“A bourgeois tragedy”: Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet

balzacUsing the hashtag #IHaveNeverRead, Penguin UK recently urged people on Twitter to “confess” their “shocking literary shortcomings” — an exercise in weirdly inverted snobbery that inevitably recalls David Lodge’s game ‘Humiliation‘. I’m actually less and less humiliated by the vast array of titles (classic or otherwise) that I haven’t read: there are just so many books, after all, and it only takes a moment to figure out for sure that I’ll only ever read a tiny fraction of them. And what counts as a “shortcoming” in someone’s reading depends so much on what purpose we think that reading is supposed to serve. Since I’m supposed to be something of an expert in a particular subcategory of literature, it’s easy enough to point to books that in some sense I should have read by now (Dombey and Son, say, or Pendennis). But even within those parameters, is it “shocking” that I haven’t read, say, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, or anything by Disraeli? What about Charlotte Yonge? And in the larger context, while I regret not having read Moby-Dick (yet) or Crime and Punishment (again, yet!), I hardly see this as something I need to be ashamed of.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this. Until now, I hadn’t read anything by Balzac: Eugénie Grandet (which is the latest selection of the Slaves of Golconda reading group) is my first. I have read about Balzac, here and there and especially at Wuthering Expectations, where, I realize, exploring the archives, Tom called Eugénie Grandet “Balzac’s best book” and his own favorite. I’m actually glad I hadn’t remembered that as I read through the novel myself. It might have discouraged me, as I found Eugenie Grandet pretty hard going. On the other hand, knowing why Tom rated it so high might have helped me appreciate it more as I plugged along. If Eugénie Grandet is indeed the best of Balzac, then perhaps I am not (yet) very good at Balzac. That’s OK: you have to start somewhere!

Because it’s what the library had, the edition of Eugénie Grandet that I actually read is the 1950 Modern Library College Edition, translated by E. K. Brown, Dorothea Walker, and John Watkins. It doesn’t have any notes: when I read more Balzac, I think I would benefit from them. It does have a brief introduction, which I looked over before reading the novel (I skipped any parts that looked like they’d spoil the plot). The most helpful bit for me was its explanation of the unprecedented importance Balzac placed on characters’ “material circumstances” — and the passing editorial remark that this is what accounts for his “characteristic openings,” which are “such fatiguing obstacles to most modern readers who prefer a more insinuating exposition.” Knowing that this info-dumping was a Balzac thing, I persevered through the opening of Eugénie Grandet, which is indeed dense with details which (to my newcomer’s eye) never really took on a great deal more than descriptive significance: did we really need to know that much about the streets, houses, trade, and residents of Saumur to appreciate the moral and personal implications of Monsieur Grandet’s miserly ways?

This is thin ice for a lover of George Eliot, obviously; more than once I have made the case to bored students (following Eliot herself) that the action of Middlemarch  can’t be rightly understood without her long sections of exposition, and my favorite chapter of The Mill on the Floss is “A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet.” I’m a fan of telling! Showing can’t do everything. But I couldn’t discern any way in which the crux of Eugénie Grandet depended on the contexts so meticulously established: the tyrannical Monsieur Grandet didn’t seem in any particular way a creature of his time and place, any more than did his daughter, the almost-insufferably patient and virtuous Eugénie. She does, however, exemplify a specific ideal of femininity: “Women have this in common with the angels,” intones our narrator; “– suffering humanity belongs to them.” “To feel, to love, to suffer, to sacrifice will always be woman’s fate,” we’re told; “Eugénie was to be in all things a woman.” So on the one hand we have painstaking specificity, while on the other we have transcendent, platitudinous universals.

eugenie-grandet-honore-de-balzac-001That’s not quite fair, though. Grandet isn’t altogether a caricature, and Eugénie has some surprises in store for us, as does Balzac, as he throws a elegant but tragically impoverished cousin into the plot to help Eugénie find her spine and then cheats us of either obvious ending: we get neither the tragic “daughter sacrificed on the altar of forbidden love” nor the comic “true love triumphs over bad dad.” Instead, things go in weird directions in this “bourgeois tragedy”: the cousin is morally degraded by making his fortune in the slave trade; disappointed in the lover whose memory (and “dressing case”) she has cherished against all odds, Eugénie nonetheless enables his marriage to someone else and then marries herself — after insisting her husband-to-be accept her terms, which include preserving her virginity. Left a rich widow, she continues the penny-pinching ways learned from her father in her own life but puts her wealth to good use otherwise: “pious and charitable institutions, a home for the aged, and Christian schools for children, a richly endowed public library.”

