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.

“That Was Her Tragedy”: Anita Brookner, Dolly

dollyNobody loved Dolly; that was her tragedy. Nobody even liked her very much, and she knew that too. She was accepted as a friend by women inferior to herself because she was vigorous and clever, because she entertained and fed them, because she sorted out their affairs, and listened with every appearance of interest to their feeble gossip. Unnerved and enervated by years of this company she had succumbed to the first man to make a show of virility in her presence, and thus, like any victim, had cast herself under his spell. And he had partly compensated her for many humiliations by allowing her to reassert her right to be a normal woman, with a normal woman’s expectations, love, certainly, even marriage.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Anita Brookner’s Dolly. I didn’t like it that much as I was reading it, but it kept me interested and has left me puzzling over it, which is perhaps a sign that there is something to it. Well, it’s by Anita Brookner, so of course there’s something to it, and part of that is her trademark fineness of attention–to character, to social nuance, and to the potential for pathos, especially in women’s lives.

Though everyone in the novel is drawn with scrupulous detail, most of her attention in this case goes to the eponymous Dolly, who is shown to us through the eyes of her often skeptical, even hostile, niece Jane. To Jane, Dolly is at once repellent and magnetic. Where Jane is pale, reserved, and solitary, Dolly is intense, charismatic, and hungry for company, especially male company. Widowed by the death of Jane’s uncle Hugo, Dolly becomes parasitic on his well-to-do family, living off an allowance that Jane herself ultimately, after her parents’ deaths, takes over. Jane is not exactly resentful of Dolly’s willed dependence: in fact, much of the novel is spent explaining Dolly to us–her personality, her upbringing, her relationships– in such a way that it seems impossible, perhaps even unjust, to expect anything else of her. When Dolly takes up with the handsome but slightly sleazy Harry, Jane hopes he will marry her: dolly-2

for she was in many ways an old-fashioned woman, apt to hang on a man’s words, brought up in any case to flatter, to placate, to cajole, as if this were a profession in itself, as it must have been before women worked and earned their own money … Not only was it of prime importance to a woman like Dolly to have a man of her own, but that same man, if he were willing … would, in marrying her, confer on her a status which she had not enjoyed for many years.

Dolly, in other words, is a woman of a different generation, one defined by the narrow gender norms of an earlier time. I think one of Brookner’s goals in the novel is to trace how these norms have changed and what that means for allegiances between women now divided by conflicting values and expectations. In the last chapters especially, when Jane is a successful children’s author often invited to give talks to academics, she becomes almost defensive on Dolly’s behalf, as if mentally warding off contemporary criticisms of her type.

But this is where things get complicated, and also, for me, problematic. Jane herself has an ambivalent relationship to feminism:

I find them exhausting, these women of goodwill, with their agenda of wrongs to be righted, of injustices to be eliminated. I want to stand still in the dusk and contemplate the lake, seeing only mist, hearing only a brief ripple where the wing of a bird disturbs the surface of the water, but I must respond intelligently, employ a certain kind of feminised argument, feel myself to be the victim of a monstrous wrong which has been passed down to me from generation to generation.

This wish to be free of politics is itself, of course, highly political and also a symptom of Jane’s class privilege: though she has worked, for one thing, she never had to. She notes that her feminist interlocutors seem disappointed that she replies to inquiries about her “experience in the workplace” by saying she was “never happier” and never experienced any discrimination, but to her this is more a symptom of their determination to be aggrieved than of her own statistically anomalous good fortune. She is self-conscious about the advantages of her private wealth but does not seem to see how this might make her individual experience an unreliable measure of systemic problems.

Not least because these discussions appear so  late in the novel and are not (that I noticed) convincingly anticipated, they felt to me like Brookner having her say, about feminism and academia, rather than developing something essential to Jane’s character or story. “Who really benefits,” she has Jane wonder,

from studies in re-reading gender in 1950s melodrama, or women’s revolutionary fiction in Depression America? Is there any chance that a feminist theory of the state will ever be taken seriously? Must we campaign for surrogate motherhood? Or review the legal representations of lesbians in cases of discrimination by employers?

