Weekend Miscellany: Reading and Watching

SweetDisorderIt’s a busy time at work, with papers and midterms piling up a bit, so it’s still a bit quiet over here at Novel Readings.

I have been doing some extra-curricular reading, but the serious stuff has been for reviews, which I don’t usually anticipate with commentary here. I’ve been filling in the interstices with some light reading, mostly romances. I’ve been trying out some more recent “historicals” to see if I can find more writers among the many, many there are to chose from that I can reliably enjoy. I have had pretty mixed success with historicals up to now: a lot of them seem really thin and formulaic, and only a few authors so far (notably Cecilia Grant and, sometimes, Loretta Chase) have become personal favorites. I read Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder and quite liked it (I’d read her In For  a Penny before, and liked it too). Then, encouraged by having mostly liked My American Duchess, I also read another of Eloisa James’s, Any Duchess Will Do, and I enjoyed it as well, enough that I’ll probably keep poking around in her vast back catalog. Both of these books, however, did add to my sense that, for me, the pacing, or maybe the balance, is off in a lot of modern romance novels: when the hero and heroine have sex fairly early on, instead of as the culmination of their developing relationship, the book becomes (again, for me) too much about their lusty goings-on and the romantic tension is lost. Other forms of angst are typically introduced, something to tear them apart before they can finally have it all, but I usually find that angsty part tedious and the final resolution belated. This is one reason I often skim the last third of these books: the fun part seems to be over before then. In contrast, I just reread Heyer’s Venetia and it seemed to me perfectly balanced: just sexy enough, just tense and surprising enough, and just charming enough to be thoroughly satisfying.

longviewThe “literary” book I’ve been reading “for fun” is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View, which I bought after my book club read and enjoyed The Beautiful Visit and, in the same week, Hilary Mantel coincidentally published a persuasive essay about Howard in which she singled out The Long View as exceptional. It is very good of its kind, I think, and yet I am bogged down about half way through it because right now that “kind” feels claustrophobic. It’s an emotionally intense, scrupulously nuanced examination of an unhappy marriage — well, it’s unhappy when the novel begins, but because of the novel’s ingenious backwards-chronological structure, the relationship is building towards happier beginnings. Howard’s prose is wonderful and the psychological, social, and sexual complications of the couple’s life together are exquisitely, if painfully, drawn, but the novel feels airless to me: it doesn’t seem to be offering me any sense of the broader view of their life — of its impersonal contexts. The novel feels too personal, too minute, and it makes me restless for a narrative, or a narrator, that looks around and draws connections between these small complicated lives and the bigger world they’re set in. I may be missing ways in which Howard’s subtleties do exactly that, and of course since I’m not finished the novel yet, I can’t say whether things change in it, either. But my boredom (shocking! but true) with the novel got me thinking about the books that have really excited me lately and they have tended to be books with wider scope, often (though not always) historical: Dunnett’s King Hereafter, Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. Is it because I already live a narrowly personal existence (and spend enough time scrutinizing the complex nuances of marriage on my own behalf) that right now I want fiction that does something, goes somewhere, else? Or maybe it’s just that when I’m busy and distracted, I lack the patience for novels that are all about the finely-wrought sentence and the emotional minutiae of daily life.

happy-valleyAlso, when I’m busy and distracted, the lure of television is very strong! And, conveniently, Netflix recently dropped two tempting series — the fourth season of House of Cards and the second season of Happy Valley — both of which we’ve now seen. In retrospect, I’m actually kind of sorry I watched House of Cards. After the third season, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see any more of it, and this season will almost certainly be my last. The show is just so unpleasant: the people are loathsome; the acting is … well, it has its moments, but mostly it’s uninspiring; the plot is absurd; and the show overall is so cynical, not just about the world it depicts but also, I think, about what its viewers want or will tolerate. I did admire the color palette and cinematography, but otherwise, it’s a show that made me feel bad about myself for wanting to see what would happen next. Happy Valley, in context, though very grim in its own way, is brilliantly acted and tells stories about richly human individuals trying to bring some sense and order into their lives, with a protagonist whose anger and toughness are offset by compassion and a strong, if often thwarted, desire for justice. Even the crimes, horrific as they are, come out of contexts that are believable and morally complicated. It’s also almost absurdly refreshing to see women play prominent roles without having to look like stick insects and wear ridiculous stiletto heels.

OK, that gets me about caught up! Now, back to the next book I’ll be reviewing, if I can just get it all read, and then to Hard Times, which I start with my 19th-century fiction class tomorrow. Now there’s a classic that still has something to say “for these times.”

