The Whipple Line: Someone At A Distance

whipple“We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: ‘Below the Whipple line.'” — Carmen Callil

A few years back, reading Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide got me thinking about “books that are bad in uninteresting ways and books that are bad and yet somehow still interesting.” The Dark Tide, I concluded, was of the second sort: conspicuously flawed but energetic and purposeful in a way that made me want to engage with it. Reading Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At A Distance made me wonder: can a book be good and yet also uninteresting? What would that mean, exactly, for any reasonable definition of “good”? Reverting, as I often do, to George Henry Lewes’s remarks about Jane Austenthat she was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end”maybe what it means is that a book can be good on its own terms (the means to its end), but that those terms (that end) might not be particularly challenging or complex.*

In the end, that’s what I felt about Someone At A Distance. It read very easily: its interlocking stories of an English family and the young French woman who infiltrates and then destroys it are neatly executed; its people are sharply delineated; the consequences of the affair are believably painful, especially for the blindsided Ellen, who up to the very moment her husband Avery’s betrayal is revealed has thought herself the happiest of wives. She is wholly unprepared for a life without him at its center. “We’re not the new sort of women,” an unlikely ally later tells her,

with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the Radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. We’re ordinary women, who married too young to get a training, and we’ve spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty.

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Whipple conveys Ellen’s shock and grief with real pathos. She also does a good job with Ellen and Avery’s daughter Anne, knocked abruptly out of her childhood idyll by these adult complications:

They stood in the morning sunlight, looking at each other, and from her mother’s face Anne learned, in another lesson, that the grown-up world was not what she had thought it was, not a place of power and fulfilment, but a place of helplessness, pain and ugliness. A world not to enter. Until now, Anne had run joyfully forward, but now she was halted. She shrank back. She had learnt suspicion and distrust and most of all the fear of life that sickens the youthful heart and from which it takes too long to recover, if recover it does.

That’s all pretty well done, I think, and the unfolding of Ellen’s gradual recovery in counterpoint with Avery’s bitterness and regret carries the novel nicely through to its conclusion.

whipple-3But. It really doesn’t do more than tell this story. There aren’t any layers to it. The characters are fairly two dimensional, especially the French temptress Louise, who to me was the novel’s weakest element. She’s a selfish narcissist who takes what she wants for her own gratification. The whole catastrophe, in fact, is the result of her resentment at an old lover in her home town in France, himself blithely ignorant “that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking up of that family” or with the rift that opens up between Louise and her own parents. Her unmitigated nastiness sapped the novel of any chance of a real moral or emotional dilemma at its center: Avery is wrong to get involved with her and that’s that. Whipple plays out the moves on the board she has set up, but there’s nothing in it for us to think about: we just follow it all through to the end. And that is just not a terribly interesting exercise: Ellen is a bit of a limp noodle, and the solution that unfolds to her problem of finding her own place in the world is too pat, too easy.

trollopeI did enjoy Someone At A Distance in the moment, but I also found myself comparing it unfavorably to another much better book (in my opinion) about an affair, Joanna Trollope’s Marrying the Mistress. In Trollope’s novel the “mistress” is a genuinely sympathetic character; the relationship that develops creates a genuine tension for the husband and then, eventually, for his children, who can’t help but like his new partner in spite of their loyalty to their mother; and the marriage that ends, while not a bad one, has weak spots that made it vulnerableindeed, that maybe even made its end, while painful, a change worth bringing about. Yet even though her mistress is not an evil temptress, Trollope is less sentimental about love, and less blandly optimistic about fixing what has been broken. Someone At A Distance ends with the promise of restoration, but why? Knowing what she now knows about her husband, what is that promise worth to Ellen? I didn’t really care, though: by that point I was ready to be finished with her.

I guess for me the bottom line (my version of the Whipple line?) is that competence in story-telling, and even in characterization, isn’t enough. I’d rather read a more ambitious novel that falls short than a novel that doesn’t do more than Someone At A Distance, no matter how well it’s done. I think Carmen Callil may have been on to something with her disparagement of Whipple as not quite good enough. And yet I can’t argue with the introduction, which praises Whipple’s ability to “take an ordinary tale and make it compulsive reading.”