These works pour out from university presses, and are produced by the most excellent of women, many of whom have welcomed me with great cordiality. I appreciate them for their fervour and their courage. And yet a doubt creeps in. I do not want to fight. I want, rather, to explore the world without prejudice, and to be allowed a measure of lenity in my dealings with the world. Sometimes I even long to take the coward’s way out and to live my life without benefit of any sort of agenda …

The assumption that ignoring “the legal representations of lesbians in cases of discrimination by employers” is “without prejudice,” that feminist analysis is an “agenda” that can be done without–these are not neutral statements, and neither is the model of female identity Jane claims to have rejected but says “opens doors on to older simpler longings, regrettable, no doubt, even deplorable,” but compelling to her nonetheless.

dolly-3This is the model of Dolly: “Charm, Jane, charm!” Jane, or the novel, acknowledges that Dolly’s way of life has been discredited by feminism, but the idea sometimes seems to be that those “older simpler longings” are natural, essential, defining, not just of Dolly but of what women need and want. “I now understand,” Jane explains, reflecting on her own reactions to Dolly’s choices,

that what I wanted to be was not independent, but its very opposite: dependent. I now understood–but of course did not at the time–that Dolly and I had something in common, an age-old ache that may have been no more and no less than a longing to be taken in, to be appropriated, to be endowed with someone’s worldly good whosoever they might be, for in that extremity of longing it might hardly matter. But I was young then, and unfeeling, as they all thought, and so, although I was not shocked by Dolly’s behaviour I was sincerely disapproving.

Jane’s own choices do not win her uncompromised happiness. “Self-sufficient as I am,” she says, “I too feel a longing which I am reluctant to ascribe to the feminine condition alone.” When her friend asserts “personhood” as the most important goal, not being identified as “a wife or mother,” Jane finds this answer pat, “it has an obstinate sound, as if in keeping with the agenda.” The trajectory of the novel is not towards understanding Dolly as a product, even to some extent a victim, of a world that gave a woman with her resources and will to power few options or resources. It seemed to me to move towards criticizing the modern rejection of the values Dolly lives by, the kind of power she exercises, and the ends to which she dedicates her life. Instead of Jane historicizing her own modern judgment, that is (something I struggle sometimes to get my students to do when they discuss the heroines of 19th-century novels), Jane seems to see Dolly as embodying “true” femininity, an essentialized version of womanhood characterized by an “age-old” desire to be dependent, even dominated. There is something touching in the evolution of Jane’s feelings for Dolly, but the love she finally feels for her is explicitly in defiance of her “feminist friends,” who she says “would not recognise the woman I become in Dolly’s presence.”

It’s Jane’s unlikely love we are supposed to be inspired by, but for me Jane’s insistence on setting it up in opposition to feminism was both unconvincing and unappealing. I think it also impeded a genuinely sympathetic portrait of Dolly  herself: at first unattractive as a predatory type, by the end she is standing in for a theory of “what women want”–normal women, as Jane says in my epigraph–that I just can’t like or accept. As a result, Dolly is my least favorite Brookner novel to date.

“A Nonentity”: Anita Brookner, Providence

I must grow up, she thought. I must stop being so humble. I can make decisions and initiate actions like anyone else. I am not stupid. I am not poor. If I want to do something I do not have to wait for permission. I am old enough to make up my own mind. . . . But I must act, she thought. I am a total bore as I am. A nonentity. Not even a pawn in the game.

I found Anita Brookner’s Providence both claustrophobic and irritating. It is deliberately so, I think, if I am right to read it as recreating (though on somewhat different terms) Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, which Brookner’s protagonist Kitty Maule is teaching over the course of the novel. I had never heard of Adolphe before beginning Providence, but based on the discussions in Kitty’s tutorial and what I found when I looked it up online, it is (basically) the story of a young man emotionally debilitated by his love for an older woman, told with minute attention to his erratic feelings. Kitty, in her turn, is unable to live her own life with real confidence or commitment because of her preoccupation with her dashing older colleague Maurice.

Kitty thinks about Maurice incessantly when they are apart and watches him constantly when he is nearby. She longs for clarity in their relationship, for proof that her adoration is reciprocated. Her pain can be poignant, but her hero-worship is where things get annoying, especially because we aren’t left in any doubt that Maurice doesn’t really deserve it, or her. “His brilliance and ease,” as Kitty sees him,

his seeming physical invulnerability, the elevated character of his decisions, the distances he covered, his power of choice and strength of resolve, cast him in the guise of the unfettered man, the mythic hero, the deliverer. For the woman whom Maurice would deliver would be saved for ever from the fate of that grim daughter, whose bare white legs and dull shoes, designed perhaps from some antediluvian hike or ramble, continued to register in Kitty’s mind’s eye. Maurice’s choice would be spared the humiliations that lie in wait for the unclaimed woman. She would have a life of splendour, raising sons. Ah! thought Kitty with anguish, the white wedding, the flowers. How can it be me? How could it be me?

