the way we all think.’

Denham thought it over, then shook her head.

‘No, I don’t.’

…’[I]f one tries to follow the maze of one’s thoughts, one finds they’re astonishingly incoherent.’

‘But not like that,’ Denham obstinately maintained. [my ellipsis]

Macaulay doesn’t expect us to accept Denham as a literary-cultural critic, just an unaffected person with a finely tuned bullshit detector with a ‘free and practical spirit’.

Finally, when Arnold’s novel gets mixed reviews, the narrative voices his self-serving attitude:

One’s bad reviews are written by one’s enemies; this is one of the laws of the literary world. It is less fixed a law that the good ones are written by one’s friends.; after all, why shouldn’t an impartial critic admire one’s book? If he should abuse it, he proves himself not impartial, but praise is another matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The real risk: Rosamond Lehmann revisited

Lehmann The Weather in the Streets VMC cover

Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets, Pt 2

Last time I considered why Olivia persists with a lover (I’ll call him X to avoid spoilers) who always places his wife first. She seems passively, unreflectingly to accept this ambivalent position, because she’s in love with him. ‘The Other Woman doesn’t make too many demands’, she thinks at one point.

Later in the novel she’s warned off X by a close relative of his, who’s found out they’re having an affair: ‘Don’t waste yourself’, she’s told…

It’s hard to sympathise with Olivia’s wilful submissiveness. People who commented on the novel after my first post yesterday tended to be put off by this.

Early in the relationship her interior monologue reveals of her view of X that ‘he’s a bit weak and in a muddle…’

Olivia appears able to articulate in her thoughts the harsh reality of this affair: he’s unworthy of her, and she’ll never supplant his beautiful wife. Then she dismisses such thoughts.

When they’ve first consummated the affair, the lover says approvingly:

“You’re the only woman who doesn’t go on about things. You leave people alone. It’s so refreshing.”

That’s how he talks.

This is how she thinks about what he’s said:

I’ve got everything…He’s my lover…It was enough. Enough belongs to me…Perhaps not possessive like some women, I’d think, smug. Congratulating myself, saying: “I don’t think I’ve ever been very jealous. I suppose it’s not my line.”

That smug complacency passes and she suffers pangs of jealousy about his wife. So why does this apparently intelligent, no longer young and innocent woman put up with a man who seems so transparently to be using her, taking advantage of her compliance?

When he gives her an expensive ring for her birthday, she’s able to see that

It said nothing about us, just brilliant, unimpeachable, a public ring, saying only with what degree of luxury he could afford to stamp a woman.

Ouch. Her acceptance of the situation – of his patronising swagger – is bewildering. Then he gives her a less expensive ring, and she’s charmed, he’s redeemed. He always is. He’s charming. And very rich. Used to getting what he wants. He even utters the ultimate cheat’s excuse, when Olivia challenges him about deceiving his wife: ‘What people don’t know about can’t hurt them, can it? I’m not hurting her as long as she doesn’t find out, am I?’

Olivia says she’d feel worried in his position (or does she mean the wife’s?)

‘I do see how difficult it is for you,’ I said, awfully understanding.

That sounds like self-criticism. She is aware of her illogical acceptance of things. Then his reply:

‘Women are dreadful creatures. They will want to have their cake and eat it too. It’s what they call being honest. If my wife had a lover I hope to God she wouldn’t see fit to tell me so. I call this confession and all-above-board business indecent.’

He talks in clichés, his selfishness is breathtaking. So too, surely, is Olivia’s complicity here? Olivia replies:

‘That’s because you’d feel it was such rotten luck for the other chap to be given away’, I said. ‘You’d mind that almost as much as the unfaithfulness. It wouldn’t be cricket…You don’t like women really, do you?’

‘There’s one or two things I quite like about them,’ he said in that beginning voice, kissing my ear. [My emphasis]

So. Homosexuality ripples through this narrative, as it did Invitation, which I wrote about recently HERE. Could it be that these lovers aren’t quite as heterosexual as they appear?