*I am not saying Austen is not great! Just that the idea of suiting means to end is a useful way to gauge literary success.

“I’m a disgrace”: Cressida Connolly, After the Party

connollyWe all have our crosses to bear, our own personal sorrows. Mine is that the people who should be dearest to me, my own children, my sisters, consider me a bad woman. The grandchildren have been taught to be wary. I think I’m a disgrace to them, really. After the war when the newsreel film was shown of what had gone on in Germany and Poland, those places, the horrors . . . It all got tangled up in their minds, as if we’d stood for such barbarism.

Reading Cressida Connolly’s After the Party I kept waiting for the storm to burst–for some twist or spin or revelation to up-end the unnervingly sedate account of an upper-crust family’s entanglement with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.  It never really happened, and as I finished the novel I felt disappointed, but then as I sat and thought about it for a while I started to wonder if the easy slide of the whole story was in fact the point. For Phyllis, the main character, “the party” is just another political option. She is baffled and offended when her ailing mother’s caretaker tells her off: “I’ve no quarrel with her,” she says;

She doesn’t parade about the streets in uniform, like your children and your sister Nina. It’s you two that need to look to your consciences, following that wicked man … You with your salutes and uniforms and speechifying: you’re nothing better than a bunch of traitors. Thugs they are, most of them. Just because you don’t bring your flags and banners here, don’t think word doesn’t spread.

“Our politics are no concern of yours; nor yours of ours,” Phyllis replies huffily; “We vote by secret ballot in these islands for this very reason, so that neighbours and friends shall not be divided by their beliefs.”

connolly-2Even after her long imprisonment Phyllis remains indignant that her commitment to Mosley’s cause has cost her anything at all and especially that it has led to people concluding she is not a good person. It would be at once pathetic and laughable if it weren’t also plausible and unhappily timely: Phyllis insists that she and her fascist friends were very fine people. The novel approaches them with sly delicacy, never presenting them as outright villains but allowing the us to experience their moral corruption through the lens of Phyllis’s own self-justifications. It also focuses on the personal relationships that naturalize and sanitize the fascist cause for those directly involved, keeping the political context just vague enough that the reader almost has to shake herself to remember that what they stand for is not acceptable, that fascism isn’t just one reasonable choice among many no matter how elegantly its proponents are dressed or how preoccupied they are with their families, lovers, and friends.

There’s something sly about the way the novel mimics a different kind of country-house saga, just as there’s something quietly insidious about the ease with which, once introduced to it by her sister Nina, Phyllis and her husband Hugh embrace the Party and come to admire “the Leader.” They aren’t coerced or bullied; they aren’t suffering from economic anxiety or facing any deprivation or threat; they just go to luncheons and picnics and summer camps and dinner parties … with Oswald Mosley. It’s all superficially very civilized–but under this influence their daughter Julia vandalizes a local theater with the slogan “PJ” (for “Perish Judah”). Phyllis is initially uneasy. “Surely that’s taking things rather too far,” she says to Nina; “I don’t suppose any of them have ever even seen a Jew,” to which Nina knowingly replies, “You’re not quite up to speed with it all.” Hugh, too, is unconcerned: the theatre troupe is made up of “frightful people” who refused to rent their space to the Party when “the Leader himself was coming down to give a talk”: “the theatre people were quite rude. Said our views were against the principles of common decency, anathema, that sort of thing.” When Phyllis argues that “we don’t want anyone to perish,” Hugh urges her not to “overreact.” And so Phyllis slips ever further into the abyss.

So much for a free country,” Phyllis complains as she looks back on the disgrace she and Hugh faced after their release; “You may have the freedom to express your views, but they’ll still damn you for them.” Anti-semitic violence, apologists for fascism, self-righteous hostility about deplatforming “controversial” speakers, willfully ignorant both-sides arguments, and over it all a veneer of civility that smugly insists protest and confrontation are more offensive than the loathsome ideology being protested against: it’s a good thing After the Party is a historical novel–we wouldn’t want to see anything like that going on today!