Maurice is indeed a kind of mythic creature, though more in an anti-heroic vein hinted at through Kitty’s work on the “Romantic Tradition”: in wrestling with her yearning for him, I think Kitty is also  struggling with ideas about heroism and romance and love and arrogant egotism, in keeping with the metatextual interplay with Adolphe–though because I don’t know Adolphe at all, I can’t really go further in figuring that out. On those grounds, however, I am prepared to be more tolerant of Kitty than I would be if the novel were just a character study.

Even so, I found Kitty’s difficulty declaring herself, or just being herself, frustrating. I also struggled to figure out how Brookner means to position us in relation to Kitty. Sometimes I thought Kitty was sympathetic: Brookner is very good at evoking the pangs of uncertain longing, the hypersensitivity to every nuance of speech or body language that comes with wondering how someone else feels. Kitty’s loneliness is also very poignant, and makes her dreams of happiness with Maurice something more than just a sentimental crush.

But why must it be marriage, much less marriage to Maurice, that she dreams of? Over and over we –and Kitty–get signs that she has strengths of her own, including her academic work, her teaching, her friendships. In that context her fixation on Maurice as her savior seems like a failing (especially, again, because Maurice is not really worth much). Is she the victim of the fairy tale story of female success, unable to accept her life on terms beside “the white wedding, the flowers”? Or is the novel perhaps the story of her gradually growing out of that delusion, taking control of her life rather than hoping, watching, and waiting? That is certainly what Kitty keeps telling herself: that now she is going to take charge, make a change, turn things around. Right up to the last page, though, she’s still more acted upon than acting, letting life be fitted against her like the dresses her seamstress grandmother makes for her that are never quite what Kitty really wants or feels comfortable in.

The novel’s title hints at a thematic reason for Kitty’s irresolution, though I’m not sure how to work out the pattern. Maurice is religious, while Kitty is not; at least in theory, she believes herself mistress of her own fate, but she has difficulty committing herself to the lack of extrinsic purpose or design. In her anxiety about her future, for instance, she visits a clairvoyant, hoping to know the future that (again, in theory) she is responsible for shaping. She believes that “the key to Maurice was his belief in the divine will”–but “in her own soul she found nothing.” She does not, in the end, win Maurice: does this failure reflect on her faithlessness, or is it a lesson for her and for us about not trusting to Providence if we hope not to be nonentities?

“Endurance”: Anita Brookner, Strangers


That was one of the dubious endowments of ageing, a conviction that one’s desires had not been met, that there was in fact no reward, and that the way ahead was simply one of endurance.

Anita Brookner’s Strangers is a quietly ruthless dissection of the discomforts and disquietude of growing old alone. Its protagonist, Paul Sturgis, is a nice man in his early seventies — “too nice,” he remembers an old girlfriend telling him dismissively, breaking up with him. Retired, solitary, undemanding, he lives a life, not exactly of quiet desperation, but of unrelieved introspection and almost no pleasure. He has money and a flat of his own, but he finds no fulfillment in his solitary walks, his visits to the library, his reading, or the one family connection he still has when the novel begins — his late cousin’s wife, to whom he makes ritual Sunday visits with no great rewards on either side, until her unattended death completes his isolation and gives him a painful glimpse of his own likely future.

Paul’s life feels insubstantial to him:

It seemed to him a terrible thing to live without witnesses, as if he had failed to make good the inevitable deficiencies of both past and present, had never created a family of his own, so that he was haunted by a feeling of invisibility, as if he were a mere spectator of his own, his only life, with no one to identify him, let alone with him, in the barren circumstances of the here and now.

What is there, what can he do, that will infuse meaning into his day-to-day existence? Once, the routine of work kept such questions at bay, and there was occasional travel, and friends, including girlfriends. None of this has lasted, though, or had any lasting effect. Paul thinks the answer might lie  in connections with other people, and in another novel, that would be the answer, and the relationships that develop across the second half of the novel would restore him, and thus us, to happiness and hope.

“But not so,” as Hardy says — and in fact there is something faintly Hardy-esque about the unremitting bleakness of Strangers, though Paul’s suffering never rises to the morally grandiose level of Jude’s. Paul’s solitude is impinged on, first by the willful and energetic divorcée Vicky Gardner and then by his old girlfriend Sarah, herself now also aged and alone. Both prove unsatisfactory companions, though, and their contradictory needs and demands stir Paul to selfishness rather than sympathy, to a restless if inchoate ambition to effect some kind of change on his own behalf.  Must the scant time that remains to him be spent in the encroaching dullness of his flat, the dreary time-killing of his unmotivated outings? The novels he once enjoyed “usually finished on a note of success, of exoneration, which was not for him”:

In the absence of comfort he was forced to contemplate his own failure, failure not in worldly terms but in the reality of his circumscribed life. He knew, rather more clearly than he had ever known before, that he had succeeded only at mundane tasks, that he had failed to deliver a reputation that others would acknowledge. . . . his life of reading, of walking, was invisible to others: his friendships, so agreeable in past days, had dwindled, almost disappeared. Memories were of no use to him; indeed, even memory was beginning to be eroded by the absence of confirmation. As to love, that was gone for good. Whatever he managed to contrive for himself would not, could not, be construed as success.

