World Building: N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season

jemisinI find myself at something of a loss about how to respond to The Fifth Season. The bottom line, I suppose, is that it didn’t work for me: I felt frustrated from the outset at the barrage of unexplained particulars, and though I think the advice that I got from more proficient readers of SFF to just read on and let the logic of Jemisin’s world and its inhabitants emerge from the action was good advice, and it more or less worked (by the end I did, as promised, have a reasonable grasp of the various terms and elements), the process of getting there–the struggle to understand those crucial building blocks of the story–proved too great an obstacle to my engagement with the novel’s drama for me to get much pleasure out of it. I got intermittently caught up in particular scenes, especially towards the end, but they were never sustained long enough for any momentum to build–and then the final, quite intense, scenes were cut short in the kind of open-ended cliff-hanger that seemed obviously meant to sell the next book in the series. Perhaps that is considered fair play in a genre that seems dominated by series that are cumulative rather than simply sequential, but I felt frankly resentful that after the effort of getting to that point I was not given any satisfactory sense of closure for this installment beyond its having finally (and it really did feel like finally! to me) brought the dispersed parts of the novel together.

scoundrelsI have had bad experiences before when stepping into unfamiliar genre territory, and I am very aware that reading something well–which doesn’t necessarily mean liking it, but rather knowing how to deal with the kind of book it is–requires recognizing the conventions and norms and expectations that it is dealing in. (At any rate, this is true of genre fiction, which typically relies on a kind of reciprocal proficiency between writers and readers–for me, at any rate, this is one of the ways I define “genre fiction.”) I thought Lord of Scoundrels was ridiculous the first time I read it, and now I thoroughly enjoy it (and have even taught it twice); what happened in between that initial reading and later ones was a gradual education in romance conventions and an evolution in my own reading taste. I was braced for a similarly clueless initial experience with The Fifth Season but I hoped and expected, from what I’d heard about it, that I would find its narrative drive or characters compelling enough to compensate for the difficulties. In the end, though, I just didn’t: at this point, I have no urge to read the rest of the trilogy, though of course that might change, just as I came back to Lord of Scoundrels and found we had learned to get along after all.

elaine-fake-gifIt’s not that The Fifth Season didn’t give me anything to think about. Probably what preoccupied me the most, though, was not thinking about the issues of identity and social order and oppression (and geology) that I take to be central to Jemisin’s project so much as wondering why the unreality of her world grated on me in ways that the equally artificial fictional worlds of other authors don’t. It’s not as if the town of Middlemarch isn’t also made up; it isn’t (to go with a more apt comparison) as if the souls of the unwillingly departed really lingered in the cemetery where Lincoln’s son was interred and intervened to change both his fate and the course of history. I learned to deal with vampires, werewolves, and witches in Joss Whedon’s universe, and, prompted by puzzling over what didn’t work for me about The Fifth Season, I just started rereading The Hobbit for the first time in decades and was immediately delighted.

Dunnett-New-CoverWhat makes the difference? Is it that Saunders and Whedon–to go with the ones who clearly aren’t offering “the nearest thing to [real] life”–are not completely replacing our world but adding a dimension to it, so I am still anchored in familiarity, and as a result the application (if that’s the right word) of their fantastical elements to my thinking about the world I actually live in is more straightforward? Though I am sure Jemisin’s work is meant to reflect on our reality in some way, it’s so complex and elaborate on its own terms that it seems an awfully long way around. (Also, a big part of the point of a book like The Fifth Season is presumably that world building on its own is something readers can simply take an interest in as an alternative reality; maybe my realist habits of mind are precisely the problem.)

hobbitOr it might be, thinking about how much I’m enjoying the The Hobbit, that it’s not in fact the genre elements of The Fifth Season that kept me at a distance but something that can be a problem for me in any genre: its style. As is trendy these days, it’s almost all in close third person (or, a bit awkwardly, I thought, close second person), with little contextual information from a knowledgeable narrator. Another bit of advice I got for coping with Jemisin’s world building was to think of it as similar to historical fiction, but the historical fiction I typically like best (though there are some exceptions, to be sure) is dense in exposition–what I called in the context of A. S. Byatt’s remarkable The Children’s Book, “fearless pedantry”–or, as with Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, intimately personal in point of view but still driven by a propulsively linear narration. Dorothy Dunnett is a consummate world builder, but her plots and characters are rendered in extraordinarily strong colors that stand out against the stunning detail of her exposition. All of these novelists, too, are splendid prose stylists; Jemisin’s prose seemed mostly workmanlike and unexceptional. Her most dramatic moments often turned on what seemed like the narrative equivalent of special effects: I thought they were pretty cool in the moment, but for me, the minute I’m noticing something as a cool special effect, the effect itself is rather ruined.

henry-jamesI know there are readers who are as unmoved by Dunnett as I was by Jemisin. As Henry James said, the house of fiction has many windows! I don’t like to preemptively close any of them: I have long thought I must be missing out on a lot of good reading because I don’t read SFF (I haven’t even read Ursula Le Guin-don’t @ me!). I’m not necessarily giving up, on the genre or on Jemisin. If I keep reading around, maybe, as happened with romance, I will find my footing, at which point perhaps I would reread The Fifth Season and find, as with Lord of Scoundrels, that I’m able to appreciate it in a way I can’t now. On the other hand, there are just so many other books and authors I haven’t read that seem likely to engage and excite me without my having to struggle quite so much just to get it that I’m not sure how much of a priority to make that attempt. As James also said, “nothing will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it.” I didn’t like The Fifth Season, and maybe for now that will have to be enough.

“The Pick of the Bunch”: Margaret Campbell Barnes, My Lady of Cleves

cleves

Anne sought in the folds of her skirt for the gold-handled scissors hanging from her belt. Deftly she snipped off the fattest grape of all and popped it into his watering mouth. He savored it greedily and, after a furtive glance across the room, squeezed her hand with the obscene slyness of an old man who has lived lustily.

“The pick of the bunch!” he said. And the faded eyes that blinked up at her from beneath his sandy lashes were full of fun and affection.

“How kind of you to bring grapes!” exclaimed Kate, bustling forward with a glass of medicine.

She thought they were discussing the fruit. But Anne knew he was teasing her. He might equally well have been discussing his wives. . . .

She felt sure he had been speaking her epitaph; and a flood of long-delayed triumph shot through her, warm as wine. She wasn’t ravishing like Nan Boleyn, nor the mother of his son like Jane, nor yet his ‘rose without a thorn’ — but at least he had admitted his mistake and tried to make amends for calling her a Flanders mare.