“Side By Side”: Rachel Malik, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

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The light was fading more quickly now. Looking across the fields, they could just make out the roofs of the village where the swifts were still flocking their hectic patterns.

They walked up the lane quietly now and easy; side by side they dwindled into the darkening.

Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a novel as reticent and unassuming as its protagonists, and yet–also like Elsie and Rene–it is full of quiet intensity. Precise in its historical and geographical placing, it strongly evokes its rural settings and the women’s tough, marginalized existence as they work hard, first on Elsie’s farm, where Rene arrives in 1940 to work as a “land girl,” and then, when they are forced to relocate, in a string of different locations that become, often precariously, their homes. The novel does not romanticize their labor, but when, near the end, Elsie is ridiculed for describing their lives as “rich,” we understand what she means. They had enough, and they had each other.

In some respects the central event of the novel is the death of an unwanted guest, taken in out of obligation, who makes a mess of the women’s hard but peaceful life together. His coarse, messy intrusions wreak havoc in their house and with their routines until time together on their own terms becomes rare and precious:

They were still able to glean a little time for themselves at the weekends. . . . There were occasions when they got through most of the paper before they heard Ernest stirring and grumbling. Other times, they would go downstairs before he woke and share breakfast, just the two of them, and the spoilt, skittish Jugger [their dog]–it was such a treat. But neither of them could avoid a sense of dread when they heard him on the stairs, and Jugger cowered.

The very thinness of their pleasures makes Ernest’s ruination of them all the more despicable as he snoops and drinks and provokes. It is hard not to feel protective of Elsie and Rene, who have asked (and received) so little from life; this inevitable taking of sides not only turns us against Ernest but makes it impossible for us to be sorry when he dies–even when it turns out that he was poisoned and Rene is arrested for the murder.

boston-hargreaves-2Although Ernest’s murder and the subsequent trial are the novel’s central plot points, however, or at least its most dramatic ones, it’s interesting how easily subsumed their effects are in the novel’s quieter undercurrents. Surely an act as significant as murder should turn the novel itself into melodrama, should in some way transform our perspective on its characters. How can a woman dubbed “the weedkiller killer” by the tabloids seem so harmless–seem almost, even more provocatively, like a victim herself? Ernest, though abhorrent, is surely not so evil that he deserves his fate, and Elsie and Rene are hardly heroic figures of resistance, to patriarchy or to anything else. Yet all they ever wanted was to live quietly and honestly, and together, and as the lawyers and journalists gather and gawk, Ernest starts to seem in retrospect like a graceless embodiment of all the social forces that try to make something strange and ugly out of their intimacy. The glare of publicity exposes them to all the prurience the novel itself scrupulously avoids:

There was little outright hostility to Rene or Elsie but, slowly and carefully, the two women had to be taken to the vantage point from where the court collectively perceived them. It was not a deliberate tactic, and it was undertaken without relish, but common sense was relentless . . .

What did Rene and Elsie look like from the top of common-sense hill? In summary: odd, most certainly odd, and probably lesbians, odd and poor and gradually ground down by a situation that tainted them. The court knew how they were trying to do their best, but in the end they had had to ‘make do.’ They were certainly respectable, but no one would choose their life. Quillet and Clifford, prosecution and defense, were both convinced that Rene and Elsie wouldn’t have chosen it either, if there had been any alternative. Theirs was, by definition, a second-best life.

It is a conclusion not just condescending but deeply insulting, against which the novel sets the simple but profound loyalty of the two women to each other, extraordinary only in its very indifference to external definitions or judgments.

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is based on the story of the author’s grandmother, “a black sheep if ever there was one,” Malik says in her “historical note.” She outlines the sources she drew on, including census records, police records, and newspaper reports. Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is, however, she asserts, “a fiction and not a speculation,” by which I take her to mean that she is telling a story attached lightly to the facts, rather than proposing that her story is in fact what really happened. It’s a fine distinction, I think, and also a thought-provoking one. I’m not entirely sure why Malik thought it was an important one to (try to) draw, but my feeling is that it has something to do with preserving the privacy of the originals, a paradoxical wish, perhaps, for people whose lives she has specifically and consciously brought into the light but who, as she imagines them, are happiest dwindling into the dark.