Strangers meticulously documents Paul’s confrontation with these realities, and then his growing wish that somehow, old and set in his ways as he is, he can “make it new.” But how? He lacks talent, ambition, drive; he has no sense of mission to lift even his wildest dreams above the quotidian. Brookner offers Paul no epiphany, though at the very end she does grant him a reprieve, as he finally acts to set his “fantasy” of change in motion:

This was the obverse of all fears, the assurance that life was still a possession to be treasured and that its possession was unalienably his.

The lonely end he anticipates cannot be staved off altogether, but it can at least be approached from a different direction. This is not quite the “note of success,” the “exoneration,” of the novels Paul has repudiated, but Brookner had brought me so low, along with Paul, that I rejoiced with him at the promise of something at least a little better than just endurance.

Weekend Miscellany & Recent Reading

Weekend Miscellany: some things that have caught my eye in recent Internet ramblings:

Joseph Epstein reviews Gertrude Himmelfarb’s new book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (via). I agree with Open Letters‘s Sam Sacks that Epstein’s generalizations about the Victorians are tired (“The Victorians had a comprehensive and confident view of human nature”… ), though I think Epstein may to be trying to convey what the Bloomsbury-ites thought of them, rather than what he himself takes to be the case, as he moves on to praise the progress we have made from such Bloomsbury-inspired stereotypes. Sacks suggests that “when Epstein moves on to discussing George Eliot, he does fine”; I’d say there too, though, Epstein could do better. It’s tedious, for one thing, that he leads with a discussion of her appearance, complete with Henry James’s infamous insults (imagine a sentence along the lines of “A short, homely man with bulbous eyes, Charles Dickens nonetheless charmed audiences with his impassioned readings…”–why do so many people feel it necessry and appropriate to lead off with comments on her looks?). What can he mean by his remark, after noting that George Eliot was not a supporter of female suffrage (she was not much of a supporter of universal male suffrage either, it’s worth keeping in mind), that “George Eliot’s feminism was of a superior kind”? Superior to what? It sounds as if he might mean she wasn’t one of those shrill political types. He refers to Eliot as a “Zionist,” but as the work of Nancy Henry and others shows, it is tricky to use that term as if it applied in her moment as it came to later on.

George Eliot goes on Oprah: I’ve often thought Oprah should take on Middlemarchfor her Book Club, but its emphasis on failed ambition and entangled idealism would rather undermine her show’s relentless emphasis on overcoming obstacles and triumphing over “this petty medium.” As I always figure that the more people who read it the better, I’ll be interested (in sort of a “bystander at an accident” way) to see if this producer and those who read along find the expeience rewarding.

At ReadySteadyBlog, Mark Thwaite asks his readers to name “academics who manage to retain their rigour, but speak beyond the academy, if only to a quite self-selecting and small audience.” As he asks, “who is doing it for you?” I think in principle any academic could “speak beyond the academy” if you follow Mark’s lead in looking to academic books for insights on literary figures or topics of special interest; academics who write deliberately for a non-academic audience would be a much smaller group.

Reviews are piling up of Sarah Waters’s new novel, TheLittle Stranger. I don’t need to read any of them to know I want to read the novel, but this piece by Waters herself on the novel’s background and relationship to Josephine Tey’s classic The Franchise Affair really whetted my appetite for it. (via)

N+1 takes a couple more shots at bloggers (“Bloggers on the whole write carelessly, their ideas are commonplace, they curry favor with readers and one another, and their popularity is no index of their worthiness.”) even while admitting that there can be a “special eloquence” in the “speech-like qualities” of on-line writing (though that eloquence doesn’t really count, it turns out, as “the same discovery is made by bloggers and texters and chatters in a minor and disposable way all the time”). With 76 million blogs ongoing (or whatever the current estimate is), any claims about what they are like “on the whole” must be a difficult thing to ascertain. I wonder how many blogs the author read to come up with this generalization.