I wasn’t quite up to reading another installment of ‘The House of Niccolo‘ right away, but I also didn’t feel like going straight from Dunnett to some slick contemporary novel, so in the end what I plucked from my shelf was some vintage historical fiction, Margaret Campbell Barnes’s My Lady of Cleves. I never read Barnes as avidly as I read Jean Plaidy, but a couple of her novels were steadfast favorites, including Mary of Carisbrooke and Brief Gaudy Hour, her Anne Boleyn novel. I always loved My Lady of Cleves especially, though, so I was very happy a few years ago to find I could replace my crumbling library discard copy with an elegant new edition. (The pretty cover does have the odd design problem that Steve Donoghue noted is strangely prevalent in Tudor fiction, though.)

Anne_of_Cleves,_miniature_by_Hans_Holbein_the_YoungerMy Lady of Cleves is much less ambitious than any of Dunnett’s novels: it is historical fiction as domestic drama, with no pretensions to theories or philosophies about the rise and fall of nations or faiths or civilizations. It is, as a result, much easier reading — and easier writing too, no doubt! Its premise is simple and sweet: that Holbein’s exquisite portraits of Anne, including the miniature that (mis)led Henry VIII into choosing her for his fourth wife, are evidence of a hidden love story between the great artist and his unprepossessing subject. How else, after all, to explain the mismatch between the beauty of his work and the reality of the woman Henry so contemptuously cast aside? Holbein must have seen something his king — coarse, lusty, spoiled — could not, and that something is what the novel creates for us: a woman of quiet dignity, but also strong feeling, held carefully in reserve, a woman who would — if things had gone differently — have made a good, perhaps even a great, queen, but who missed, or was spared, that fate.

Barnes is not a great stylist, and some moments struck me as particularly wooden on this reading. But she does a consistently nice job sketching in period details, lavishing them particularly on the homes and gardens of her characters, from the castle in Cleves with its “comfortable pepper-pot turrets” to Anne’s eventual home at Richmond. (The descriptions of Hampton Court brought back happy memories of my visit there a few years ago: it lived in my imagination for so long that actually being there is both surreal and thrilling.) “Nowhere had she seen such gracious houses as these wealthy English possessed,” Anne reflects:

Golden bars of sunlight lay across the floor, flecked here and there with gems of color reflected from armorial bearings on the casements of the three long oriel windows. On the wall facing them a tapestry in russet and green held all the living loveliness of an autumn wood through which a lordly stag picked its way with timid grace. . . . There were beautiful pieces of furniture designed for comfort and a great painted globe of the world. On a long refectory table which looked as though it might have been filched from some splendid monastery were gathered a pewter ink well holding a flamboyant quill, white sheets of music scored with square black blobs of notes, and a priceless collection of queerly shaped musical instruments of which Anne didn’t even know the names. Everywhere were books and maps and signs of lively culture. Her father had plenty of books but most of them were chained to gloomy desks, not scattered about family rooms so that the sunlight could wink cheerfully on their metal clasps. Only these Tudors, it seemed, understood the art of living.

It’s “these Tudors,” the “tempestuous Tudors,” as Anne often thinks of them, that dominate Anne’s new life. Henry, in particular, overwhelms the novel whenever he’s present, which seems apt: “he would have filled the center of our stage anyhow,” his friend Charles Brandon tells Anne, “even if he’d been a commoner’s son. Some people have that kind of flame in them.” It’s unexpected, perhaps, in a novel about Henry’s rejected queen, that she and therefore we eventually come to see Henry sympathetically. Anne initially sees him, literally, as a caricature, as Holbein draws him for her, square, with “arched brows” and a “little pursed mouth.” When she first meets him in person, she is struck by how much he resembles Holbein’s uncharitable sketch; shamed and hurt by his humiliating treatment of her, she continues to see him in two dimensions, with understandably little inclination to seek out or acknowledge his other dimensions. Once freed of their embarrassing failed marriage, though, she regains her equanimity and feels compassion and even admiration for facets of his character that offset, if they don’t excuse, his ruthlessness, egotism, and greed.

359px-Anne_of_Cleves,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_YoungerBut it’s Anne who, rightly, holds first place in the novel overall. Barnes makes the lack of dramatic incident in Anne’s life itself dramatic: with the ghost of Anne Boleyn behind her and the tragic spectacle of young Katherine Howard’s fall before her, her relative tranquility seems precious, even if it is maintained through the sacrifice of her most passionate yearnings. I have no idea how much of Barnes’s portrait is based on historical records: her author’s note says that all the comments in the novel about Anne “were in fact made by people who knew and saw her,” but how much we know about Anne herself, as a woman, or about the details of her life before, during, or after her life-changing marriage is beyond my scope. What Barnes does so well, though, is make me believe in her version of Anne: it’s as if (and I know this sounds cliched) the poised woman in the portrait has stepped out of it into the novel.

It’s a story, too, built on the possibility of solitary contentment — not that Anne is altogether alone, but that the happiness she finds turns on her ability to make her own life meaningful, without romance, marriage, or children of her own. Condemned to live on the periphery of the court she gave up so much to join, she manages, in Barnes’s version, to make her modest place in history seem like a noble one. Nice as it would have been for the story to have a more conventional happy ending, there’s still something comforting about that.

anneofcleves2

Photo via Findagrave.com

“The Light of the World”: Nicola Griffith, Hild

hildI found Hild shelved in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section at Bookmark, which means I almost didn’t realize they had it in stock, as I don’t usually browse that section. (I was poking around in case they had John Crowley’s Little, Big, which Tom had got me interested in.) I can see why the staff had put it there: the front cover blurb compares it to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. But it isn’t fantasy: it’s historical fiction, if based, Griffith says in her Author’s Note, on a particularly scanty record: “We have no idea what [Hild] looked like, what she was good at, whether she married or had children.” “But clearly,” Griffith goes on, “she was extraordinary,” and that’s certainly true of the protagonist Griffith has created from the sparse materials available.