Shortly before this, soon after that first consummation, Olivia had doubts about whether this was love. She thinks of her closest friends, Anna and Simon:

I love Simon; but that’s different again, never to sleep together, that’s certain…All the same, just then I thought: I love Simon, not [X] – thinking I’d done something against Simon somehow…it was mad of course…

So Simon is gay? At least, unattainable. The lovers spend a weekend in Simon’s country cottage with friends:

Colin and [X] hit it off from the word go…

Olivia’s friend Colin is usually melancholy, but with X ‘His face was alight’ as he frolics in the river, diving from X’s shoulders.

Afterwards, dressing, they stood in the sun by a thorn bush, towels around their waists, lighting cigarettes for each other, slipping their shirts vaguely over their roughened heads, their clear, hard, square-breasted chests – deep in talk, not hurrying, forgetting the rest of us.

This looks very like homoerotic flirtation.

Later, X complacently dismisses the news that Colin is a psychoanalyst (analysis is ‘just an excuse for gutlessness’ in his view). He has ‘too much in the brain-pan, I expect, to settle down’. So it’s not Colin’s intellect he’s attracted to. Olivia’s thoughts on this idiocy:

For the first time I realised it’s no use telling him really what people are like. He doesn’t care to inquire…If I weren’t in love with him, would this matter rather? Might I get irritated? Bored?…[Ellipses Lehmann’s]

Then speaking aloud she feigns happiness with him.

So: she isn’t entirely oblivious of the defects in her anti-intellectual, feckless lover. He may or may not be a philanderer, and a little dim. He may not be entirely keen on women. Why does Olivia stick with him? Is she attracted to men who are unable to reciprocate her feelings? Is this her way of escaping commitment to a banal, conventional partnership with a man?

Another possibility: Olivia is an aspiring writer herself. During the course of the novel, especially when the errant lover goes missing with his wife (or slaughtering wildlife in Scotland with equally boorish gentry), Olivia tries to write again. And fails. She can’t finish anything.

Is the lover then a convenient excuse for Olivia not to try to produce any art herself? She lives in a semi-bohemian world in London, with friends who are photographers, artists, writers and left-wing intellectuals. She likes their company. Appears to aspire to an artist’s creativity.

Perhaps she finds safety in this doomed obsession with X, for whom she neglects her writing. He’s therefore a convenient excuse for inactivity. By committing to him, she’s taking the easier, less risky option. OK, she won’t have domestic bliss, children, a constant partner. But neither will she have to confront the baleful truth if she doesn’t really have the talent to be a writer.

Passivity then as the lesser of two evils. X, the risky, self-centred, dim-witted lover, as a kind of emotional/artistic tranquilliser? A substitute for taking the real risk.

Once again I’d commend blogger Heavenali’s take on this and many more of Lehmann’s works HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

A suitable marriage within easy motoring distance

Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets (1936; Virago Modern Classics edition, 1996)

 This novel continues the story of Olivia Curtis, whose first ball at the age of sixteen was the subject of Invitation to the Waltz (1932), about which I wrote recently HERE. Now ten years have passed, Olivia has married a disappointing man named Ivor, and separated from him two years before the novel opens.

Like the earlier novel, there is little in the way of plot — we simply see Olivia enter into a passionate, tumultuous affair with a married man (I’ll try to avoid spoilers).

Lehmann The Weather in the Streets VMC coverThe married lover had also appeared in Invitation. His treatment of Olivia can be generous, chivalrous and romantic, but he also makes it quite clear that he loves his valetudinarian wife, a beauty who had miscarried and therefore forbids sex with him, convinced another pregnancy would kill her. This story looks suspicious when we see how things turn out. The man always places his whimsical wife’s needs first, leaving Olivia in pining solitude much of the time. We never gain insight into the wife’s true identity: all is filtered through what others say, especially her errant husband.

My initial problem with this scenario is that I found the man a selfish cad. He justifies his cavalier treatment of the smitten Olivia by saying he’s never promised her commitment, and that he likes to keep things ‘simple’. This he palpably fails to do.

