Crying Over Bleak House: My Sentimental Journey

RichardIIITomb.jpgThe George Eliot Bicentenary Conference was the main reason for my recent trip to England, but of course I took advantage of having crossed the pond to do a bit of sightseeing. I spent a couple of days in London on either side of the conference, and I also traveled to Leicester a day ahead of time so I could visit the Richard III Visitor Center and Richard’s new tomb in Leicester Cathedral.

My 2012essay “All the World to Nothing” in Open Letters Monthly explains my longstanding fascination with Richard III and includes a delightfully (or mortifyingly) geeky photograph of a much younger me beside his statue in 1986. I could not quite recreate that picture on this trip, but I did take a selfie next to the model of his head made by experts in facial reconstruction after his skeleton was discovered under a parking lot and then confirmed as his. (It’s a remarkable story; the documentary about it is available here if you’re interested.) The excavation site was protected when the parking lot was repaved and you can see where he was actually found, under the floor of the long-gone Grey Friars Church. Even the intrusively chatty volunteer stationed by it could not completely dispel the haunting feeling of actually standing where his ruined body had lain for 500 years. (Bless her heart, she was just enthusiastic, but she would keep telling me things I already knew!)Burial-Site

I expected to be moved by seeing Richard’s grave, and I was. It has been a long time since I felt the warm partisanship on his behalf that Tey’s The Daughter of Time once sparked: it wasn’t fervent Ricardianism in real time that made this visit emotional so much as being reminded of how ardently I was once involved in it all and feeling connected, through these remarkably concrete (no pun intended!) links between past and present, to my own history. Walking through the exhibit, viewing the burial site, visiting the Cathedral–I was paying my respects to Richard’s memory but also to the person I used to be. It renewed a kind of personal continuity that can seem, living as I do far from my family, away from the sites and landmarks of my own past, disconcertingly fractured. “Where did she go, that girl?” I sometimes wonder; perhaps oddly, there among the stones and relics of a place even further from my old home, I felt sure she was still there.

WindsorThat sense of reconnecting with my former self is part of what always makes time in London feel so special to me. After my trip there in 2009, I also remarked that I felt “renewed” by the experience. This time too I was, as I wrote then,

most moved by those [sights] that most vividly reminded me of Carlyle’s words about Scott, that he had “taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men.”

On this visit I returned to some of the same places I went to in 2009 and also in 2011, when I was in England for a conference in Birmingham–including (of course!) most of the same bookstores. I especially enjoy wandering the streets and squares of Bloomsbury, which in their shabby elegance feel strangely homey to me: it’s easy to imagine not just Woolf and her cohort but Brittain and Holtby striding along or settling on a shady bench deep in conversation. I visited Windsor Castle for the first time on this trip, and it is grandiose and impressive; it was thrilling to walk between the towering walls that housed so many historical icons and breathtaking to look down in St. George’s Chapel and see that Henry VIII was buried below my feet. But it felt more personally meaningful just to sit in Gordon Square and be myself for a while, temporarily unencumbered by external obligations or expectations about who I am or what I should be doing, now or next. That freedom is one of the great luxuries of any holiday, of course, and it’s as risky as it is easy to fall into the fantasy that if you could only stay somewhere else, you could magically be someone else, someone you might like a little better, someone who lives (and writes) better than the person you are when you’re at home.

Gordon Square

One of the repeat visits I made on this trip was to the Dickens Museum, which I had visited with my mother in 2009 but not since. I wanted to go back because in the intervening decade I have spent so much more time reading and thinking about Dickens’s novels. In the meantime, too, the museum has acquired the writing desk Dickens used in his house at Gad’s Hill Place:

Dickens-Desk

To many of us, this desk and chair are familiar from Luke Fildes’ “The Empty Chair,” painted in 1870 after Dickens’s death:

empty-chair

Seeing this desk was the first of what turned out to be several occasions when I found myself unexpectedly tearing up. Another was when I stumbled across some original monthly issues of Bleak House at the V&A:

Bleak-House-Originals

Another was as I strolled the lovely grounds of Arbury Hall, the manor house on the estate George Eliot’s father Robert Evans managed:

Arbury-Hall

We visited other places on our George Eliot tour–a highlight of my trip overall–but for some reason this was the one I responded to most emotionally.