Maybe, though, considering Hild “fantasy” is not altogether a category mistake. “I made it up,” Griffith says about her story, while explaining that it is also deeply researched: “I learnt what I could of the late sixth and early seventh centuries: ethnography, archaeology, poetry, numismatics, jewellery, textiles, languages, food production, weapons, and more. And then I re-created that world . . . ” — that is, she engaged in “worldbuilding,” which is a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental?) task of the fantasy or science fiction author. Of course, her world is built out of real pieces, but it’s an artificial construction nonetheless. I suppose this could be said of any historical fiction, or any fiction at all, so maybe I’m trying to blur a line that’s already indistinct. But there’s something about Hild — the strangeness of its world, but also  of Griffith’s evocation of it — that makes it haunting and uncanny, as if we are not so much in an earlier version of our own world but in an alternative version.

It’s mostly Hild herself who’s responsible for that sense that we’re looking through, rather than at, the world: she is the king’s “seer,” the “light of the world,” and thus it is her job, her destiny, her “wyrd” or fate, to perceive the world differently than others. She is constantly seeking patterns, in nature and in the shifting relationships of the court and the kingdom. Her powers of perception set her apart: she is admired, revered, and feared. Her gifts are not necessarily supernatural, though: her “visions” are the results of long thought and sharp intelligence, and sometimes they are also simply predictions shaped to suit what her listeners (especially the King) want most to hear or do. Signs and omens must be interpreted, and that too requires political savvy and deft diplomacy more than any preternatural insight. Hild’s status as the King’s “light” defines her from birth and shapes both how she is treated and how she must behave: it is a burden, a responsibility, a terrible risk and a great liberation, because it exempts her from the ordinary constraints of a woman’s life.

Hild is an extraordinary character: strong, charismatic, intelligent, intensely physical, remarkably whole and convincing. One of the most interesting aspects of her characterization is the novel’s certainty about her woman’s body: it’s a central fact of her life and Griffith makes that clear without apology, voyeurism, or special pleading. I can’t think, for instance, of another novel in which starting to menstruate is a plot point in quite the way it is here — incorporated with perfect naturalness into the ongoing story of the heroine’s physical and psychological maturation, experienced as an initiation into an alliance of other women, associated with independence from authority rather than readiness for male sexual attention. That’s not to say that sexuality isn’t also an important part of Hild’s story, but though there is a love story of sorts running through the novel, her desires are hers, physical feelings she can satisfy on her own, or with women: they are not (or not just) ties that bind her emotionally to a man, and they certainly do not define her ambitions or determine the arc of her story.

The shape of that story is only partially revealed by the end of Hild. (Griffith is working on the sequel now, but I almost wish she’d waited and published one epic novel, as Hild so obviously stops rather than concludes.) Hild eventually becomes Saint Hilda of Whitby, but she isn’t there when we leave her this time. What we have seen to this point, though, is her development from an uncanny child into a fierce woman. The overall trajectory of Hild is all upward in that way: not just Hild herself, but the world she lives in is taking on a different form over the novel. The most important change is the rise of Christianity, which is gradually replacing the old forms of worship which Hild, as a seer, initially represents and serves. The transition is an uneven and not entirely welcome one. For one thing, people are reluctant to give up their old beliefs, and the representatives of the new God are not altogether persuasive. The God they represent, too, is very different from the old gods, who were more personal and more fun. “They don’t like jokes,” says one of Hild’s women about the Christians; “I don’t think their god does either.” And the new God is demanding in unfamiliar ways, insisting on obedience and reverence, and preoccupied with the unfamiliar notion of original sin. He’s also “squeamish,” inexplicably hostile to women’s bodies: “No blood in the church. No woman with her monthly bleeding. It makes no sense,” says Hild’s friend.

Will this new God diminish or invalidate Hild’s power, as a seer or as a woman? Will He punish her, perhaps, for the evils she has committed as a warrior or a prophet of other gods? Hild approaches her own baptism with trepidation, but then feels renewed courage:

She breathed deep. She was Anglisc. She would not burn. She would endure and hold true to her oath. An oath, a bond. A truth, a guide, a promise. To three gods in one. To the pattern. For even gods were part of the pattern, even three-part gods. The pattern was in everything. Of everything. Over everything. . . .

Her heart beat with it, her tears fell with it, her spirit soared with it. Here, now, they were building a great pattern, she could feel it, and she would trace its shape one day: that was her wyrd, and fate goes as ever it must. Today she was swearing to it, swearing here, with her people.

I wondered (given that she becomes a Christian saint) whether Hild’s baptism would stand as an epiphanic moment of faith — as a revelation. While the language and the mood here is uplifted, though, the strongest sense is one of continuity: “she was still herself,” the scene concludes. Christianity never seems to be the one right way: it’s just another way, and one that is as prone as the old ways to express the will, greed, and ambition of its adherents rather than any divine plan. Hild’s strength continues to be herself — her limbs, trained for fighting, and her mind, astute and endlessly observing.

The other thing that’s rising in the world of the novel is literacy. This is tied to Christianity, in that it’s the priests who are usually the most ‘lettered’ of the characters. But Hild quickly perceives the value of writing as a way of maintaining networks across distances. Her ability to read and write is valuable to her politically, as her success and survival as a seer depends on good and abundant information. But it means most to her personally, as the typical fate of women is to be sent far from home and family in their roles as “peaceweavers,” cementing alliances as wives then securing kingdoms with their heirs. Hild realizes that if she could write, for instance, to her married sister Hereswith, Hereswith “wouldn’t be lost to her”: for someone in Hild’s anomalous and therefore lonely position, letters would be a lifeline, bringing her news and also preserving her own private identity while living among those to whom she is “the maid who killed, the maid who felt nothing. The maid with no mother or sister or friend.”

kinghereafterThe novelist Griffith most reminds me of is Dorothy Dunnett. She luxuriates in tactile details the way Dunnett does, for one thing, as in this description of a waterfront marketplace:

Rhenish glass: cups and bowls and flasks. Wheel-thrown pottery, painted in every colour and pattern. Cloth. Swords — swords for sale — and armor. Jewels, with stones Hild had never seen, including great square diamonds, as grey as a Blodmonath sky. Perfume in tiny stoppered jars, and next to them even smaller jars — one the size of Hild’s fingernail — sealed with wax: poison. . . . A six-stringed lyre inlaid with walnut and copper, and the beaver-skin bag to go with it. A set of four nested silver bowls from Byzantium, chased and engraved with lettering that Fursey, peering over her shoulder, said was Greek. But Hild barely heard him: Somewhere a man was calling in a peculiar cadence, and he sounded almost Anglisc. Almost. Instead of the rounded thump of Anglisc, these oddly shaped words rolled just a little wrong. Not apples, she thought. Pears. Heavy at the bottom, longer on the top.