Olivia, on the other hand, seems to lapse into the role of doormat. She indulges all of her lover’s moods, excuses his absences (and worse), and, if anything, shields him from pain and anguish, even when she’s suffering unspeakable hardship. When she undergoes an emotional and physical crisis, she prioritises his peace of mind at her own emotional (and material) expense.

I found her apparently submissive behaviour irksome at first. But at Bloomsbury Bell, blogger Naomi wrote that she too found this passive role reprehensible in a post-feminist world.

She also raises another possibility, one that I find plausible. Olivia enters into this seemingly doomed, dead-end affair to escape the conventional role expected of women like her. Her more beautiful elder sister, Kate, who we saw in Invitation was admired and envied by Olivia, has married (a man pointedly called ‘Rob’) and produced four children – the domestic life is shown to be draining away all her glamour, vivacity and spirit. The sisters’ roles are reversing.

Early in the novel this is revealed as so often with Lehmann in the free-indirect-discourse modernist style that slides into and out of third- and first-person narrative voices: it’s the moment early on when Olivia is visiting her ailing father. Kate is there at their parents’ house too. The mother sides with Kate, because she is more compliant, saying she’ll drink the soup their mother has made, while Olivia refuses it. Mother says to Kate:

“Yes.” Approval and exasperation struggled in Mrs Curtis’s voice. “You’re a sensible girl, thank goodness.”

As children it was always sensible Olivia who had the ‘big appetite’ and Kate was ‘the fussy one’.

‘“And now I gorge,” said Kate languidly…”It’s motherhood.”

They turn to the merits of women not being ‘scraggy’ or skinny, but ‘nicely covered’ , as Kate now accepts she is (my previous post about Invitation pointed out the focus on desirable female appearance and the importance of looks). But she adds, ominously, that ”as a matter of fact, Rob really prefers them on the skinny side.” Her mother dismisses this ambiguous statement as nonsense: ”Rob has far too much sense.”

Mrs Curtis’s manner conveyed an arch benevolent unperturbed reproach: for Kate, cured of that early tendency to tart defiance…had long since turned out entirely sensible and satisfactory. Kate, bless her, had slipped with no trouble into a suitable marriage within easy motoring distance. As the wife of a young doctor with a good country practice, a solid man, a man with a growing reputation…[but now] they were very cosy, very happy together…[ellipses mine].

The narrative focalises on Mrs Curtis here, taking on her voice (though it’s notable that Lehmann never does this with male characters), slipping into ever more fractured interior monologue:

A comfort, yes, a comfort, now that Olivia…now that [her son] James…phases, we hope; phases, of course…above all, now that [husband] Charles…Saved, but a ruin…I know it…Hush…Pass on. [ellipses in the text]

An unattractive model of the trials for women of married life: is this the kind of fulfilment to aspire to? It’s not surprising Olivia rejects it.

Her own marriage ended in disappointment: Ivor seemed a romantic artistic type, but fell short of her expectations. When she meets up with him again by chance when her affair is in crisis he’s superficially caring and attentive, but spoils it all by suggesting they give it another go – a prospect that appals her. Why turn into Kate, or her mother?

So the lover provides all the sex, companionship and conversation she wants. She’s prepared to forgo the usual benefits of commitment — or even of a true meeting of minds. True, she’s jealous of the languid wife, and longs to have a child of her own, but it’s a price she convinces herself she’s prepared to pay.

As she falls asleep in her parents’ house, in her old room, we are given a Molly Bloom kind of interior monologue. She’d never had a lover before, never tried ‘experiments’,

not because I’m cold, only because of love – because I believe in it, because I thought I’d wait for it, although they said schoolgirlish, neurotic, unfriendly…It was because of you [the lover]. I shall tell him all that. I’ll tell him…He’ll say: I feel the same, it’s worth not spoiling…He’ll say: Darling, I’m so glad…If he were here now…I want him here…[ellipses in the text]

As her thoughts shift to unsatisfactory sexual/emotional experiences with Ivor, they drift off towards the lover and his wife, she longs for his letter:

will it be speaking in his voice; saying darling, saying Olivia darling, will you…

Yes, I’ll say…Yes. Anything you say. Yes. [ellipses in the text].