I enjoyed being surprised by the story in this way. I wonder if rereading the novel would help me see what it means: is it singular, for instance, a simple slice of imagined life, or is there a larger idea at work here, about money or marriage or virtue or love? There are definitely ideas floating around in the book: the other aspect of it that I especially liked, in fact, was the intrusive narration, which seemed a bit haphazard but provided many quotable bits: “Isn’t this the only god in which we believe today,” he asks, “money, in all its power, symbolized in a single human image?” “How terrible is man’s estate!” he continues; “there is not one of his joys which does not spring out of some form of ignorance.” “Misers do not believe an a life hereafter,” he tells us later on, in the passage that I thought probably came closest to telling us the moral of the story:

 the present is everything for them. This thought throws a horrible light on the present day, when, more than at any other time, money controls the law, politics, and morals. Institutions, books, men, and doctrine, all conspire to undermine belief in a future life — a belief on which the social edifice has rested for eighteen hundred years. . . . To attain per fas et nefas to a terrestrial paradise of luxury and empty pleasures, to harden the heart and macerate the body for the sake of fleeting possessions, as people once suffered the martyrdom of life in return for eternal joys, is now the universal thought — moreover a thought inscribed everywhere, even in the laws which ask the legislater: What do you pay? instead of asking him: What do you think? When this doctrine has passed down from the middle class to the populace, what will become of the country?

Against that dystopian vision, he puts the angelic figure of Eugénie — except that her sacrifice is made for love, not God (and an unworthy love, at that), while her “noble heart,” tender as it is, has been irrevocably tainted by her father’s example, “always to be subject to the calculations of human selfishness.” So where does that leave her — or us? Maybe when I read more Balzac, I will know better.

“Defying Man and Storm”: Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn

JamaicaInnI’m no connoisseur of romantic suspense, but it’s hard to imagine it being done better than Jamaica Inn. Really, this book has it all: a grim, windswept, yet beautiful landscape; a grim, brooding, yet charismatic villain; a grim, twisted, yet convincing plot; Jamaica Inn itself, “a house that reeked of evil . . . a solitary landmark defying man and storm”; and, in Mary Yellan, a heroine bold and determined enough to survive them all. There’s also a deceptively colorless vicar, a dubiously trustworthy horse thief, and a whole supporting cast of rogues; there’s treachery, murder, and, of course, true love. If it sounds like the stuff of clichés, it is — and yet, amazingly, it really isn’t, because du Maurier is just that good.

The most terrifying part of the novel, for instance, is not a scene of rapidly unfolding action or immanent violence (though there are such scenes, and they are plenty suspenseful). Instead, it’s a story told over the kitchen table. “Did you never hear of wreckers before?” is the speaker’s chilling question, and the pictures his words paint haunt us as they will Mary, his unwilling audience:

‘When I’m drunk I see them in my dreams; I see their white-green faces staring at me, with their eyes eaten by fish; and some of them are torn, with the flesh hanging on their bones in ribbons, and some of them have seaweed in their hair. . . . Have you ever seen flies caught in a jar of treacle? I’ve seen men like that; stuck in the rigging like a swarm of flies. . . . Just like flies they are, spread out on the yards, little black dots of men. I’ve seen the ship break up beneath them, and the masts and the yards snap like thread, and there they’ll be flung into the sea, to swim for their lives. But when they reach the shore they’re dead men, Mary.’

He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and stared at her. ‘Dead men tell no tales, Mary,’ he said.

Mary can only hope that when she reaches the safety of her own bed, she can hide from what he has told her in the stark cold of the kitchen:

Here she could see the pale faces of drowned men, their arms above their heads; she could hear the scream of terror, and the cries; she could hear the mournful clamour of the bell-buoy as it swayed backwards and forwards in the sea.