The extraordinary complexity of the created world is also reminiscent of Dunnett — the intricate family trees, the tangled web of alliances, the unfamiliarity of the names and vocabulary, and thus the associated down side of such authorial mastery: our (or at any rate, my) difficulty keeping track of who’s who, of who’s doing what to whom and why. Like King Hereafter, for example, Hild is full of passages that perplex rather than clarify the action:

As the weather improved, messages began to come in from all over the isle. Two, from Rheged and from Alt Clut, said the same thing: Eochaid Buide of the Dál Riate was sending an army to aid the Cenél Cruithen against Fiachnae mach Demmáin of the Dál Fiatach, and chief among the Dál Riatan war band were the Idings — though the man from Rheged thought two, Oswald and Osric, called the Burnt, while the messenger from Alt Clut thought three, Oswald, Osric the Burnt, and young Osbald.

Or how about this one;

The murdered Eorpwald had been the godson of Edwin. Sigebert was of a different Christian lineage. he had spent his time across the narrow sea at the Frankish court of Clothar, and now Dagobert. If Sigebert was bringing threescore men, they would be Dagobert’s. If he won with their help, he would be obliged to align himself with the Franks. What would that mean for Edwin? Where was Dagobert in relation to the growing alliances of the middle country and the west — Penda and Cadwallon — and the men of the north: Idings, Picts, Scots of Dál Riata, Alt Clut, perhaps Rheghed?

Where was Dagobert, indeed? It helped a bit when I found a partial guide to pronunciation in the back of the book, and a glossary, and there’s a family tree too, but my experience reading Dunnett helped the most, particularly my conclusion that I don’t need to keep up with all the details to stay interested. Both authors are good enough story tellers that the necessary drama rises above the morass of confusing specifics. If I didn’t always know exactly why Hild was fighting someone in particular, it was enough to know that she had her reasons: the heat and blood of the battle was no less intense because I had to suspend, not disbelief, but my desire for perfect comprehension. The absolutely key characters — her mother Breguswith, her best friend, sparring partner, half-brother, and eventual husband Cian, or her “gemaecce” (“female partner”) Begu, for instance — are wholly distinct, and above it all is always Hild herself, “the pattern-making mind of the world.”

“The Melody in the Heart of the Universe”: Rose Tremain, Music & Silence

I have heard the melody in the heart of the universe and then lost it.

tremainLike Restoration, Rose Tremain’s Music & Silence confounds clichéd expectations about historical fiction. In its own way it has an epic sweep, but there’s nothing of the heroic saga about it. It’s drama under a blanket, a story of kings and queens and true love muffled by darkness and uncertainty. It has the extremity of fairy tales: Kirsten Munk, for instance, consort to King Christian and thus “Almost Queen” of Denmark, is a temperamentally oversized creature of voracious, noisy demands: her first-person portions of the narrative would be wholly comical if they weren’t also so sad, and if she weren’t also so destructive in her relentlessly selfish desires. Kirsten has a near counterpart in Magdalena, the wicked stepmother who forces  the Cinderella-like heroine Emilia out of the family and then, insatiably needy, seduces her step-sons.

In contrast to their hot, vociferous passions, there’s Emilia, quiet, grave, nurturing — and otherworldly, drawn, nearly out of life itself, to her dead mother’s memory. And there’s the beautiful Countess O’Fingal, beautiful, loving, but trapped by her husband’s tragedy, which is like an evil curse disguised as a blessing:

Johnnie O’Fingal had dreamed that he could compose music. In this miraculous reverie, he had gone down to the hall, where resided a pair of virginals . . . and had sat down in front of them and taken up a piece of my father’s cream paper and a newly cut quill. In frantic haste, he had ruled the lines of the treble and bass clef, and begun immediately upon a complicated musical notation, corresponding to sounds and harmonies that flowed effortlessly from his mind onto the page. And when he began to play the music he had written it was a lament of such grace and beauty that he did not think he had ever heard in his life anything to match it.

Urged by his wife to recapture the music of his dreams, he declares prophetically, “what we can achieve in our dreams seldom corresponds to what we are veritably capable of.” He does try, playing “a melody of strange and haunting sweetness,” but goes mad in grief and despair when he is never able to complete it. His desperate quest (and its painfully ironic ending) echoes that of King Christian, who has all the music he desires but is unable to bring order and prosperity to his kingdom, or to find lasting love and comfort for himself.

Yoking their stories together is the figure of Peter Claire, a lutenist so beautiful Christian calls him his angel. It seems as if Peter’s music should be the salvation both other men seek — throughout the novel music is at once the greatest mystery and the greatest joy anyone experiences. Christian tells Peter about a conversation he had with the great musician John Dowland:

He said that man spends days and nights and years of his life asking the question “How may I be brought to the divine?”, yet all musicians instinctively know the answer: they are brought to the divine through their music – for this is its sole purpose. Its sole purpose! What do you say to that, Mr Claire?

But though Peter cherishes the “rich and faultless harmony” he and the rest of King Christian’s orchestra create from their strange subterranean quarters — the King has contrived it so that the sound is carried up into the castle for the pleasure but also mystification of his guests, who cannot detect its source — his own “transcendent state of happiness” comes from his love for Emilia. The novel is in part the story of their romance, fragile, insubstantial, thwarted by Kirsten’s greed and Christian’s need. The interplay of these characters is much more complex than simple antagonism, though: Peter and Emilia are hampered by their kindness and empathy as much as by any external constraints. The price of goodness, in their world, is as likely to be loss as reward.

There are other characters and story-lines in the novel; I found their interweaving equal parts engaging and annoying, as the result is somewhat fragmented but also invites us — as literary juxtapositions always do  — to think about connections and comparisons, themes and variations. It isn’t entirely obvious to me what unifies the different elements. In the end I wonder if it’s primarily a mood or an attitude that we’re supposed to take away from our reading — a sense of what the world might be like rather than a coherent idea about what it is or should be like. The atmosphere of the book is slightly surreal, and the tone walks a fine line between being poetic and being portentous, or even pretentious. Tremain’s language falls into rhythmic cadences that shift us from the prosaic to the visionary:

Now, Emilia lies in her old bed in her old room and listens to the old familiar crying of the wind.

By her bed is the clock she found in the forest, with time stopped at ten minutes past seven.

She does not know why Magdalena was locked in the attic.

She does not know why Ingmar was sent to Copenhagen.

She cannot predict what world Marcus will enter now.