 

I’m not convinced this entirely represents the kind of compromise/escape Naomi mentions in her blog post, though. This sounds like unadulterated, adulterous romanticism. Olivia is in love with love. Maybe not with the man. This attitude, she reflects dimly, is ‘schoolgirlish’, but also in some ways ‘neurotic’. Why ‘unfriendly’? To the betrayed wife? To potential lovers? Or to herself? As she lapses into sleep her thoughts are significantly ambivalent.

Now I’ve gone on too long. I’ll continue next time with some other suggestions about the intriguing possibilities to be found in this fascinating, subtle novel, and its frank, courageous exploration (portrayal?) of a young woman’s emotional and sexual yearnings and confusions. This is not the simple tale the married lover hoped for. Thank goodness.

 

The cruel mirror of opinion

Rosamond Lehmann, Invitation to the Waltz: Virago Modern Classics, 1981. First published 1932

 A novel about a young woman’s first ball? It’s an audacious premise, but Rosamond Lehmann carries it off with aplomb: my initial reaction is to say it’s in the spirit of Jane Austen, who also manages to take us right into the thoughts and feelings of her young women protagonists, with all their confusion, embarrassments, self-consciousness and wavering self-esteem.

In recent years fellow blogger Ali at her Heavenali site has written about pretty much everything Rosamond Lehmann has written, so I commend you to this post on Invitation

Her review is exemplary, so I shall instead turn to an approach I’ve used before: I’ll focus on Olivia’s clothes, appearances and looks, and how people look at her (and how she looks at herself), and the way they function to point up the drama in the narrative (an idea borrowed from the estimable Moira at her Clothes in Books blog).

Invitation to the WaltzOlivia Curtis wakes on her seventeenth birthday wondering which jumper to wear – the crimson, or the fawn? Her confidence is frail; she’s acutely conscious that elder sister Kate is the family beauty, as the mirror shows her:

She cast a glance at her figure in the long glass; but the image failed her, remained unequivocally familiar and utilitarian.

Earlier she’d been optimistic, determined not to lapse into her usual sense of inadequacy in her appearance – determined to ‘glow’. But the mirror refuses to endorse this mood. Still, she’s starting to experience fitful glimpses reflected there of ‘a new self’, an emerging ‘stranger’ – I’m tempted to call her a dowdy duckling growing into – some kind of swan.

She changes. Looks again in the mirror. Stares into it. More flickering optimism…

But soon the impression collapsed: the urgent expectation diminished flatly…Nothing exciting was going to happen. There was nowhere to go: nobody: nothing to do. In the glass was a rather plain girl with brown hair and eyes, and a figure well grown but neither particularly graceful nor compact…But hope had sprung up, half-suppressed, dubious, irrational, as if a dream had left a sense of prophecy…Am I not to be ugly after all?

There it is: as the narrative drops into Olivia’s first-person voice she lets slip that unflattering adjective, negates it (after those adolescent, truculent complaints), hoping to face down her mirror’s effrontery.

This is good writing, and although I’m a man I can feel Olivia’s fierce desire to look mature, attractive and sophisticated, and her disappointment that her looks aren’t yet fully developed.

The theme of Olivia’s appearance is epitomised by the birthday present she receives at breakfast from her parents: ‘a roll of flame-coloured silk’ from which she’ll have her ball gown made. Her pleasure is deflated by her sister:

‘Yes, I chose it,’ said Kate languidly. Her taste was law. ‘What’s the good of putting Olivia into girlish shades? She’d only look sallow and ghastly.’

When the inept village seamstress, Miss Robinson, completes the dress, however, it’s an unflattering botched job. Once again it’s her sister who delivers the brutal truth:

‘Here. You’ve got it twisted.’ She gave a few sharp twitches to the waist and skirt…’It looks all right. Very nice.’