It’s not just crime Mary comes face to face with that night, but evil. It’s embodied in Joss Merlyn, the landlord of Jamaica Inn, who is Mary’s uncle through his marriage to her Aunt Patience. Patience was a bright, happy young woman when she married Joss, but she is now a “poor, broken thing,” cowering and apologetic and fearful, but loyal, too, and loving, in her pathetic way. Joss is a wonderfully terrible figure of a man: huge, almost monstrous, but capable of an unexpected delicate grace that Mary finds more sinister than his overt cruelty. In her introduction, Sarah Dunant calls him “a Mr. Rochester without a Jane to redeem him,” which fits well enough, except that for all his faults, Mr. Rochester was never as bad as this! Patience must have married him “for his bright eyes,” Mary mockingly speculates, and it turns out that the power of sexual attraction to lure people off course is one of the novel’s central interests. Mary herself feels its pull (and understands Patience’s bad choice better) when she meets his younger brother Jem, who (to Mary’s dismay) almost charms away her suspicions:

He was too like his brother. His eyes, and his mouth, and his smile. That was the danger of it. She could see her uncle in his walk, in the turn of his head; and she knew why Aunt Patience had made a fool of herself ten years ago. It would be easy enough to fall in love with Jem Merlyn.

But Mary’s not looking for love. A farm girl, “bred to the soil,” she has no romantic ideas. At the same time, she understands the demands of the flesh:

Jem Merlyn was a man, and she was a woman, and whether it was his hands or his skin or his smile she did not know, but something inside her responded to him, and the very thought of him was an irritant and a stimulant at the same time. It nagged at her and would not let her be. She knew she would have to see him again.

I was fascinated by Mary’s frankness about her own desires: “Falling in love was a pretty name for it, that was all.” Her aunt’s abjection should be cautionary tale enough, you’d think, but even as Jem jokes “Beware of the dark stranger,” they kiss in the shadows.

Mary worries about giving “too much away,” about losing her independence and finding that her weakness for him makes “the four walls of Jamaica Inn more hateful than they were already.” The mixture of heady excitement and mistrust she feels for Jem adds, also, to the mysteries of the novel: how far is he involved in the murky activities of his brother? how much does he know about what happens at Jamaica Inn under cover of darkness? why does he ask Mary so many questions? Will her love for him save or destroy her? Du Maurier keeps her, and us, guessing as Mary struggles to figure out the answers and find her own way through the moral and physical dangers of her situation.

There are both predictable and implausible elements of the plot, but I forgave them both because they come with the territory and because du Maurier writes so well. When I wrote about Frenchman’s Creek I described her prose as “purple” (“royal purple, richest velvet,” to be precise). I expected more of the same here, despite having recently read The Scapegoat — which surprised me by being restrained and shadowy, not purple at all. I’m now adding du Maurier to my list of writers who impress by their versatility: she can clearly “do” the novel in different voices to suit her purposes. Jamaica Inn could easily have been full of cheap thrills, but for all its melodrama it never struck me as silly (whereas I called Frenchman’s Creek “ridiculous” — mind you, that was in 2010, so I may have been reading / judging differently). It’s not really a novel of character, and Joss especially borders on caricature, but (partly through Jem) he is humanized enough to be monstrous, but not a monster. I’m not so sure about the other chief villain, but at any rate he’s not a stock figure but has his own unique style of nastiness. For me, though, it was the scenery that made the novel truly memorable. The descriptions are vividly sensual without being florid, as here:

The drive was silent  then, for the most part, with no other sound but the steady clopping of the horse’s hoofs upon the road, and now and again an own hooted from the still trees. The rustle of hedgerow and the creeping country whispers were left behind when the trap came out upon the Bodmin road, and once again the dark moor stretched out on either side, lapping the road like a desert. The ribbon of the highway shone white under the moon. It wound and was lost in the fold of the further hill, bare and untrodden. There were no travellers but themselves upon the road tonight. On Christmas Eve, when Mary had ridden here, the wind had lashed venomously at the carriage wheels, and the rain hammered the windows: now the air was still cold and strangely still, and the moor itself lay placid and silver in the moonlight. The dark tors held their sleeping face to the sky, the granite features softened and smoothed by the light that bathed them. Theirs was a peaceful mood, and the old gods slept undisturbed.