What she does know is that time itself has performed a loop and returned her to the one place she thought she had left for ever. It has stopped here and will not let her go. . . . She will grow old in the house of her childhood, without her mother, without her father’s love. She will die here and one of her brothers will bury her in the shadow of the church, and the strawberry plants, which creep further and wider each year, gobbling up the land, even to the church door, will one day cover everything that remains of her, including her name, Emilia.

 I wouldn’t want to read a lot of books written this way, or any at all written this way without the other qualities Tremain brings to it: intensely tactile historical specificity, for one thing, and an unswerving commitment to the flawed humanity of even her most grotesque characters. If Music & Silence is a fairy tale in style, I think it is, paradoxically, still a realist novel in spirit. If it has a message for us about music and silence, also, it is not that they are opposites but that (like imagination and reality) they are somehow inextricably linked, two aspects of the same attempt to express something important about life. This is something the characters are always experiencing, one way or another — that the actual sounds they can make do not quite convey the ideas and feelings they have, that their longings and loves and fears and hatreds shape their lives but are hard to give shape to in sound:

As they part, both men reflect on all that might have been said in this recent conversation and yet was not said; and this knowledge of what so often exists in the silences between words both haunts them and makes them marvel at the teasing complexity of all human discourse.

“On some book my name will be written”: Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter

kinghereafter

“What kings may follow me I do not know, and I do not care. When my day is ended, it is ended. But . . . on some book my name will be written.” — Thorfinn

“All hail, Macbeth, that shall be King hereafter!” – Shakespeare, Macbeth I.iii.50

The first 250-300 pages of King Hereafter are pretty hard going. Here’s why:

‘Eachmarcach is not a young man, and he has been King of Dublin on and off now for seventeen years. What will happen to our interests in Ireland and Man if Dublin falls into unfriendly hands has been something I have been giving a lot of thought to. On the other hand, Diarmaid is fighting-mad and has been ever since he claimed Meath. He wants to make Turlough Ua Brian King of Munster, and the present incumbent is giving him trouble. He may recruit Harold and his men to help him attack Munster instead.’

 ‘He may recruit Harold and his brother and get them killed, which would be best of all,’ said Prior Tuathal with un-Christian firmness. ‘For, while King Edward wouldn’t mind a west-coast alliance excluding the Godwin family, Harold wouldn’t like it at all, if he ever came back from exile. After all, it was to prevent such an alliance between the Welsh and the Mercians and the Cumbrians, presumably, that the Kings of England farmed out Cumbria in the first place. They couldn’t hold it. Cumbria was self-supporting and too far from Wessex to benefit from Wessex protection. Now it’s different.’

Actually, I lied: in the way that this little excerpt suggests, the entire book — all 700+ pages of it — is hard going, and in fact my sample comes from nearly 500 pages in. But by that point the ceaseless cascade of names and details and the bewildering welter of political maneuverings have stopped seeming like interpretive problems and become simply the habitus of the novel. Confused? Adrift? Surprised? Vulnerable? Constantly struggling to keep track and keep up? Welcome to the 11th century, and to the region that would one day become the United Kingdom but which in the time of King Hereafter was neither united nor, mostly, one kingdom. It’s as much as our characters can do to keep abreast of the constantly changing landscape of allegiances and threats: one reason the protagonist, Thorfinn, is such a dominant figure is that he manages the flow of information, and thus the shaping and reshaping of possible outcomes, better than anyone else. Well, better than almost anyone else — or he’d meet a different end.

King Hereafter tells the story of “the historical Macbeth.” I put that in scare-quotes because Dunnett’s identification of Thorfinn Sigurdsson, or Thorfinn the Great (or Mighty), with Macbeth is debatable. (Dunnett has a bit to say about her research and conclusions here.) I’ll just accept Dunnett’s theory, since it’s the novel that interests me and not the (almost certainly unrecoverable) facts. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t possibly recapitulate all the intricacies of the plot, but its main outlines are pretty simple, and (sort of) recognizable if you know Shakespeare’s play: with the support of his wife, Thorfinn overcomes rivals and enemies (including Duncan) and becomes Earl of Orkney and Caithness and King of Alba, only to be overcome eventually himself by yet more rivals and enemies (including Duncan’s son Malcolm). Thorfinn is nothing like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, though: his rise to power is not an exercise in ruthless (if conflicted) self-aggrandizement but a response to political and military necessities (win or die). More important, it is at once a test and a proof of his character: blessed, or cursed, with a great capacity for leadership, Thorfinn sees the possibility of forging a nation that can build on the combined strengths of its disparate parts, rather than persist in endless cycles of destructive rivalries:

He spoke in Gaelic, with which every man was familiar, for uniformity was the theme of the meeting.

Uniformity of justice, with the same rules enforced by the King’s authority through the King’s agents everywhere from Fife to the Hebrides.

Uniformity of worship, so that men might be baptised and buried and shriven on the same terms in the same way . . . and have ready to hand a source of aid for the poor and the sick and the traveller . . .

Uniformity in the way land and rights and property were held and changed hands . . .

Uniformity of aims and ideals, so that no region should plan independently of its neighbour, but each should look towards the rest, as brother to brother, and to the King as a father. So, as in Alba of old, men had brought their token of earth to the Moot Hill of Scone to signify unity, so each region would bring its own excellence and bind it into the country that was neither Alba nor Orkney, but men had begun to call Scotia.

That nation-building can be difficult to distinguish from self-aggrandizement, especially in the heat of the moment, is one of Dunnett’s recurring interests — at any rate, it’s certainly something the Lymond books explore, especially The Ringed Castle. A similar problem emerges at the personal level: what distinguishes an inspired leader from an egomaniac or a charlatan? Like Lymond, Thorfinn has the knack of inspiring loyalty in others, often motivating them to extraordinary feats of courage and self-sacrifice (and, occasionally, self-destruction) in his service. “No one who really knew him,” his wife reflects, “would ever let him down.” With great charisma, Dunnett always emphasizes, comes great responsibility.

Thorfinn has a less tormented relationship with his leadership role than Lymond with his, though, proceeding through the journey from Viking overlord to sovereign of a modernizing European country with no paroxysms of doubt or conscience. His growth in reach and vision seems part and parcel of the changes in the world around him, which is also leaving behind its Viking past of raids and barter and pagan gods. Thorfinn himself still feels the pull of the old ways, as we see especially through his ongoing struggle to accept in his heart the Christian faith which is the spiritual scaffold of the new nation. He gets strength and clarity from time spent in his own territories of Orkney, and is never more completely at peace with himself than when at sea. But he recognizes and never shirks the burden he has taken on with “this tortuous business of ruling.” He accepts it all, even knowing that it means his death:

‘What else were you born for?’