“That Silent Creature”: Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Beautiful Visit

howardcoverLike a lot of other early – to mid- 20th-century women’s fiction I’ve read (Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek comes to mind, or Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, or most of Winifred Holtby’s novels, or Margaret Kennedy’s) Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Beautiful Visit was a disorienting reading experience: I finished it feeling I did not have the right critical apparatus to make interpretive sense of it. Although my interest never flagged, I could not see where it was going or what it was meant to be about: though the experiences related are often emotionally intense, the tone is generally flat, almost affect-less, while the plot is not really a plot so much as a series of random incidents connected only by a general pattern of faint hopes raised and then dashed. Though it tells the story of a young girl’s maturation, it lacks the momentum of a bildungsroman; though it turns out to be a story of artistic development, or at least emergence, it lacks the inspiration of a kunstlerroman. What is its point? Where is it meant to take us, intellectually and imaginatively?

howardI ended up thinking that its lack of direction and energy was its governing idea. The narrator is stifled by her family life and by the social constraints on her behavior as well as her options: she would like to have a vocation, but she can’t really imagine what it might be. The visit that changes everything by showing her how other people live actually changes very little, at least about how she can live: its effects arise only through the new connections she makes, most of which turn out to be far less consequential than she expects. Even when they do lead to something significant (like a marriage proposal), the promised transformation ultimately has no appeal. The one big change that finally occurs at the novel’s end is so artificial, so unanticipated, that it doesn’t seem to solve or promise anything either, except perhaps that it is the beginning of the real bildungsroman, the real story of her life, which we don’t get because our novel is the story of the stuttering, inchoherent, mostly pathetic existence that preceded it. (Is it also factitious? There’s an odd moment when she frankly remarks her difficulty in figuring out how to end the autobiographical novel she’s writing / we’re reading.)

I can see that the novel is in part a critique of women’s stifled lives, and of the marriage plot they are so relentlessly expected to embrace. The narrator’s mother is a sad example of the error of living for someone else: “Your father believed in music,” she tells her daughter,

and I believed in your father. By the time he died, I don’t think he believed in anything, and now I find it very difficult to believe in him.

The story of beautiful Deb and her disappointments is another striking case in point: “life stops when one is married,” she says as she urges the narrator towards her own engagement, “and one ought to take care that it stops in a very good place.” The narrator (nameless, as befits her unformed identity) doesn’t want to marry, at least not just for the sake of marrying. “What will happen to you, if you don’t marry him?” demands Deb; “You surely do not intend spending the rest of your life doing those dreary jobs, do you?”

This seems a fair enough question, in the circumstances, so there’s something at least potentially heroic about our protagonist’s determination to resist her seemingly inevitable fate. She’s hardly rewarded for choosing independence, though, until she’s rescued improbably with a scheme to travel the world and determine its shape — a symbolic quest, I assume, meant to invoke visions of exploration and discovery, of new horizons both literal and metaphorical. Her previous inability to make any real changes is not really her fault, though it is her tragedy (more even than her sad but almost accidental wartime love affair). Her unexpected savior rightly observes that for all her attempts to escape, she has carried her “family atmosphere” along with her. I wonder why it doesn’t feel more triumphant, then, when she seizes opportunity to do, and be, something else: “On board a great deal of unpacking was necessary,” she reports without excitement; “I was given a cabin to myself with a good small table for writing.”

visitcoverThat she is well-suited to be a writer is often asserted by people she meets, mostly because she is so observant. I suppose The Beautiful Visit does give us some evidence of that: mostly silent herself, the narrator watches those around her with a sharp, if often somewhat puzzled, eye. Her lack of experience limits her insights into others as well as herself, but what she sees, she describes. That her account is so episodic suggests her own lack of direction. Other people find her more interesting than I did: when the young man she met on the initial visit reappears and declares his passionate love for her, I wondered if he had mistaken her for someone else because she seemed such a shadow of an actual person. Is that the necessary quality of a writer, to be self-effacing enough that they elude our attention even as they claim it?

My book club chose The Beautiful Visit in December, as a follow-up to Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up. Not for the first time, we accidentally coincided with the zeitgeist, as just last week a piece by Hilary Mantel championing Howard ran in The Guardian. Mantel skips quickly past The Beautiful Visit (though she notes it was a prize winner) and focuses primarily on the Cazalet Chronicles:

The novels are panoramic, expansive, intriguing as social history and generous in their storytelling. They are the product of a lifetime’s experience, and come from a writer who knew her aim and had the stamina and technical skill to achieve it.

longviewMantel makes the Cazalet Chronicles sound well worth reading. I’m not sure how convinced I am, however, by her broader argument that Howard is relatively unknown “because she’s a woman” writing what were perceived of as “woman’s books.” “Good books by women,” Mantel rightly  notes, “fell out of print and vanished into obscurity: not just because, as in the case of male writers, fashion might turn, but because they had never been properly valued in the first place.” But I’d have to read more of Howard’s novels to see if I think they are as good as Mantel does. “Her virtues are immaculate construction,” she asserts, “impeccable observation, persuasive but inexorable technique.” I didn’t discern these qualities in The Beautiful Visit: nothing about it seems to justify falling into critical rhapsodies. I’m quite prepared to believe I am missing something about it, though — that I could learn to read it better. I’m looking forward to our discussion on the weekend.