Jamaica Inn is this month’s reading for the Slaves of Golconda book group. Come on over to read more posts and join in the discussion! It is also (fortuitously!) the book I’ll be discussing with my local book group in another week or so. I’m eager to find out what everyone else thought. If they had as much fun as I did, we might do My Cousin Rachel next, which was our second choice this time around. If not, I’ll certainly read it myself, if only to find out what else du Maurier can do.

How human! Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

Pictureleopard8Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s singular classic The Leopard is the latest book for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. Three other readers have already posted their thoughts, and having read their interesting remarks I find myself wondering what I have to add! They’ve all mentioned aspects of the book that I was also interested in. Alex, for instance, stresses the sensuality of the language: “It is by far the most insistently, sensuously, even seductively, oppressive book I’ve ever read. It made me want to applaud, underline and shudder in equal measure and often with just one very clever, deviously evocative phrase.” As both she and litlove point, out, the book’s beauties always coexist with horrors, so the garden scene Alex quotes, for instance, brings on gloomy thoughts for the eponymous protagonist, Don Fabrizio, because walking among his flowers he is reminded of the corpse they found among them not long ago:

They had found him lying face downwards in the thick clover, his face covered in blood and vomit, crawling with ants, his nails dug into the soil; a pile of purplish intestines had formed a puddle under his bandoleer.

And yet for all of its grim accents, The Leopard is also, as Stefanie and litlove observe, very funny — even, glancingly, in this lush but haunted garden, mostly because of my favorite character, the dog Bendicò:

every now and again the dog would turn innocent eyes towards him as if asking for praise at labour done: fourteen carnations broken off, half a hedge torn apart, an irrigation channel blocked. How human! “Good, Bendicò, come here.” And the animal hurried up and put its earthy nostrils into his hand, anxious to show it had forgiven this silly interruption of a fine job of work.

How human, indeed! I think for me that was one of the keynotes of this odd novel, which takes such a sideways approach to history. Don Fabrizio, born and bred to power, is moving sometimes deftly, sometimes awkwardly, but always inevitably through a period of transition to a future he neither understands nor endorses. “I belong to an unlucky generation,” he explains in one of the novel’s (bizarrely long) monologues, “swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.” The novel is about the human experience of that unease — the sense of change beyond one’s control. The Prince is mostly a man of good faith and good intentions, and so although he does not like the new world order emerging, he does not fight it either. Not only does he not resist Garibaldi’s move on Sicily, to incorporate it in the newly unified Italy — and what, after all, could one man, however formerly powerful, really do to resist this sweeping movement? — but in his own family he also makes concessions, approving the match between his beloved nephew Tancredi and the daughter of his upstart neighbor. An old name, a lot of new wealth: this is how families adapt and survive.

Earthly things ebb and flow; one of Don Fabrizio’s virtues is that he recognizes this and feels melancholic, rather than vengeful, as his own influence wanes. A dedicated amateur astronomer, he takes comfort from the serene continuity of the stars:

At the cross-roads he glimpsed the sky to the west, above the sea. There was Venus, wrapped in her turban of autumn mist. She was always faithful, always waiting for Don Fabrizio on his early morning outings, at Donnafugata before a shoot, now after a ball.

Don Fabrizio sighed. When would she decide to give him an appointment less ephemeral, far from stumps and blood, in her own region of perennial certitude?

 When that time does come, he reflects on his heirs and realizes that they will not, cannot, carry on the family in any more but name:

the last of the Salina was really himself, this gaunt giant now dying on a hotel balcony. For the significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions, that is in its vital memories; and he was the last to have any unusual memories, anything different from those of other families. . . .

 He had thought that perhaps, by changing, he could keep things the same, but of course that hope is as paradoxical as its logic.

