Recent Reading: Between Laughter and Tears

Book-TrioThe books I read this week were all balanced on an emotional knife edge, mostly between being funny and being mournful but also, in the case of Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, between being funny and being awful. They all kept me engaged, but in the end it wasn’t a particularly nourishing stretch of reading, by which I mean they all left me feeling a little smaller and sadder than before, a result which is less about content or story (because of course a tragic book can, paradoxically, be very exhilarating to read) but about mood and tone.

hoteldulacThe first of them, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, was a reread, though after such a long gap (I first read it in 2009) that many of its details felt new to me. When I commented on it here before, I described it  as 

fundamentally about the relationship a woman has with herself, and how that relationship is compromised and challenged by the sexual politics–the distribution of power, including physical and economic but also social and cultural power–of her world.

That still seems right to me, as does my comment that it is a novel very much rendered in shades of grey. Like all the Brookner I’ve read, Hotel du Lac is a fine, small, meticulous novel. It also lives up to its own metafictional comments about literature being written “for the tortoise market.” “Hares have no time to read,” exclaims its romance novelist heroine Edith Hope (ironically named); “they are too busy winning the game.” But is the game worth playing? That turns out to be the question Hotel du Lac explores, and, for Edith at least, its answer is both honest and melancholy.

huth-invitationAngela Huth’s Invitation to the Married Life was another reread, though I read it so long ago that I never even blogged about it—so, before 2007. That it—and several of Huth’s other novels—have survived the routine purges I do of my bookshelves is a sign of how much I liked them, especially Easy Silence (which has the distinction of having also delighted my husband, a highly selective novel reader). I enjoyed Invitation to the Married Life just fine this time, though it felt more familiar to me as a type this time, the kind of book I have since read in many iterations by writers such as Joan Silber or Tessa Hadley or Penelope Lively. It’s a particularly insightful novel about the relationship between marriage and privacy: no matter how many hours a day or years of a life two people share, they still have their own individual existences, their own versions of what is happening. Whether the result is affection or alienation, tolerance or friction, depends on the people they are and the choices they make. Does it matter, or help, if they are completely open with each other? Huth suggests not: that sometimes it is better to keep what you think (or what you do when your spouse isn’t looking) to yourself. This doesn’t come across as cynical: in fact, though Huth’s characters behave in ways that range from the comical to the crude, there’s an implicit tenderness in her treatment of them. That said, the novel as a whole felt quirky but narrow, made up of slices of privileged and self-involved lives.

mitfordI hadn’t read Love in a Cold Climate before. A few years back I read The Pursuit of Love, which I described as “the saddest comic novel I’ve ever read.” I expected more of the same from the sequel but instead I found it not so much sad as creepy. In his introduction, Alan Cumming compares it to “a delicious cake” which “melts in the mouth, but … can also make one a little queasy.” I agree, but unlike Cumming I was not won over, “left,” as he rather unpleasantly puts it, “gagging for another slice.” In fact by the end of the novel I was sorry that my book club has chosen Mitford’s The Blessing to read next—I hope it is a better experience.

To be fair, I did laugh many times reading Love in a Cold Climate, though the parts I found funniest were the bits about Nova Scotia, source of the replacement heir called in after the shocking marriage of young Polly Hampton with her creepy uncle “Boy” Dougdale causes her father to cut her off. Cedric certainly fits the genealogical bill, “but what of Nova Scotia?”

An atlas, hastily consulted, showed it to be horribly marine. ‘A transatlantic Isle of Wight’ as Linda put it. ‘No thanks.’ Sea breezes, in so far as they are good for the complexion, were regarded by us as a means and not an end, for at that time it was our idea to live in capital cities and go to the Opera alight with diamonds, ‘Who is that lovely woman?’ and Nova Scotia was clearly not a suitable venue for such doings.

No indeed! And then when Cedric’s family turns out to have moved away from Annapolis,

Now fancy moving, in Canada. You’d think one place there would be exactly the same as another, wouldn’t you? Sheer waste of money, you’d think.

Ha ha: how adroitly Mitford shows off and skewers the colonial self-importance of her players, a theme that runs through the novel right from her first account of the return of Polly’s parents from India, where they had gone off “to govern.”

As Cumming notes, our narrator Fanny belongs to the same world the novel satirizes; it can be a bit slippery, then, figuring out how much to criticize Love in a Cold Climate itself, rather than the characters (including Fanny) for the elements of it that I found cringe-inducing. This includes the portrayal of Cedric, described at one point, albeit from the indirect point of view of some crusty conservative neighbors, as an “awful effeminate pansy.” Perhaps it is just the Boreleys who are homophobic—Cedric’s flamboyance is the stuff of stereotypes but he is popular with most of the other characters, provokes the unexpected (to her) word “touching” from Fanny by way of Lady Montdore’s affection for him, and gets a happy ending. I don’t think we’re supposed to laugh at him, or not, at least, any more than we do at the rest of them. Maybe.