‘Why not happiness, like other men?’ Thorfinn said.

‘You have that,’ said his foster-father. ‘But if you try to trap it, it will change. Why do you resist? It is your right.’

‘I resist because it is no use resisting,’ Thorfinn said. ‘Do you not think that is unfair? I shall be King because I was King; and I shall die because I did die; and did I remember them, I could even tell what are the three ways it might befall me.’

The three ways are foretold in a prophesy that, again, is recognizable to us from Macbeth, and here too they work themselves into reality: Birnam Wood does, for instance, come to Dunsinane. There are no witches, though: it’s Thorfinn’s other-worldly step-son Lulach who sees and “tells you what has already happened, through many eyes.”

Groa, Lulach’s mother and Thorfinn’s wife, is also nothing like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Though she is secondary to Thorfinn in power and historical significance, she is (another common element in Dunnett’s novels) every bit his equal and partner as his wife and as a character. The development of their relationship was my favourite aspect of the novel. The beginning is inauspicious: he kills her husband and then marries her himself to secure his lands and victory. That’s no more than what’s expected, however, by them and by those around them. What’s unexpected is that gradually their rough pragmatic union changes into something more tender and profound, based on both intellectual and sexual reciprocity. Thorfinn calls it “soul-friendship”: it’s not demonstrative, and it is even dangerous, creating potential weakness where they both need to be resolute and fearless, but through everything, “steady and constant, the river ran as ever below,” bringing them comfort.”He knew no one like her,” Thorfinn thinks as the prophesied end draws near; “there had never been anyone like her.” Our knowledge that their marriage has been more than a war-forged necessity makes both her situation and her strength at the novel’s conclusion all the more dramatic.

There is much else to savor in King Hereafter: the battle scenes, for instance, which are tautly gripping and vivid with sound and color. There’s a sea battle in the first part in particular that had me completely caught up in the action. An array of memorable characters bring drama and interest in many different registers, from the glitter of Thorfinn’s beautiful, feral cousin Rognvald to the cunning and strength of Lady Godiva and England’s Queen Emma. If the names and genealogies and politics are sometimes mentally clogging, the scenic descriptions provide the perfect antidote — winter in Orkney, for instance, with

the winds that dragged through land and sea like a scraping-board and flung the green waves and the white against the storm-breach at Skaill until the heathland was salt a mile inland and the night sky was cuffed with pale breakers.

Or on the shores of Caithness, “where the biggest headland of all stood dark red against the afternoon sky,” and

a man or a woman could lean on the wind as into the bosom of God and look upon the whole sunlit world of green grass and blue sea, from the land’s edge that lay towards Norway to the smudged snow-capped peak of Ben Loyal, far to the west. . .

Thorfinn’s travels take him across the sea to Norway and Sweden and even as far as Rome:

Terracotta and white in the sunlight, the slim columns stood; the reeled arcades, the thumbnail arches, the delicate boxes of brick, cross-pleated with stairway and portico. The triangles of pyramid and pediment. The assiduous tooth-comb of the aqueducts, bringing the rivers riding on triumphal arches. The domes; the campanile stalks; the tablets of fluted clay tile or chalked bronze with their feet in drifting blue smoke from the other, invisible roofs of reed and of wood.

There’s a wonderfully tactile quality to Dunnett’s prose, a lavishness, a profusion of specificity. Like A. S. Byatt or Hilary Mantel, Dunnett isn’t afraid of showing her work, and King Hereafter is thick with research. It never has the dreaded “info-dump” effect, though: also like those other great historical novelists, Dunnett understands how to make history palpable through her people.

Facing his defeat and death, Thorfinn wonders if he will be forgotten. His friend Sulien insists that “whatever Lulach may say, men will look back and see a king who strove to build for his people.” This is not the story we now know most readily about Macbeth, but Dunnett offers something monumental to stand beside Shakespeare’s very different story, a book in which, as her Macbeth envisions, his name is written, and in something other than blood.

“A Kind of Investigation Into a Life”: Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

stegnerNear the end of Angle of Repose its narrator, retired historian Lyman Ward, is talking with his ex-wife about the book he’s been working on. (Actually, it turns out that he dreamed that he was talking to his ex-wife, but the whole episode, including this conversation, is so unremarkably plausible as a continuation of the story he’s been recounting that even he has to “persuade [himself] that it was all a dream” — an unexpected variation on the novel’s theme of blurred lines between fact and fiction.) Asked its title, he offers up the ones he has been considering — including Angle of Repose, a moment that bounces us deftly into metafiction — and then shrugs off the question:

Forget it. It doesn’t matter. The title’s the least of it. . . It isn’t a book anyway, it’s just a kind of investigation into a life.

 Angle of Repose — that is, the novel that Wallace Stegner has written, not (necessarily) the non-book Lyman Ward contemplates — is exactly that, an investigation into a life. But whose life? Ostensibly, it explores the life of Lyman’s grandmother, illustrator and writer Susan Ward, reconstructing it from sources including her letters and notebooks as well as her published writings and drawings. And a very interesting life it is, too: from an elegant, cultured existence in Brooklyn Heights, surrounded by sophisticated people and domestic luxuries, she moves west with her engineer husband Oliver to places that, in the 1870s, were still works in progress as outposts of American “civilization.” As jobs come and go and hopes rise and fall, they move around, from California to Colorado, from Idaho to Mexico, each time in a new way re-establishing themselves as at home.

In all his guises (as narrator, as Lyman, as Susan), Stegner writes wonderfully about the landscapes of their travels. (So too, perhaps, does Mary Hallock Foote, the real 19th-century woman on whom Susan Ward is based and some of whose letters are incorporated verbatim into the novel — I say “perhaps” because her materials are not identified so I don’t know what words are hers.) The descriptions are never conspicuously stylish or artful. They are just wonderfully specific and tactile:

They came out onto a plateau and passed through aspens still leafless, with drifts deep among the trunks, then through a scattering of alpine firs that grew runty and gnarled and gave way to brown grass that showed the faintest tint of green on the southward slopes and disappeared under deep snowbanks on the northward ones. The whole high upland glittered with light.