Don Fabrizio is not literally the last of his family, and the book carries on after his death with his daughters in their old age. They are at once pathetic and comical in their attempts to maintain their family’s dignity. Now the family traditions are reduced to “mummified memories” — among them, with delightfully morbid literalness, is Bendicò,”dead for forty-five years, embalmed for forty-five years, nest now of spiders’ webs and moth, detested by the servants who had been imploring Concetta for dozens of years to have it thrown on the rubbish heap.” At the novel’s end Concetta has lost altogether her sense of place and certainty in the world: “she seemed to be living in a world known to her yet strange, which had already ceded all the impulses it could give her and now consisted only of pure forms.” I wondered at first why the novel hadn’t ended with the death of the Prince, but on reflection it seems appropriate to show us the incompleteness of any change, the endless pressure of time’s forward movement and the incremental but relentless concessions people have to make to history. Eventually Bendicò, symbol of the eager spirit of the Leopard’s vigorous past, makes his own symbolic exit:

As the carcass ws dragged off, the glass eyes stared at her with the humble reproach of things that are thrown away, got rid of. A few minutes later what remained of Bendicò was flung into a corner of the courtyard visited every day by the dustman. During the flight down from the window its form recomposed itself for an instant; in the air there seemed to be dancing a quadruped with long whiskers, its right foreleg raised in imprecation. Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust.

How human!

Diana Athill, Stet: On Angela Thirkell, Virginia Woolf, and the Embarrassment of Caste

StetThis month’s reading for the Slaves of Golconda group was Diana Athill’s briskly evocative memoir Stet, about her decades-long career in publishing. Other folks have been putting up their smart and detailed posts, and you should hop on over and read them if you haven’t visited already. Partly because I’m tired and busy, and partly because I can’t think of anything substantial to add to their observations, for my contribution I’m just going to quote a passage I particularly enjoyed. It comes almost at the very end, in Athill’s Postscript to the memoir, and it stood out for me because it touches on a number of issues about publishing and taste and literary merit and canonicity that have been coming up a lot in my classes this year — particularly the Somerville Novelists seminar (and as you’ll see, chronologically her remarks are spot on for that one) but also, more recently, in my intro class, where we’ve been talking about feminism and the role of taste-makers and gatekeepers in establishing and policing the literary hierarchy. The ‘crisis in publishing’ and the ‘death of reading’ are also, of course, endlessly reiterated themes in the literary world. I found Athill’s frankness and lack of pretension refreshing, her pragmatism admirable, and her examples thought-provoking.

Having seen Andre Deutsch Limited fade out, why am I not sadder than I am?

I suppose it is because, although I have often shaken my head over symptoms of change in British publishing such as lower standards of copy-preparation and proof-reading, I cannot feel that they are crucial. It is, of course, true that reading is going the same way as eating, the greatest demand being for the quick and easy, and for the simple, instantly recognizable flavours such as sugar and vinegar, or their mental equivalents; but that is not the terminal tragedy which it sometimes seems to the disgruntled old. It is not, after all, a new development: quick and easy has always been what the majority wants. The difference between my early days in publishing and the present is not that this common desire has come into being, but that it is now catered for more lavishly than it used to be. And that is probably because the grip on our trade of a particular caste has begun to relax.

Of that caste I am a member: one of the mostly London-dwelling, university, university-educated, upper-middle-class English people who took over publishing towards the end of the nineteenth century from the booksellers who used to run it. Most of us loved books and genuinely tried to understand the differences between good and bad writing; but I suspect that if we were examined from a god’s-eye viewpoint it would be seen that quite often our ‘good’ was good only according to the notions of the caste. Straining for that god’s-eye view, I sometimes think that not a few of the books I once took pleasure in publishing were pretty futile, and that the same was true of other houses. Two quintessentially ‘caste’ writers, one from the less pretentious end of the scale, the other from its highest reaches, were Angela Thirkell and Virginia Woolf. Thirkell is embarrassing — I always knew that, but would have published her, given the chance, because she was so obviously a seller. And Woolf, whom I revered in my youth, now seems almost more embarrassing because the claims made for her were so high. Not only did she belong to the caste, but she was unable to see beyond its boundaries — and that self-consciously ‘beautiful’ writing, all those adjectives — oh dear! Caste standards — it ought not to need saying — have no right to be considered sacrosanct.