“What a Thing!” George Saunders, Tenth of December

tenth-of-decemberWhat a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this! Warmth, colors, antlers on the walls, an old-time crank phone like you saw in silent movies. It was something. Every second was something. He hadn’t died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn’t dead. He’d killed no one. Ha! Somehow he’d got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was —

Although I found several of the stories in it interesting and memorable, I didn’t much like Tenth of December until I read “Tenth of December,” the final story in the collection. Perhaps this is a lesson in the importance of reading to the end; it is certainly a reminder that abandoning books part way through brings the risk of missing what is best about them.

I was doing OK, if not great, with Tenth of December until I got to “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” Up to that point the story I’d appreciated the most was “Sticks”; I was gripped by both “Victory Lap” and “Puppy,” and “Escape from Spiderhead” moved quickly enough that I didn’t quite tire of the conceit before it ended. Then, unfortunately, I really bogged down in “The Semplica Girl Diaries”: it was obviously doing a lot, but the story’s concept was so aggressive, its execution so heavy-handed, that for me the whole exercise just drowned out any underlying humanity in the story itself. (I’m not saying it isn’t there: just that the style and conceit were very distancing for me.) This slowed my momentum in the collection to the point that I nearly didn’t pick it up again.

Nevertheless, I persisted with Tenth of December, both because of Lincoln in the Bardo and because of Saunders’ reputation, including with readers whose sensibilities I trust. “Home” was a better experience for me; “My Chivalric Fiasco” was worse. Then I read “Tenth of December.” This story put a lot less gimmickry in my way; it was the only story in the book that seemed to me clearly written by the author of Lincoln in the Bardo. I loved it. One in ten: not a great ratio, if you weigh every reading experience equally, but I don’t think art really works that way. Reading “Tenth of December” made reading Tenth of December more than worthwhile to me. That’s part of the trick of short fiction, isn’t it? The brevity of the form means writers can try a lot of things, take a lot of chances, be a lot of different things–if they want to (as Saunders clearly does). And one really solid connection is, really, everything that matters.

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My edition of Tenth of December includes a conversation between Saunders and David Sedaris. I enjoyed their discussion very much. I read it before I got to “Tenth of December” and I thought at that point that my blog post about the collection might end up noting that I liked what Saunders had to say about short stories more than I liked his short stories themselves! (As it turned out, that was only partly true.) Saunders comments that people often say his work is cruel or angry; he acknowledges the truth of this and suggests it is “a bit of a technical flaw” but one that reflects who he is and how he sees the world. I actually wouldn’t have thought to call the stories cruel, but I did think that they were mostly kind of cold: that they were driven primarily by whatever concept animated them and so they came off as technical, even virtuosic, but lacking in the quality I would call heart. This is not to say that they aren’t in their own way sympathetic and often poignant: it’s just that what tenderness they have towards the characters, or towards the human condition,  seemed to me to be hard to feel under the performance of self-conscious cleverness.

tenth-3Naturally, my mixed and sometimes vexed response to Tenth of December got me thinking about what contemporary short fiction I have responded to more readily and positively. Because I don’t read a lot of short stories, I really don’t have a lot of other examples to draw on. I was very impressed with Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, but my favorite fairly recent short story is probably Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies.” I have but have not read all of the collection it comes from. I think I will go back to it now and see what else is there. For those of you who read a lot more short stories than I do: is there a writer in the genre you’d recommend to me, knowing that I’m a realist by instinct and training, that my favorite classic short story is (predictable but true) “The Dead,” and that I get irritable with stories that are more cleverly self-referential than they are committed to storytelling?

Re-Learning Patience

piggy puddle pictureI wrote a post a while back about being in the “muddy, muddy middle” of a project and learning to accept that feeling of muddle as both an inevitable and a necessary stage of the (or at least my) writing process. “I’m learning,” I said then, “to trust my own process more,” and I do, these days–more or less. I still feel stress during that phase, but I recognize it for what it is rather than falling into a panic or succumbing to imposter syndrome just because I don’t at the moment know exactly what I have to say or what form it will take.

