Recent Reading: Between Laughter and Tears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love Is the Saddest Comic Novel I’ve Ever Read

mitfordWhen I wrote about E. F. Benson’s very funny but also rather nasty Mapp and Lucia, I speculated that one reason I didn’t love it is that “I like my social comedy served up with a hint of conscience, or even of pathos.” “Give me Nancy Mitford any day,” wrote Min in the comments — and that reminded me that Mitford is another writer I keep meaning to read. So I asked for and got The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate for Christmas (thanks, D&J!) and have just finished the first of them. I am still reeling! Because although it certainly made me laugh out loud more than once, The Pursuit of Love is a very sad book. It doesn’t have just a hint of pathos: it is downright riddled with the stuff, right from the melancholy reflection on family photographs on page 1:

There they are, held like flies, in the amber of that moment – click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had from them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups.

Sure, in that same paragraph we get introduced to the weirdly hilarious “entrenching tool” hung over the chimney (“with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out. It is still covered with blood and hairs …”), and immediately after we are treated to a catalogue of the family “dramas” recalled by our self-effacing narrator, Fanny, from her Christmases spent with her cousins at Alconleigh, including one at which Linda (who turns out to be, if not the heroine, at least the main focus of the novel) tells the neighbours’ children about the “facts of life” in a version “so gruesome that the children left Alconleigh howling dismally, their nerves permanently impaired, their future chances of a sane and happy sex life much reduced.” (Don’t you long to know just what she told them?) But the mixture of pleasure and pain in the opening tells us clearly that, for all its brilliant comedy, The Pursuit of Love isn’t going to be altogether a lighthearted romp.

And it definitely isn’t. I think that’s because the pursuit of love turns out to be rather a mournful quest. Linda and Fanny dream of it, even before they are “out” and officially allowed to reach for it:

We were, of course, both in love, but with people we had never met; Linda with the Prince of Wales, and I with a fat, red-faced middle-aged farmer, whom I sometimes saw riding through Shenley. These loves were strong, and painfully delicious; they occupied all our thoughts, but I think we half realized that they would be superseded in time by real people. They were to keep the house warm, so to speak, for its eventual occupant.

The real-life models they have are not very encouraging, especially Fanny’s mother, known as ‘the Bolter’ because “she ran away so often, and with so many different people.” Nonetheless, as young girls Fanny and Linda imagine that married love is a beautiful, unwavering ideal.

One way or another, the rest of the novel puts paid to this notion: though written with a much (much!) lighter touch, The Pursuit of Love is as much the opposite of “chick lit” as anything by Elena Ferrante. Don’t be fooled by the hot pink cover — no happily-ever-afters here! In fact, there are hardly even any outright happy moments.”Where now was love that would last to the grave and far beyond?” thinks Linda as she travels, alone and forlorn, away from her second failed marriage:

She had found neither great love nor great happiness, and she had not inspired them in others. Parting with her would have been no death blow to either of her husbands; on the contrary, they would both have turned with relief to a much preferred mistress, who was more suited to them in every way. Whatever quality it is that can hold indefinitely the love and affection of a man she plainly did not possess, and now she was doomed to the lonely, hunted life of a beautiful but unattached woman. . . . What had she done with her youth? Tears for her lost hopes and ideals, tears of self-pity in fact, began to pour down her cheeks. The three fat Frenchmen who shared the carriage with her were in a snoring sleep, she wept alone.

The pathos of that scene is, admittedly, a little too much (we’re pulled back from the maudlin brink by the snoring Frenchmen, bless them), but Linda is right about how her life has gone. So was she wrong to seek love in the first place, to place all her hopes of happiness on it? Or did she just make bad choices? She loved both her husbands ardently — at first. Is love itself to blame, for distorting our vision and interfering with our judgment?

Whether we should blame love, or Linda, or just bad luck, to this point, new hope emerges when she meets Fabrice and realizes that this time it’s the real thing: “she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love.” And yet … this coup de foudre is the least believable of all the novel’s romantic scenarios. Is that how “true love” works? Like a fantasy? And it’s an equivocal one, at that, as she becomes a “kept woman,” one of a string of Fabrice’s mistresses.

Linda’s fine with that, though, and no severe moral judgment descends on her from her family either. This time it’s war that ruins everything:

This was 1939, and men’s thoughts were not of relaxation but of death, not of bathing-suits but of uniforms, not of dance music, but of trumpets, while beaches for the next few years were to be battle and not pleasure grounds.

War seems like just a shadow on Linda’s love life, not a main event, but for all the insouciance with which she and Fanny discuss it (“he seems to have had a most fascinating time,” Fanny reports of her husband’s experience at Dunkirk; “They all did,” replies Linda, “the boys were here yesterday and you never heard anything like their stories”) there’s no ignoring its menace. The real threat is finally brought home to Linda — literally! —  when a bomb lands directly on the London house where she has been defiantly waiting for Fabrice.

I won’t give away exactly how things end for Linda and her one true love; I’ll just say that it’s not funny at all. As for Fanny, her quiet life (about which we know little, because, as she tells us, “this is Linda’s story, not mine”) seems for a while to be the implicitly better alternative to Linda’s quixotic adventures. But though Fanny did find love that endures in something like the way she and her cousin once dreamed of, it’s still a bit of a disappointment:

Alfred and I are happy, as happy as married people can be. We are in love, we are intellectually and physically suited in every possible way, we rejoice in each other’s company, we have no money troubles and three delightful children. And yet, when I consider my life, day by day, hour by hour, it seems to be composed of a series of pin-pricks. Nannies, cooks, the endless drudgery of housekeeping, the nerve-wracking noise and boring repetitive conversation of small children (boring in the sense that it bores into one’s very brain), their absolute incapacity to amuse themselves, their sudden and terrifying illnesses, Alfred’s not infrequent bouts of moodiness, his invariable complaints at meals about the pudding, the way he will always use my toothpaste and will always squeeze the tube in the middle.

Ha! But also, oh no! “These are the components of marriage,” Fanny says (resignedly? pragmatically?), “the wholemeal bread of life, rough, ordinary, but sustaining.” Maybe so, but what a let-down! If that’s the best we can hope for from love, aren’t we left wondering whether, all in all, it wouldn’t have been better to pursue something else? Or is the pursuit itself what matters? “Don’t pity me,” says Linda; “I’ve had eleven months of perfect and unalloyed happiness, very few people can say that, in the course of long long lives, I imagine.”