Keeping that in mind is a useful specific against melancholy; and even better is the fact that there are plenty of people about who are making a stand against too much quick-and-easy. The speed with which the corners of supermarkets devoted to organic produce are growing into long shelves is remarkable; and there are still publishers — not many, but some — who are more single-mindedly determined to support serious writing than we ever were.

She’s right about organic produce (around here, anyway), and though I bet a lot of us would like to have it out with her about Woolf, and maybe also Thirkell, there seems a lot right too in her wry admission that there is no incontrovertible standard, and that  it’s all too easy to mystify one’s own preferences.

“Why did not anything do?” Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

Crewe Train is the first novel by Rose Macaulay I’ve read. I can’t decide if it makes me want to read another! It was easy to read: the prose is brisk, the tone is lightly satirical, the characters and incidents are quirky but mostly engaging. It has something of the flat quality I’ve noticed in other non-modernist novels I’ve read from the twenties and thirties: everything’s just narrated in order, one thing after another, artlessly. Yet of course there is an art to this too: it’s just not an art that makes itself felt.

Crewe Train tells the story of Denham Dobie, the daughter of a widowed English clergyman who can’t stand chatter and sociability and so tries to find a place to live where he can avoid people who “insist on conversing with you.” Unfortunately for him, the English “cannot stay at home” and his quest for perfect peace is ruined by cheerful, well-meaning, annoying people who “insisted on making friends with him and his grave, square-faced, brown-legged girl.” They end up in Andorra: “enquiring about it, he ascertained that it was very difficult of access, being snowbound from November to May, and mountainous all the year round, and that the approach to it was by mule.” Promising as that sounds, Mr. Dobie nonetheless is still unable to cut himself off from life, and ends up remarried and drawn back into society in spite of himself. The irresistible pull of relationships with other people turns out to be a central idea of the novel.

Denham takes after her father in her dislike of “that strange love of human intercourse, of making talk.” She finds other people mostly just puzzling and troublesome in their demands and expectations: “when she saw anyone whom she knew approaching, she plunged aside off the path and lurked hidden until they were passed by.”

Mr. Dobie dies and Denham is taken back to London by her mother’s family, the Greshams. And so the stage is set for the fish-out-of-water comedy that makes up the bulk of the novel. Denham is a perfect device for Macaulay to poke fun at the conventions and morés of high society. She can’t see the point of all the rules–what to wear, what to say, where to sit, when to stand, how to pass one’s time. Since, of course, most of these really are perfectly arbitrary rules, it’s not that hard to satirize the mindless compliance of the Greshams and their friends–but once you get the idea, it’s also not really that interesting or sophisticated a critique. Here’s Denham newly arrived in London, for instance:

London. The problem was, why did so many people live in it? Millions and millions of people, swarming all over the streets, as thick as flies over a dead goat, as buzzing and as busy. Why? Did they all agree with Uncle Peter that nothing was like London and that they must, therefore, be in London, this unique spot? Did they all have to be here? Had they been adopted by relations and brought here, or did they do something here which they couldn’t do elsewhere? . . .

And then the streets. Thousands and thousands of omnibuses, taxis, vans and cars, all roaring down the streets together, like an army going into battle, mowing down with angry trumpetings all human life that crossed their path. Were they all necessary? Was human life in London so cheap? Denham, after the first, had no personal anxieties on this head, for she felt competent to evade the assaults of these monsters; neither had she much pity for the victims, for they could probably well be spared, and certainly the population needed thinning; but it seemed a curious way of doing it.

Funny, right, especially that deft little jab at the end? And the theme is funny in all of its variations, even as its underlying point is serious and well-taken:

With these Greshams life was like walking on a tight-rope. The things you mustn’t do, mustn’t wear. You must, for instance, spend a great deal of money on silk stockings, when, for much less, you could have got artificial silk or Lisle thread. Why?  Did not these meaner fabrics equally clothe the leg? Why had people agreed that one material was the right wear and that others did not do? Why did not anything do?

The same with gloves, with shoes, with frocks, with garments underneath frocks. In all these things people had set up a standard, and if you did not conform to it you were not right, you were left. . . You had, somehow or other, to conform to a ritual, to be like the people you knew.