It has been a longer while, though, since I was in the middle of a longer project: for some time now I have been writing exclusively essays and book reviews maxing out around 5000 words and sometimes constrained to as few as 300. Working within these narrower parameters is sometimes frustrating–at this point, as I have mentioned here before, I am eager for a chance to stretch, to prove (to myself as much as to current or prospective editors) that I can say and do more. There are some things I like a lot, though, about writing shorter pieces with imminent deadlines, and one of them is that time spent in the muddy middle is, almost by definition, also short.

holtby-woolfSince my recent “but why always Dorothea?” moment about my research, however, as I have begun to look again at the writers and questions that interested me during my previous work on the “Somerville novelists,” I have realized that I am out of practice at coping with the larger-scale muddle that you enter into when you don’t have such narrow goals and limited time frames established at the outset and in fact aren’t even sure what you are trying to do. It’s not that I’m completely aimless right now: I know the territory I want to be in, and I have a sense of the conversations that I want to listen to and then join, albeit in some as-yet uncertain way. I said only half jokingly on Twitter that so far what I’ve done is put all the books I think are relevant into a pile: that’s not all I’ve done, but it is actually part of what I’m doing, not literally but mentally, and it is helpful because the juxtapositions in themselves start to raise questions that interest me. I’m also gathering references, trying to get oriented in the relevant critical landscape(s), which means trying to figure out what those are! I’m doing what I would call “reading around,” not chasing answers to a particular question but trying to learn enough that I can frame a good question.

These are all reasonable things to be doing in the early stages of research–and I do think that I am doing research, even though I haven’t yet defined its scope or specific objectives. So far, though, it all feels quite diffuse, amorphous, and potentially overwhelming. I have been struggling to remind myself that this happened before when I changed research directions, and that it is okay to take time to learn–and there’s a lot to learn! Patience, not panic, is what’s required, but it’s one thing to know that and another to actually be calm and confident about it, and that’s where I have been struggling. I need to keep in mind that this is the same process, just on a larger scale.

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Anxiety aside, I do like what I am have been doing over the last few weeks. I am excited by the things I’ve been reading and the questions and connections they have prompted me to think about, and that’s a really good feeling. One specific example would be my recent reading of The Years. In my post about it, I emphasized my inability to grasp what is going on in the novel, but I didn’t mention why I chose to read The Years right now. It’s because when I started going back through my Somerville notes and posts, I was reminded how stimulating I had found Winifred Holtby’s book on Virginia Woolf and Woolf’s Three Guineas. Since I needed what Eliot in Daniel Deronda calls “the make-believe of a beginning” for whatever this new project is, I decided that I would start (again) there, with what (to me) is Holtby’s fascinating exercise of sympathetically studying a writer whose fiction she found entirely “alien,” and with my own preference for Woolf’s “tracts” over her novels. Holtby’s book was finished (and Holtby herself had died) before The Years was published, but I was intrigued by descriptions of it as Woolf’s most overtly social or political novel, and also by knowing that it and Three Guineas were initially going to be part of one hybrid essay-novel.

Penguin YearsI struggled with The Years, but I was also very interested in it, at least conceptually. I’ve been reading about it since then, especially about the splitting of the original project into two separate books. I’ve also been thinking about Holtby’s own fiction, especially South Riding, and her self-deprecating description of herself as a “publicist” (rather than an artist / aesthete), and about other novels that are like The Years in giving fictional form to social and political commentary but in very different ways, such as (surprise!) Middlemarch, but also North and South. I hadn’t planned to put any Victorian novels into my pile of relevant books this time, but there they are now, and that has got me thinking about things like periodization and genre and the ways we group or differentiate writers, especially women writers, which brings me back to Holtby’s critical approach, and I’m also interested in Holtby’s political journalism, which reminds me both of the anti-fascist arguments in Three Guineas and of the links between gender politics and fascism in Gaudy Night, which also includes reflections on fictional form and genre . . .