Or, from one of Susan’s letters:

I wish I could make you feel a place like Kuna. It is a place where silence closes about you after the bustle of the train, where a soft, dry wind from great distances hums through the telephone wires and a stage road goes out of sight in one direction and a new railroad track in another. There is not a tree, nothing but sage. As moonlight unto sunlight is that desert sage to other greens. The wind has magic in it, and the air is full of birds and birdsong. Meadowlarks pipe all around us, something else — pipits? true skylarks? — rains down brief sweet showers of notes from the sky. Hawks sail far up in the blue, magpies fly along ahead, coming back now and then like ranging dogs to make sure you are not lost. Not a house, windmill, hill, only that jade-gray plain with lilac mountains on every distant horizon. The mountains companionably move along with you as the dirt road flows behind. The plain, like a great Lazy Susan, turns gravely, and as it turns it brings into view primroses blooming in the sand, and cactus pads with great red and yellow blooms as showy as hibiscus.

I’m not at all a “roughing it in the bush” type, but often reading Angle of Repose I wished I could step outside into the fresh air of a pine forest and dabble my feet in a rushing brook.

The people in the story, Susan and Oliver in particular, are as vivid and three-dimensional as their surroundings, and the story of their marriage — which survives, despite frequent separations, repeated disappointments and disagreements, tragic loss, and personal betrayals, for 60 years — is full of insight and human drama. But ultimately this biographical story is neither the most important nor the most interesting aspect of Angle of Repose. For one thing, it’s embedded in Lyman’s own story: the dream sequence near the end makes even clearer what has been implicitly evident all along, which is that Lyman is investigating his grandmother’s life as a way of trying to understand his own. Crippled by disease, confined to a wheelchair, in near-constant pain,  increasingly dependent on others’ care and fearful of losing what autonomy remains to him, Lyman finds in the activity of his mind both distraction from and consolation for the limitations of his body. Forced to retire from his work as a history professor, he can at least pursue his vocation as a historian, and in a manner that also provides him with a way of reflecting, by proxy, on his failed marriage, his relationship with his son, and the inevitable constrictions of his future. In Lyman’s story too there is much insight and even some drama — though that, for him, often borders uncomfortably on farce, and his wry self-awareness keeps pathos at bay.

What exactly is Lyman’s “vocation,” though? “It isn’t history,” says his assistant Shelly at one point; “you’re making half of it up.” Shelly is specifically concerned about what she considers his reticence about his grandparents’ sex life: “You get close,” she says, “and blip, you turn off the light.” “I may look to you like a novelist,” he responds, “but I’m still a historian under the crust. . . I stick with the actual. That’s what they would have done, turned off the light.” The discussion that follows, about changing mores and whether a historian can or should respect the values of his subject (“There are hints in the letters,” Shelly argues; “You could extrapolate”; “She valued her privacy,” Lyman retorts on his grandmother’s behalf; “she would never in this life have extrapolated. Neither would I.”) is interesting in itself, but the broader question of genre is even more interesting, and one that permeates Angle of Repose — itself a novel based so closely on a particular historical record that the some members of the family involved were apparently deeply offended by Stegner’s deviations from “the truth” but also considered him guilty of plagiarism for the unattributed letters he included.* Stegner created fiction from fact; so does Susan, who publishes both “sketches” and novels based on her Western experiences; and so too does Lyman, though he calls what he’s doing “history.”

The boundaries are difficult to police (as has been discussed explicitly at great and highly theoretical length at least since Hayden White’s Metahistory was published in 1973, and implicitly for at least as long as “historical fiction” has been a recognizable category) because even when the recorded facts are strictly adhered to, they require both interpretation and placement into a coherent narrative. There are always gaps, whether of evidence or of understanding. “I have to make it up, or part of it,” Lyman admits when he arrives at one of the pivotal events in Susan’s family history; “All I know is the what and not all of that; the how and the why are all speculation.” Even when the evidence is abundant, there’s always a process of selection: who decides what is “historical”? on what basis? according to what standard of relevance or significance? “A historian scans a thousand documents,” notes Lyman, “to find one fact he can use”:

If he is working with correspondence, as I am, and with the correspondence of a woman to boot, he will wade towards his little islands of information through a dismal swamp of recipes, housekeeping details, children’s diseases, insignificant visitors, inconclusive conversations with people unknown to the historian, and recitations of what the writer did yesterday.

Here we see even Lyman rather cavalierly discarding as useless all kinds of material that historians trained in different (later) schools of historiography would readily and eagerly incorporate into their accounts of pioneer life. And in fact Lyman does not disdain this “swamp” of domestic trivia: his account of Susan’s life is fully of it, and the story he (re)constructs is one that eschews many conventional notions of historical significance. As Stegner’s novel opens, Lyman is being harrassed by his cloddish son Rodman, who thinks he should “give up this business of Grandmother’s papers and write a book on ‘somebody interesting.'” Rodman, you see, has looked at some of Susan Ward’s work and seen “nothing in them”:

All full of pious renunciations, he says, everything covered up with Victorian antimacassars. He cited me her own remark that she wrote from the protected point of view, the woman’s point of view, as evidence that she went through her life from inexperience to inexperience.

Rodman has inadvertently stumbled on another issue that has also been written about extensively: the way in which ideas of “historical significance” have traditionally been gendered. Lyman himself is well aware that the “real” history is happening somewhere else while he stays at home with Susan Ward: over and over Oliver and his colleagues ride off to do manly work (“They departed like a Crusade,” observes Susan at one point) but it’s her perspective we share, and Stegner often makes the point that she too, with her home-making and domestic chores, but also with the cultural aspirations she carried with her and the drawings and stories she created to build bridges of understanding between East and West, was engaged in building a nation. It’s just that her experiences could easily be dismissed, as Rodman dismisses them, as “inexperience,” an error Angle of Repose corrects simply by paying attention to them.

Stegner’s exploration of these historiographical themes seems almost prescient: Angle of Repose was published in 1971, so just as both women’s history and historical narrative were emerging as major fields of theoretical and scholarly inquiry. Looking at the conclusion to my book about gender and genre in 19th-century historical writing, I’m reminded that Gerda Lerner’s “New Approaches to the Study of Women in History” appeared in 1969; Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s “Placing Women’s History in History” in 1975; Joan Kelly’s “Did Women Have a Renaissance” in 1977. Many others followed White in exploring ways historical narrative could be read in literary ways: an essay I drew on a lot in my own earlier work was Louis O. Mink’s “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument.”