It’s not only expensive living up to these standards, but it is also a lot of trouble, and if there’s one thing Denham hates, it’s going to any trouble. She dreams “of a life in which one took practically no trouble at all. One would be alone; one would have no standards; there would be a warm climate and few clothes, and all food off the same plate, if a plate at all. And no conversation.” Awash  in the trivial chatter and clutter of London society, Denham goes along to get along, but it’s all folly, as far as she’s concerned.

The novel follows Denham to marriage (to Arnold Chapel, a writer) and then a pregnancy that (happily, from her perspective) ends in a miscarriage — imagine how much trouble motherhood would be! Despite these gestures towards normalcy, she still craves escape, and she finds what she thinks is the perfect alternative to the Greshams’ lifestyle in an ill-kept Cornish cottage complete with a smuggler’s passage to the sea and a cave she sets up as her parlor. Then, when her privacy in this not-so-bucolic retreat is destroyed by a news story about her eccentric choices, she heads off on a bicycle tour, believing that in constant motion she can free herself from the constraints of society.

No such luck, however. Just as her father was drawn into a second marriage by “madness of the blood” and Denham herself also into marriage by her own passionate response to Arnold’s kisses, so once again it’s passion that thwarts Denham’s plans as she has an affair with a fisherman and becomes pregnant again. Her return home feels something like a failure, as she’s clearly capitulating, of necessity, to the trivialities and domesticities she has always hated. For all that human relationships are troublesome and social conventions pointless, life outside them is an impossibility, a fantasy. “Love,” reflects Denham, “was the great taming emotion”:

Oh, life itself was the trap, and love the piece of toasted cheese that baited it, and, the bait once taken, there was no escape.

It’s a potentially poignant moment, but I felt disoriented at the end of the novel about how Macaulay really meant to steer us. So society is silly and superficial–but Denham’s life and thoughts hardly offer us an exhilarating alternative. She’s no untamed genius, no blooming wildflower ruined by her new unnatural environment, no free spirit caught and tragically tamed. She’s dull, sluggish, literal, unimaginative, anti-intellectual, and, in her own dogged way, entirely selfish. She can’t see any motive for doing anything other than for personal pleasure or satisfaction. She holds up no positive value except individual freedom–and not freedom of a high order (political freedom, freedom of the mind, freedom from oppression, freedom to create or worship or love) but just freedom to do what you feel like doing and nothing else. She thinks books are pointless, plays are “tedious stuff,” children are a nuisance. At times I thought perhaps it was Denham who was being satirized (“What a trade it was, increasing the number of books in a world already stocked with them! As bad as parents, who increased the number of people”). I suppose there’s no reason why the scoffing couldn’t go in both directions. Society: can’t live with it, can’t live without it! But the novel would have been more compelling to me–it would have seemed like more than an eccentrically amusing story–if there had been a clearer sense of what the costs are of the two options. I guess I like my social comedy to have a stronger undercurrent of moral seriousness. Vanity Fair, this isn’t.

Crewe Train is this moth’s reading for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. I’m posting here a bit early because I have another big deadline at the end of the week; I’ll cross-post it over there on November 17th. I’m looking forward to seeing what the other readers thought of the book!

Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy

My Mortal Enemy is an unlikely choice for my first experience of Willa Cather – it’s obscure enough that the Americanist colleague I hit up for a copy to borrow not only didn’t have it and hadn’t read it, but hadn’t even heard of it, and the only copy in our university library is a 1926 edition so old and fragile it is stored in a box because it is considered too flimsy even to restore. Apparently, then, My Mortal Enemy is not the go-to Cather text.

Because I haven’t read any other Cather, I’m not in a position to say whether that’s because it’s anomalous or in some way not up to her usual standards. The introduction to the Vintage edition I finally opted for as an e-book has a long introduction that holds it up as exemplary, particularly of her prose style, which has, says its author, ‘a relentless purity of style’ which is ‘never so pure and never so relentless as in My Mortal Enemy … the novel makes a raid on all amplitudes, all mere pleasantness, and all sloppiness.’