As you can tell, this is not an orderly process! It’s chaos, it’s a mess, it’s a muddle, and I’m in the middle of it. Actually, I’m not even in the middle: I’m just at the beginning of it, and that’s why I need to be patient, with the work and with myself. I have the luxury of time that I am supposed to use for reading and thinking; I should not squander it by fretting or rushing. Even now, after just a couple of weeks, I think I have made some preliminary decisions, not about what to write, yet, but about what’s a priority to read next: more about and from Woolf during the time she was writing The Years and Three Guineas, more about and from Holtby related to her ideas about fiction and (as) politics, more scholarship about women writers and the ‘social novel’ across the Victorian-Modern divide. Before too long, I will also reread The Years, better equipped to see what Woolf is doing–and, in some ways more interesting to me, what she is not doing there that she does in Three Guineas. That seems like progress: it’s almost a plan! Now I just need to take some deep breaths, stop fretting, and get on with it. Slowly.

“Who Is Kim?”: Rudyard Kipling, Kim

broadview-kim“Hai mai! I go from one place to another as it might be a kickball. It is my Kismet. No man can escape his Kismet. But I am to pray to Bibi Miriam, and I am a Sahib”–he looked at his boots ruefully. “No; I am Kim. This is the great world, and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?” He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before, till his head swam. He was one insignificant person in all this roaring whirl of India, going southward to he knew not what fate.

I read Kim because it–and Kipling more generally–seemed like a gap in my knowledge of “my” field. It seemed plausible to me before I read it that I might add it to the reading list for my course in the late(r) 19th-century novel (though strictly speaking, Kim is a 20th-century novel, as it was originally published in 1901). Without knowing much specific about it, I did know that it was about an English boy growing up in India and thus about empire and colonialism and national identity (again, strictly speaking, Kim turns out to be Irish, which is of course relevant to those themes as well). It is indeed about those things. I imagined it was some combination of adventure story and Bildungsroman–and, again, it is indeed both of those things. I also imagined it would be lively and entertaining to read. Hmmm.

oxford=kimI guess it was lively and entertaining, occasionally, and it was also occasionally beautiful and poetic, and funny, and suspenseful. But I also found it something of a slog to get through, mostly because so much of the dialogue is a wearying blend of theatrical posturing and archaisms. The latter, and perhaps also the former, are meant (I assume) to give the language a “foreign” air so that we know the characters are not actually speaking in English–and there are also idioms and allusions drawn from the characters’ various cultures and languages that add to the effect. A small sample, from the first chapter:

“But I now see that he was but sent upon a purpose. By this I know that I shall find a certain River for which I seek.”

“The River of the Arrow?” said Kim, with a superior smile.

“Is this yet another Sending?” cried the lama. “To none have I spoken of my search, save to the Priest of the Images. Who art thou?”

“Thy chela,” said Kim simply, sitting on his heels. “I have never seen anyone like to thee in all this my life. I go with thee to Benares. And, too, I think that so old a man as thou, speaking truth to chance-met people at dusk, is in great need of a disciple.”

Perhaps it doesn’t seem so bad in a snippet, but I found it pretty tedious and sometimes just hard to follow when it goes on (as it often does) for pages. I suppose I would get better at it, feel more at home in it, with practice. I don’t find Scots dialect in Scott particularly hard to follow, after all–and I have even made a case for the value of an estranging idiom in Romola. I really did have a hard time with it here, though.

penguin-kimOn the other hand, I loved Kipling’s scene setting, which is vivid and concrete and rich in detail. From the crowded streets of Lahore to the mountains of Tibet, he shows us the sights, and conjures up the sounds and smells of the landscape as well. “This was seeing the world in real truth,” Kim thinks as he looks around one bright morning on the road:

this was life as he would have it–bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within ear-shot went to work. India was awake, and Kim was in the middle of it, more awake and more excited than anyone, chewing on a twig that he would presently use as a toothbrush; for he borrowed right-and left-handedly from all the customs of the country he knew and loved.