Her lie is transparent, and Olivia’s grief and humiliation are palpable:

But it was not so…Uneven hem; armholes too tight; and the draping – when Olivia looked at the clumsy lumpish pointless draping a terrible boiling-up, a painful constriction from chest to forehead started to scorch and suffocate her.

‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere…I won’t go looking like a freak. I must simply rip it off and burn it and not go to the dance, that’s all.’

But then Kate points out she’s wearing it back to front. She turns it round:

It was not so bad. It dipped at the back, and there was a queer place in the waist where, owing to a mistake in the cutting, Miss Robinson had had, in her own words, to contrive it. But still, but still…if one didn’t look too closely, it was all right. Certainly the colour was becoming.

Olivia no longer feels a ‘caricature’ of ‘a young girl dressed for her first dance’, and ‘able again to compete with and appreciate others’. Then she looks at Kate, who truly does look lovely, and the doubts return. Kate is hardly propitiatory:

Side by side they stood and looked at their reflections. After a bit Kate said:

‘Thank heaven, anyway, we don’t look alike.’ Olivia ventured:

‘We set each other off really rather well, don’t you think?’ She thought, The younger girl, with her gypsy colouring, afforded a rich foil to her sister’s fair beauty.

The final third of the novel consists largely of dialogue with dance partners and other guests as Olivia’s humiliations continue: the young men are prigs and cads, selfish and heartless; her sister’s betrayals accumulate. But a chance encounter in the garden, where she’d fled the ghastly crowd of privileged, drunken rich boys, with Rollo Spencer, eldest son of the hosts, and then with his kind-hearted father, reveals to her what ‘real people’ are like: not obsessed with themselves and surface appearances.

This is her epiphany: it’s not what the cruel mirror of opinion reflects that counts; it’s ‘kindness, tolerance, courtesy, family pride and affection.’

I’ve started the sequel to this novel, The Weather in the Streets, and hope to write about it at some point soon.

 

 

A descent from Kyoto into hell

Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

I first encountered the work of Ryunosuke Akutagawa as an undergraduate at Bristol University. I used to go every week to see a subtitled foreign film, put on I think by the film studies department. This was my introduction to world cinema.

The first sequence of films I saw included some classics of Japanese cinema, mostly by the brilliant director Akira Kurosawa.

One of the first of these films – and one that impressed me so much I can still play back key scenes in my mind decades later – was ‘Rashomon’. It was much later that I learned it was based on two stories by Akugatawa. These are the first in the Penguin Classics collection: Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories.

Akutagawa cover ‘Rashomon’, the first of these, is based on a 12th-century tale, and was first published in 1915 when Akutagawa was a 23-year-old student. It’s set in the crumbling gatehouse at the southern entrance to Kyoto and the avenue leading to the imperial palace during the dying days of the Heian period. The tale is set at the decaying end of the era, and the once-magnificent gate is in ruins. Only the scruffy servant, who has a weird encounter among the corpses that are abandoned in the roof chamber, survives in the film, which preserves the rain-soaked setting but not the dark, cynical tale itself.

‘In a Bamboo Grove’, the second story, provides the main influence on Kurosawa’s 1950 film, which is also told from multiple points of view, each of them adding a twist, and warping the reader’s perspective of ‘reality’. None of the conflicting accounts is entirely reliable, and all are cynically self-serving.

The other four in this group of early Akutagawa stories, grouped under the heading ‘A World in Decay’ by the translator, Jay Rubin, are also re-tellings of medieval Japanese folktales. The best is ‘Hell Screen’, about an artist’s Faustian obsession with creating the perfect representation of reality in his work.

The second section, ‘Under the Sword’, begins with two stories set in the early seventeenth century, when the Tokugawa government began to change its policy of tolerance towards the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who’d begun arriving in Japan in 1549. Like Martin Scorsese’s new film, ‘Silence’, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo (which was also filmed in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda in Japanese), ‘O-Gin’ portrays the regime’s increasingly violent persecution of Christians.