mitford-2Even if we resolve that question in the novel’s favor, what should we make of the treatment of Boy Dougdale, also known as “the Lecherous Lecturer” because he preys on young girls? I say “preys” but, though most people in the book profess to find his conduct shocking, they also find it hilarious and they certainly don’t find it criminal. In fact, when Polly decides to marry him, everyone blames him, not for having sexually assaulted her when she was just fourteen, but for his having done “all those dreadful things” to her so that “now what she really wants most in the world is to roll and roll and roll about with him in a double bed.” Some of his acquaintances feel sorry for him being drawn into such an odd marriage, though there are some notes of judgment: “Pity him indeed! All he had to do was to leave little girls alone,” says Aunt Sadie, to which Uncle Davey replies “It’s a heavy price to pay for a bit of cuddling.” Later, after visiting Boy and Polly in Sicily, where they live in scandal-driven exile, Davey says

Well, all I can say is I know it is wrong, not right, to arouse the sexual instincts of little girls so that they fall madly in love with you, but the fact is, poor old Boy is taking a fearful punishment.

Notice that he does not say that it is “wrong, not right,” to do anything sexual with “little girls” at all! Again, it’s possible to include this in the catalogue of shocking attitudes the novel itself is making fun of, but Polly was fourteen when Boy “aroused” her and the consensus seems to be that the real victim in all of this is him, now stuck with living up to the sexual expectations he carelessly created.

There are other nasty bits that are easier to attribute to Mitford’s satirical purposes, such as the utterly callous reactions of both Polly and her mother to the death of Polly’s baby: “I expect it was just as well,” says Lady Montdore, “children are such an awful expense, nowadays.” The attending Sister “put her hand to her heart and nearly fainted,” so here at least we get a clear sign that the fault is with the “whole outlook on life” that the novel so wittily exposes. (But still, what a thing to get a laugh about!) I would have liked the novel better if there were more of this sort of moral clarity—but even then I don’t think I would have liked it very much.

Angela Huth, Wanting

huthI thoroughly enjoyed the first Angela Huth novels I read, Easy Silence and Invitation to the Married Life, so I’m always on the lookout for her other novels. Last year I picked up Land Girls, which I also enjoyed, though it didn’t have quite the mordant wit that characterized Easy Silences especially. Last weekend, in honour of “Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day,” Maddie and I were in the Jade *W* (where I inevitably find two or three or four or [sigh] five books I can’t resist) and this time I happily discovered Wanting and Of Love and Slaughter, which means I now have about half of her oeuvre (at least of novels). In the morbid state of mind inevitably brought on by end of term chores (marking! calculating grades! invigilating exams!)–and made worse this year by the evil virus I have yet to shake off–I thought a little dark humour would be just right, so I chose Wanting for my leisure reading. I hoped it would cheer me up without being too cheerful.

It didn’t quite work out that way: Wanting turns out to be just as dark and twisty as Easy Silence but without the same charm. Somehow, the husband foolishly besotted with another woman in Easy Silence is much funnier trying to knock off his unsuspecting wife (“Over you go!”) than Harry Antlers is in pursuit of of the unwilling object of his affection. I would say that stalking just isn’t funny, and that’s the difference, except that of course murder is also completely serious. Perhaps it’s Harry’s own utter lack of charm: he’s just brutish and obsessive and repulsive, and when he menaces poor Viola with the jagged edge of a broken milk bottle, the absurdity of the situation seemed overwhelmed by its gruesome possibilities.

Maybe Huth wasn’t really trying to make us laugh this time, at least not with Harry. It’s true that among the array of other characters are some with winsome eccentricity. There’s Alfred Baxter, for instance, and his girls–about whom I won’t give be too specific, as they provide some of the more surreally delightful (if also depressing) moments in the novel. Their seaside picnic, for instance, is a lovely touch, though I have no idea whether it is meant to have any particular thematic resonance. I expected the girls to reappear somehow in the denouement; that they didn’t–that in fact there was not really any great coming together of the novel’s various strands–was part of my disappointment. Ian McEwan (who kept coming to mind, perhaps because this book is a gentle cousin to Enduring Love) would have made something more of those girls. I suppose they are the most elusive examples of unfulfilled love, literally representing something Alfred and his wife want but can’t have. Harry wants Viola, Viola wants Richard, who wanted the wrong woman; Gideon has to discover what he wants, Maisie finally gets what she wanted. Remarkably, Hannah wants Harry, at least for a while, and then he turns his wanting on her, and so it continues. Huth is an excellent storyteller. She has the knack of saying just enough–and having her characters say just enough:

She met his eye. Her corn-coloured hair, full of green shadows from the sky, clouded the contours of her innocent face. Harry rapidly sifted through the next lines that came to him: You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever met, Viola Windrush, and I love you entirely. Come away with me now, for ever. Please just have dinner with me.

‘Bitch,’ he said.

The word hit Viola between the eyes, a well-aimed bullet.

You’re left with the impression that wanting of one sort or another drives most people, but not necessarily forward. Huth doesn’t seem interested in probing too deeply, though, into the mysteries of desire. In this novel at least, it seems erratic, irrational, sometimes invigorating, but more often haunting or threatening–not always literally, but that lurking possibility that love shades into mania gives Wanting (and Easy Silence, now that I think about it) its dark undercurrent.