(As a side note, Kim is the only novel from the period that I can think of in which characters are so regular and explicit about cleaning their teeth! They mention it a lot.) Here’s another nice bit:

So they travelled very easily across and among the broad bloomful fruit-gardens. . . . After long, sweet sleep under the dry stars cane the lordly, leisurely passage through a waking village–begging-bowl held forth in silence, but eyes roving in defiance of the Law from sky’s edge to sky’s edge. Then would Kim return soft-footed through the soft dust to his master under the shadow of a mango-tree or the thinner shade of a white Doon siris, to eat and drink at ease. . . .

These are the kinds of passages I found myself flagging as I went along, not the ones about Kim’s involvement in the Great Game or the lama’s ruminations on the Way or the Wheel of Life, or the elaborate schemes and ruses and quackery of Hurree Babu.

vintage-kimKim himself is a bit of a delight. I was disappointed that the novel ended so inconclusively, without clearly answering his oft-repeated question about his identity. Reading the very thorough introduction to my Broadview edition by Máiri ní Fhlathúin, I was not surprised to learn that this “unsatisfactory” ending has “proved amenable to many readings, and resistant to any conclusive interpretation”; the readings she summarizes focus primarily on how or whether Kim’s Indian and British identities are reconciled, whether he turns away from or is subsumed by his role as an agent of empire. His relationship with the lama is very sweet, though I personally found the lama kind of tedious (I have limited patience for “holy men” unless they do worldly good, and in my admittedly limited experience of Buddhism I have never found it particularly congenial).

I think Kim would be really interesting to teach, not least because (as Máiri ní Fhlathúin discusses) it is controversial as a novel about the British in India, vulnerable to charges of perpetuating orientalizing stereotypes and colonial attitudes but also defensible as a sympathetic and not uncritical exploration of a time of complex intersections between East and West. Also, the storytelling is great sometimes, and Kim’s charm, fearlessness, and ingenuity make him a very appealing protagonist. I would have to learn a lot to teach it well, but that’s really not a disincentive. What is, is my concern that students would have the same trouble I did persisting with it. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has taught or studied it, or just enjoyed reading it. Do I overestimate the problem? Perhaps (at least as likely) I underestimate the difficulty of, say, Dickens’s idiosyncratic dialects or Eliot’s carefully rendered midlands speech: Kim’s linguistic peculiarities may be no greater than these, only less familiar to me, and so not likely to be any more off-putting to students, in this respect at least, than Silas Marner or Hard Times.

Sad, Beautiful, Absurd: Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française

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How sad the world is, so beautiful yet so absurd . . . But what is certain is that in five, ten or twenty years, this problem unique according to our time, according to him, will no longer exist, it will be replaced by others . . . yet this music, the sound of this rain on the windows, the great mournful creaking of the cedar tree in the garden outside, this moment, so tender, so strange in the middle of war, this will never change, not this. This is for ever . . .

There are two aspects to Suite Française: the (unfinished) novel itself–two parts of an imagined five–and the story of its author, whose arrest, transportation, and eventual death at Auschwitz haunt her fiction about occupied France. It is difficult for me to disentangle my reading of the former from my response to the latter. I was interested enough in Suite Française, which is almost uncomfortably cool and acerbic in its depiction of its characters’ various trials and traumas. There’s no room for sentiment or heroism in Némirovsky’s portraits of people under extraordinary pressure–almost everybody is to some degree petty and self-absorbed, but her upper-class characters in particular are more afraid of losing their luxuries and privileges than they are of the larger and more dire implications of the German occupation.