As I was reading it, I can’t say that I was noticing any particular purity of style, but I did feel the absence of pleasantness. The novella tells the story of Myra Henshawe, an heiress who abandons her father’s fortune to marry for love. Her elopement has taken on an almost mythical quality in her home town, where the narrator, Nellie, grows up hearing about her. When Nellie finally meets her, she feels ‘quite overpowered’ by her, and Nellie is indeed overpowered by Myra throughout the novella – she is a narrator of almost no interest herself, as far as I can tell, serving only as a device to present and contrast with Myra’s more showy and emotionally intense character. Myra lives life loud, but her sacrifice for love has not brought her happiness, and the love itself has not proved lasting: when Nellie goes to stay with Myra and her husband Oswald in New York, she eventually sees that despite their superficial displays of unity and affection, the reality is more complex and even sinister. The realization appalls Nellie in a way that would seem disproportionate if it weren’t for the status marvellous Myra and her magical marriage have had in Nellie’s youthful imagination:

This delightful room had seemed to me a place where lightheartedness and charming manners lived–housed there just as the purple curtains and the Kiva rugs and the gay water-colours were. And now everything was in ruins. The air was still and cold like the air in a refrigerating-room. What I felt was fear; I was afraid to look or speak or move. Everything about me seemed evil. When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.

 When Nellie next meets Oswald and Myra, they are living in a dingy apartment-hotel where she, having fallen on unspecified hard times, has also taken up residence. Myra is an invalid tortured beyond reason by the clattering and thumping and shrieking of their unsympathetic upstairs neighbours (actually, having lived in basement apartments, I understand how crazy this can make you!). There’s nothing left of even superficial glamour in their lives, only bitterness and defeat. Is it tempered at all by the Henshawes’ love for each other? Oswald waits on Myra faithfully, even devotedly, and she responds with occasional tenderness, but seeing them now and knowing what she knows, too, Nellie cannot see this as the last phase of a great passion.

Myra’s death is clearly meant to be climactic, but I had trouble discerning the precise nature of the conflict to which it is the crisis. “Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?” cries out Myra. But I didn’t understand what she meant or why (or whether) I was supposed to rebel with her or judge her. I wasn’t enthralled by Myra’s character, and I don’t think we are meant to be: there’s nothing truly grand or heroic about it, and there’s something unpleasantly melodramatic about the way she plays her own part. She’s more interesting than anyone else in the novella, though, which I suppose is, indirectly, a critical reflection on the roles people usually play. She’s not a tragic heroine–if there’s any tragedy, I think it’s in the gap between our (or at least Nellie’s) expectation that love is worth everything else and the sordid culmination of Myra’s life story, in which her grand gesture has done nobody any good.

After finishing the novella I turned to the introduction for ideas, and its author argues that Myra’s enemy is ‘friendship and love, human relationship itself.’ He reads her angry cry as a pun that refers also to her husband, who is ‘her enemy because he is the source for her of human relationship, of that which passes without fulfillment, of mortality.’ That is, I guess, her husband is standing in for all the false hopes and promises that human relationships bring meaning, and for the inevitable collapse of that beautiful dream in the face of mortality. That sounds plausible enough when he explains it, though it seems to me to take quite a bit of reading into – perhaps, quite a bit of bringing to – the novel what isn’t obvious to someone encountering Cather’s ethos for the first time. I didn’t feel like I was reading My Mortal Enemy very well: I couldn’t seem to get oriented in it, and then it was already over. What I’m left with is an interest in reading something more expansive of Cather’s, something that gives me a better chance at understanding her for myself.

My Mortal Enemy is this month’s choice for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. More comments and discussion can be found at the Slaves blog.

Slaves of Golconda: Voting Has Begun

I was tagged to put up the shortlist for the next book choice of the Slaves of Golconda (“mining literature for pure gems”): any of you who are already participants should head on over and indicate your preference. It’s a pretty miscellaneous list: Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore, Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, and Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath. Right now the voting is Hazzard 2, Toibin 1. I figure I’m going to read all of these eventually anyway, so whichever one we settle on for the group will be fine, and the discussion is always varied and thoughtful. Anyone interested is welcome to join, or just to read along and comment, of course. Our last two books were Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book and May Sarton’s The Small Room.