Portrait of the young Akutagawa

Portrait of the young Akutagawa via WikiMedia Commons

Akutagawa’s stories are dominated by the moral and cultural convulsions he and his country were experiencing as a result of the modernising, westernising tendencies of the early twentieth century in Japan.

The final group is called ‘Akutagawa’s Own Story’. These stories were written in the period of increasing mental instability (he feared that he would inherit his late mother’s madness) that culminated in his untimely suicide at the age of thirty-five.

Here Akutagawa changed his literary approach dramatically. It’s a series of fragmentary cathartic semi-autobiographical narratives, scrupulously depicting mundane, even trivial surroundings and a protagonist-narrator whose world and sanity, like his narrative, is fragmenting and distorting like a nightmare Expressionist montage film sequence. The technique and neurotic, introspective content are familiar to any reader of the angst-ridden works by the likes of Knut Hamsun, Dostoevsky, Strindberg (both of whom have works mentioned in the final story) and Kafka.

‘The Life of a Stupid Man’, the penultimate story, contains 51 loosely linked fragments. Section 49, “A Stuffed Swan”, ends with these chillingly reflexive words:

Once he had finished writing “The Life of a Stupid Man”, he happened to see a stuffed swan in a secondhand shop. It stood with its head held high, but its wings were yellowed and moth-eaten. As he thought about his life, he felt both tears and mockery welling up inside him. All that lay before him was madness or suicide. He walked down the darkening street alone, determined now to wait for the destiny that would come to annihilate him.

The final story, ‘Spinning Gears’, which was first published posthumously, shows this disintegrating persona finally descending into hell. It’s deeply disturbing, as the narrator struggles to write while tormented by visions of his dead mother, and terrifying hallucinations of the eponymous spinning gears. The fifth of its six sections begins, with characteristic bleakness:

Now the light of the sun became a source of agony for me. A mole indeed, I lowered the blinds and kept electric lights burning as I forged on with my story.

The narrator flees from a bar, where he’d drunk a whiskey to try to ease his malaise, and feels the desire, ‘like Raskolnikov’, to confess ‘everything [he] had done.’ His nerves are in tatters. The desolate ending leaves the reader feeling much the same.

This is an uneven collection: as Haruki Murakami says in his introduction, the best stories are outstandingly good. The less successful ones are still worth a look.

And if you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, I’d urge you to seek one out. Then read these stories.

Grant Rintoul wrote a fine post on Akutagawa’s story ‘Hell Screen’ recently as part of his story-a-day-for-Advent project at his 1stReading’s blog: link HERE

Asides: marrying upwards

Some years ago I read Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Faber, 2004). His argument was that ‘small talk’ or gossip plays a similarly important role in human social groups as grooming does in those of primates: it facilitates social cohesion and mitigates conflict.

Because we came to live in larger groups – up to 150 – than apes and monkeys, grooming became an impossibly time-consuming task for that social function. For this reason social talk evolved. Far from being trivial, it therefore fulfils a vital role in human interaction; it’s what linguists call phatic talk. People who are no good at it are often seen as outcast or sociopathic.

While leafing through Dunbar’s book again recently I came across a word I’d highlighted: HYPERGAMY. Here’s the OED online definition:

Cultural Anthropol.

 A term first used by W. Coldstream, to denote the custom which forbids the marriage of a woman into a group of lower standing than her own; also transf., of any marriage with a partner of higher social standing.

It derives from the Greek elements ‘hyper-‘ (over, beyond or above) + ‘gamy’ – pertaining to marriage. In Byzantine Greek the word signified ‘a late marriage’.

In social groups it’s therefore a key concept. Novels, especially from the 18th and 19th centuries, are full of marriages of this kind; the first that I recall is one I wrote about here last summer: George Gissing’s New Grub Street. Emma Bovary is maybe another case, although she is perhaps more of an aspiring or thwarted hypergamist.

Much of the plot element in Jane Austen’s work involves the pressure on women to marry in an upwardly social sense.