Angle of Repose in fact made me think often of my research on gender and genre: though his specifics are very different from my own examples, we’re both looking into who gets written about, by whom, and in what form. The writing he (or Lyman, as his proxy) actually does about Susan Ward resonated very much for me with the novel that provides the final example in my book, Daphne Marlatt’s 1988 novel Ana Historic, in which her story of a frontier woman is also framed by a contemporary perspective and motivated by resistance to rules about who matters, about who (or what) counts as historical:

i learned that history is the real story the city fathers tell of the only important events in the world. a tale of their exploits hacked out against a silent backdrop of trees, of wooden masses, so many claims to fame, so many ordinary men turned into heroes. (where are the city mothers?) the city fathers busy building a town out of so many shacks labelled the Western Terminus of the Transcontinental. Gateway to the East — all these capital letters to convince themselves of its, of their, significance.

As I argued in my book, I think Marlatt’s vision in Ana Historic is “ultimately exclusionary: for her, women’s history can achieve authenticity only through isolation from masculinity in both life and representation.” Stegner, in contrast, seems committed to reconciling difference and opposition:

What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.

 That “angle of repose” seems to me something that Stegner achieves, not just for his characters, but for the historical and fictional imperatives that underlie Angle of Repose.


*Jackson J. Benson’s introduction to my Penguin edition explains the permutations of Stegner’s negotiations with the Foote family.

Rose Tremain, Restoration

restoration

I really enjoyed Rose Tremain’s Restoration, which an excellent friend promptly posted to me when I needed a bit of cheering up. (Everyone should have a friend like that!) Not that Restoration is very cheerful, but a good novel is always a tonic, isn’t it? And Restoration is awfully good. Like Wolf Hall, it’s a historical novel that is less about history than about character — which is not to say that these aren’t books steeped in research and full of marvelously tactile historical details, but that the detail never seems decorative (or pedantic) because it is so integral to the lives into which we enter. In both novels, also, those lives are not just individual characters but embody the character of their age.

Restoration‘s structuring idea is right there in its title, which is both the familiar name of the era during which the novel is set (the restoration of the Stuart monarchy under Charles II) and the encapsulated story of its protagonist, Robert Merivel. Merivel’s personal flourishing, fall, and reinvention represent (on Tremain’s telling) the larger struggles of an age marked by both gaudy materialism and earnest moral striving (embodied in Restoration by Merivel’s Quaker friend Pearce). The vacuousness of a life with no aim but luxury, and with no occupation but idle amateurism, brings Merivel little substantial happiness — and no reconciliation between his literal heart and his true heart, a dichotomy literalized for us early on when, as a student, Merivel has the opportunity to hold a living heart in his hand:

My hand entered the cavity. I opened my fingers and, with the same care I had applied, as a boy, to the stealing of eggs from birds’ nests, took hold of the heart, Still, the man showed no sign of pain. Fractionally, I tightened my grip. The beat remained strong and regular. I was about to withdraw my hand when the stranger said: ‘Are you touching the organ, Sir?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘don’t you feel the pressure of my fingers?’

‘No. I feel nothing at all.’ . . .

Ergo, the organ we call the human heart and which is defined, in our human consciousness, as the seat – or even deified as the throne – of all powerful emotion, from unbearable sorrow to ecstatic love, is in itself utterly without feeling.

A selfish lout — a buffoon, even — for most of the early action of the novel, Merivel is brought low only to be restored — not to riches but to human dignity.

It’s not a euphoric redemption story, however, but something more difficult and uneasy: Merivel’s progress is halting, his character imperfect, his actions often despicable. Merivel says it best himself: “I am erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful and sad.”

Rembrandt_van_Rijn_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project

His account of his own life hides none of these unattractive characteristics: aptly for the period, it’s a ‘warts and all‘ portrait. Tremain neatly incorporates this theme into the novel itself through the painter Finn, who begins by training Merivel in artistic idealization and ends a successful painter of “merchants, barristers, schoolmasters, drapers, cabinet-makers, clerks.” Finn’s new method is actually Merivel’s idea: “do not paint me as a rich man, dressed up in satin or with a sea battle going on behind my head; paint me as I am, in my old wig and in my shirtsleeves and in this simple room.” This idea, which “had only that second entered [his] mind,” is a sign of how far Merivel has come from his earlier ostentatious luxury and preening self-indulgence.

Merivel’s medical training is his one truly useful skill. He tries to dissociate himself from it because it interferes with his pleasures – on his wedding night, for instance (a vexed occasion anyway, as his new wife is the king’s mistress and the marriage designed to be a sham) he is overcome with horror during a musical performance:

I stare at Sir Joshua’s face, looking down towards his viola, and, layer by layer, in my anatomist’s sadness, I peel back skin and muscle and nerve and tendons, until I can see only the white bone of his skull, the empty sockets of the eyes . . .

All my anatomical studies seem to have brought me to a great sadness. When a man plays a viola da gamba, I want to share in his joy, not see his skull. For where will such visions end? . . . Such a perpetual and visible awareness of mortality would, I am certain, bring me to despair in a very short time. . . .

I must avoid, then, coming to despair and madness. I must try to forget anatomy. Forget it utterly.

But though he doesn’t understand this for some time, it’s precisely this attempt to forget what is real that sends Merivel close to madness and despair: close in both senses, as he ends up, at his lowest ebb, assisting Pearce and a group of other Friends at a hospital for the insane, and also ends up himself on the verge of what might be madness — seeing things and hearing sounds that aren’t really there, lost in “a colossal epidemic of dreaming.”

Tremain is too wise to make medicine a simple cure for Merivel: he does not, for instance, discover a miraculous cure for the plague and rise up heroically sure in his vocation — instead he ends up peddling what he himself considers a quack remedy for it. He doesn’t save anybody with a brilliant surgery — instead, he sits by largely helpless while two people very close to him die. There’s no inspirational turning point or epiphany. But his experiences strip away the pretense in his life as surely as they strip away his excess body fat:

I had grown most peculiarly thin. The waist of the breeches was too large for me by more than two inches, so that the wretched things would not stay up, and, when I put the coat on my back, it hung out from my body like a cape. . . .

For the whole of my life I had never been thin. . . . Now, all the flesh was falling away and every bone in me being slowly unsheathed and made visible.

“I began,” he concludes, “to consider the possibility that I was dying.” This moment seems to me to bring us back to his horror at the viola player’s skull: in acknowledging his own mortality, Merivel is finally ready to begin living a life in which his body and his spirit work together. And so he returns to the home he once prized (and over-decorated) so greedily and is given a chance to start again.