Recent Reading

Two of the books I finished recently are so dissimilar in tone and style–indeed, in almost every way–that it comes as a surprise to me to discover, on reflection, that I think they are pursuing a very similar idea. The books are Nawal El Saadawi‘s Woman at Point Zero, first published in 1973, and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker prize in 1984. El Saadawi’s novel is the fictional equivalent of repeated slaps in the face, if such startling, painful moments could also somehow be imagined as poetic. Brookner’s novel, in contrast, is subtle, patiently nuanced, and faintly sardonic. How can I say that the blunt first-person narrative of an Egyptian prostitute on death row for murder and a cool first-person account of a British romance novelist vacationing in Switzerland after leaving her fiance at the altar have anything in common? Perhaps the connection is a tenuous one, but both books seem to be 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. Both bring these compromises and challenges into focus by emphasizing their protagonists’ struggles to discover their own identities and maintain their integrity, even when (especially when) that means disregarding how they are looked at by others.

El Sadaawi’s protagonist, Firdaus, fails: her courageous attempts to reinvent herself, to believe in herself and the possibility of her own economic, moral, and sexual freedom, are repeatedly–relentlessly, shatteringly–defeated. The cyclical structure of the novel, in which the same language (assuming the translation is accurate) is repeated for different incidents as if to prove no real progress has been made, that the core crisis remains literally identical, gives a formal pattern to this defeat. It would be an understatement to call this an angry book: to borrow from Matthew Arnold, it is full of “hunger, rebellion, and rage.” It is an activist book, a book designed to smack you out of your complacency. It is interesting to compare it, as I inevitably did, with Ahdaf Souef’s novels, which seem to speak from another world entirely. The timing makes some difference, though I wonder how much: is Firdaus’s experience impossible two decades, three decades, later? Today? How much of the difference between Soueif’s confident, ambitious women and El Sadaawi’s Firdaus is economic or class-based? The novel has been described as fable-like; it may also be that it is meant to transcend its time and place, to speak very fundamentally to the subjection of women, or of the roots and effects of all oppression.

Brookner’s protagonist ends her novel with no triumphant resolution but with a questing sense of possibilities. She has rejected two relationships that promise her social security, protection from the slights and indignities she faces daily and fears will overtake her as she ages: now she must discover what it is like to live on her own terms. To be sure, her situation is dramatically more secure than Firdaus’s, though in both cases money is seen to be key to both security and autonomy (“money is what you make when you grow up,” she tells a less independent companion). She faces no physical violence, no overt discrimination–but nonetheless she has difficulty imagining happiness for herself without love.

Hotel du Lac is the first Brookner novel I’ve read. I enjoyed the language a lot: it was descriptive but restrained. It opens with shades of grey that become thematically apt too, for the repressions that limit its protagonist’s expressiveness. I liked the “vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore”–that image of anaesthetic is proleptic of the life Edith might have. The novel surprised me repeatedly, not with big shocks or twists, but just by not being or saying quite what I expected. It felt like an Edwardian novel; I kept picturing its characters dressed like those in The Enchanted April (they use words like “smocks”–do people say that anymore?). But then someone said something about deconstruction and signifiers and I was reminded of its more contemporary moment. I wonder if the historical ambiguity created by its tone was deliberate, or if I just missed some basic clue as to when exactly its action takes place.

I’ve also recently read Emma Darwin‘s The Mathematics of Love, a novel which weaves together a historical with a modern plot. I thought both parts of the novel were individually well done, though the more contemporary (late 70s, so not really contemporary) part was more compelling. The 19th-century part was written in a more formal style, but that seems like an unnecessary artifice. Perhaps one reason Sarah Waters’s neo-Victorian novels read so well is that although she seeks out 19th-century slang and provides plenty of allusions and contextual details, she does not try to sound “Victorian” (which to so many seems to mean “stuffy”). I didn’t think Darwin brought the two stories together effectively: the interest of her 20th-century protagonist, Anna, in her 19th-century protagonist, Stephen, was never well-motivated. I liked the way she used photography as a device for evoking the strangely palimpsestic character of historical sites and stories, caught in time, leaving impressions that may be sharp or blurred, suggestive or specific, visible or even tangible to successive generations of viewers. The battlefield reminiscences are vivid, and the aftershocks of war provide another common element between the two plots, as do the various love stories that ask us to consider why we love who we do, what love is, and how we suffer for love. Just because I also read it recently, Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter is the inevitable comparison for this book: with Donoghue’s novel, I couldn’t see what it was about beyond the story it told, while with Darwin’s, I felt it was about a number of things but not integrating them in a fully satisfying way. But I liked it enough that I might try her second novel, A Secret Alchemy–also because it has been a long time since I read any Richard III-related novels.