A related term is ISOGAMY: marrying one’s social equal.

Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode

Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode, scene 1: Settlement

William Hogarth’s celebrated sequence of six paintings made 1743-45, ‘Marriage à la Mode’, satirically represents the disastrous arranged marriage between the bankrupt Earl of Squanderfield’s son and the daughter of a wealthy but miserly city merchant. Here’s the Wikipedia account of the narrative in this first scene:

 

Construction on the Earl’s new mansion, visible through the window, has stopped and a usurer negotiates payment for further construction at the center table. The gouty Earl proudly points to a picture of his family tree, rising from William, Duke of Normandy. The son views himself in the mirror, showing where his interests in the matter lie. The distraught merchant’s daughter is consoled by the lawyer Silvertongue while polishing her wedding ring. Even the faces on the walls appear to have misgivings. Two dogs chained to each other in the corner mirror the situation of the young couple.

Not surprisingly, the marriage fails from the start. The young husband is serially adulterous and catches syphilis from his consorting with prostitutes. His wife is as disenchanted with him as he is with her, and has affairs of her own. After the Earl’s death this son, the new Earl, catches his wife in flagrante, and is fatally wounded by her lover, the lawyer. The husband dies, the lawyer is hanged for his murder, and the wife poisons herself.

That’s hypergamy for you.

B.L.Z. Bubb meets Santa: Claus & Claws

Alexander Bell: Claus & Claws: A Christmas Tale (Kindle, 2016)

Claus and ClawsOne summer’s day Santa Claus is hoeing his garden, feeling hot in his red suit, ‘but he had to keep up appearances’. Thus begins this charming retelling of the Santa Claus story, with a hint of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol but with a more steely, less sentimental glint in its eye – more like Wall Street in fact.

After hitting his head in the vegetable plot, Santa undergoes a personality change – he develops a taste for Coke and fast food, and starts to be bossy and overbearing with the genial elves, who are bewildered by his new manner. Rudolf faces an uncertain future.

I shan’t say too much more about the plot, except that Santa’s new friend, Nick Claws, has a particularly sinister, Machiavellian air (hint to children: speak aloud his alias, ‘B.L.Z. Bubb’ with an American ‘zee’). Dastardly Nick encourages his polar friend to adopt an entrepreneurial approach to the usual task of delivering presents to the children of the world. He outsources gifts to a tacky, cheap Chinese outfit. He sacks the elves and reindeer. They won’t even be delivered on the night before Christmas. A new callousness has taken over.

Drastic action has to be taken to save the situation.

This story will delight children of most ages: my ten-year-old grandson loved it – he didn’t get the ‘Nick’ references, but this didn’t seem to spoil his pleasure. Adults will enjoy the gleeful satire on the commercialisation and rampant consumerism of Christmas. I write this after the now annual madness in the UK of a US-style ‘Black Friday’ that seems to last a fortnight.

According to his profile on the Amazon Kindle site, where this e-book is available, Alex Bell has spent many years in marketing: it shows. This story skewers the amorality of corporate practice with wicked glee.

Claus & Claus has some good jokes, too (like Nick’s being described during an excruciating corporate golf match as being a ‘demon’ on the course – how could grandson not get that?! ) It only flags occasionally, and would make an excellent filler of virtual stockings. It’s just long enough at the equivalent of 112 pages to deliver its Scroogean message.

The Empress penguin of the South Pole is delightful: she and her fellow penguins manage to make just standing around on the ice look purposeful. She’s the one who has the vision to perceive what Nick Claws is plotting, using Santa as his dupe: Christmas, she realises, will cause ‘nothing but unhappiness’:

“Santa will be held responsible and his name will be reviled throughout the globe. The custom will quickly die out and cease to exist. There will be nothing to bring joy and happiness in the mid-winter when people need it most, no moment for people to consider their fellows and extend towards them love and humanity.”

Interesting to reflect that this was written before the American presidential election result…

A salutary story for us all.

PS Dec 12: Alex informs me this is now available as a paperback at Amazon.