I found Part I (“Storm in June”), about the flight from Paris as the Germans approached, more gripping than Part II (“Dolce”), about the uneasy relationship between the French characters and the occupying forces: the drama was more overt. Part II is more subtle, both morally and emotionally, as it deals with the difference between “the enemy” in the abstract and the all-too-real human beings sharing homes and gardens and public spaces with the vanquished. One thing that particularly struck me about Part I was that Némirovsky mostly avoided clichéd wartime melodrama: although the evacuees are bombed, for instance, the carnage seems almost incidental, and the two most shocking deaths in that part are only indirectly caused by the war. Part II is primarily about character and atmosphere until near the end, when it turns out Némirovsky has been laying the groundwork for a plot twist that, as her notes show, was going to drive a lot of the action in the subsequent parts.

suite-2I was interested, as I said, yet I wasn’t really captivated. The novel has a rather flat affect–perhaps the result of translation, but also reminiscent of Olivia Manning, who writes about war and violence and what survives with similar restraint. Némirovsky’s novel follows a cast of loosely or incidentally connected characters; the overall effect is somewhat like a sampler, or (as the title suggests) a “suite.” If Némirovsky had been able to finish the novel, the cumulative effect might well have been more than the sum of its parts; it seems shoddy to judge what seem like imperfections knowing that what we’ve got is only a fragment.

Having said that, I did appreciate the novel’s long descriptive passages, which–in contrast to its typically more stilted and utilitarian prose–are often very beautiful, even poetic. Here’s an example that also captures some of the paradoxes of the war-time world Némirovsky depicts. The French villagers have gathered to watch the Germans celebrate the anniversary of their occupation of Paris:

Little by little, darkness spread across the lawns; they could still make out the gold decorations on the uniforms, the Germans’ blond hair, the musicians’ brass instruments on the terrace, but they had lost their glow. All the light of the day, fleeing the earth, seemed for one brief moment to take refuge in the sky; pink clouds spiralled round the full moon that was as green as pistachio sorbet and as clear as glass; it was reflected in the lake. Exquisite perfumes filled the air: grass, fresh hay, wild strawberries. The music kept playing. Suddenly, the torches were lit; as the soldiers carried them along, they cast their light over the messy tables, the empty glasses, for the officers were now gathered around the lake, singing and laughing. There was the lively, happy sound of champagne corks popping.

“Oh, those bastards! And to think it’s our wine they’re drinking,” the Frenchmen said, but without real bitterness, because all happiness is contagious and disarms the spirit of hatred.

It is a memorable vignette, one of many such striking moments in the novel. If it sounds as if Némirovsky is holding out beauty or happiness as in any way the antidote to war and cruelty, though, that would be misleading: the aesthetic pleasure the French take in this spectacle does nothing to undo their resentment and fear at the German presence in their lives, or to compensate for their grief for the loss of their sons and husbands at German hands.

nemirovskyThe individual stories Némirovsky tells all have their interesting details, but one thing I thought was missing as I read along was any acknowledgment of the specific risk to Jews. This made me wonder exactly what Némirovsky would have known while she was writing in 1941-2. The Appendices include her notebooks and then correspondence from her and her husband Michael including his letters, increasingly desperate, to friends and connections after her arrest in July 1942. It is clear that he, at any rate, did not realize what it means–that it is almost certainly a death sentence. Not only does he try every means he can think of to find her and bring her home, but he even offers to take her place: “Can you please find out,” he writes a couple of months after her arrest,

if it would be possible for me to be exchanged for my wife–I would perhaps be more useful in her place and she would be better off here. If this is impossible, maybe I could be taken to her–we would be better off together.

By the time he sent this letter Irène had been dead for over a month. Michael himself was arrested in October 1942 and sent on to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chambers. Their daughters survived only thanks to the courageous efforts of friends who sheltered them.

Maybe if I hadn’t read these documents immediately after finishing Suite Française the novel itself would have made a stronger impression on me. I found the appendices so compelling and immediate, though, so painfully real, that they overshadowed Némirovsky’s more muted and analytical fiction. The juxtaposition did raise questions for me about the kind of novel she wrote: about whether it deliberately lacks melodrama and avoids the horror and urgency her own story evokes or whether–though the included Preface to the French edition notes that she and her family “all openly wore the Jewish star” as restrictions on French Jews increased–she was spared the full painful understanding of what was really at stake until it was too late for her to write about it. (I’m sure there are answers about who know what when, though who believed what when is probably a somewhat different question. Then as now, it would have been hard to grasp the worst realities.) In any case, it is her personal story more than Suite Française that will stay with me, I think, which seems somehow both all wrong and entirely right.