GE-PlaqueBut why? Not just why did seeing Arbury Hall move me so much but why was I so emotionally susceptible to seeing those bits of Bleak House or standing next to Dickens’s desk? I am used to feeling excited when I see things or visit places that are real parts of the historical stories I have known for so long, but I have not previously been startled into poignancy in quite the same way. Is it just age? I do seem, now that I’m into my fifties, to be more readily tearful, which is no doubt partly hormones but which I think is also because of the keen awareness of time passing that has come with other changes in my life, such as my children both graduating from high school and moving out of the house–an ongoing process at this point but still a significant transition for all of us. Also, as I approach twenty-five years of working at Dalhousie, and as so many of my senior colleagues retire and disappear from my day-to-day life, I have had to acknowledge that I am now “senior” here, and that my own next big professional milestone will also be retirement–it’s not imminent, but it’s certainly visible on the horizon.

Silas-First-EdPerhaps it’s these contexts that gave greater resonance to seeing these tangible pieces of other people’s lives, especially people who have made such a mark on mine. Though I have usually considered writers’ biographies of secondary interest to their work, there was something powerful for me this time in being reminded that Dickens and Eliot were both very real people who had, and whose books had, a real physical presence in the world. People sometimes talk dismissively about fiction as if it is insubstantial, inessential, peripheral to to the “real world” (a term often deployed to mean utilitarian business of some kind). But words and ideas and books are very real things, and they make a very real difference in the world: they make us think and feel differently about it and thus act differently in it. Another of my London stops this time was at The Second Shelf , where I held first editions of Silas Marner and North and South in my hands (very carefully!). I described this on Twitter only slightly hyperbolically as the closest thing I could have to a religious experience. In the presentation I gave at the conference, I quoted from George Eliot’s poem “O, may I join the choir invisible”:

O, may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence …

There’s no question that she lived up to this wish. It’s hard for me not to feel a bit as Dorothea does, though with a more deserving object: “what a work to be in any way present at, to assist in, though only as a lamp-holder!”

Even so, I’m still not entirely sure why it kept making me cry to be in proximity to what one person I spoke with about it aptly called the “materiality” of these writers’ lives. But it seems right to give Dickens the last word on this: “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”

South-Farm
South Farm, Arbury Estate.
George Eliot was born in the upstairs room
November 22 1819

 

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

220px-Miss_Boston_and_Miss_Hargreaves

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.

Notes from the Field: #GE2019conf

ge02019-logoIn retrospect, I’m glad my pitch for a article reporting back on the George Eliot Bicentenary Conference was rejected: the cognitive dissonance I struggled with during the conference was strong enough that I have been puzzling over how or whether to write about it even here, in relative obscurity and without being answerable to anyone else for whatever it is that I come up with to say.

It’s not that I have bad things to report. In many ways, it was a wonderful and invigorating experience. I spent time with a lot of lovely people, including some I have known for ages on Twitter and finally got to meet face to face but also new acquaintances met at the breakfast table or in the courtyard or at sessions. At all-purpose conferences like ACCUTE it can be hard to find a critical mass of people who share your interests, or even to see the same people at two different panels; I have typically found such events deadening rather than enlivening. This group, in contrast, was unified by a common commitment to understanding George Eliot and her work better; though there were multiple sessions in each time slot, a sense of community emerged pretty quickly as faces and names became familiar. I enjoyed many good informal conversations about George Eliot, about 19th-century literature more generally, about teaching, about academia, and about our lives. Then there was the stimulating if slightly surreal experience of seeing in person scholars who work has been familiar to me for as many years as I have been doing scholarly work on Victorian literature–most notably  George Levine, Gillian Beer, Isobel Armstrong, and Rosemary Ashton (whose biography of George Eliot I have often recommended). All of the plenary addresses were conference highlights (as they should be), but especially the moderated discussion between Levine and Beer about George Eliot studies then and now (and in the future).

Conference-Court

Of particular importance to me was finally meeting Philip Davis. I have been interested in his work with The Reader Organisation for nearly as long as I have been blogging; their journal The Reader was one of the first non-academic venues for thoughtful writing about literature that I became aware of. He first became aware of me (as far as I know) when I reviewed his fascinating book The Transferred Life of George Eliot for the TLS a couple of years ago. He wrote to me about my review and we struck up a correspondence that led to my writing an essay for The Reader on Carol Shields’ Unless (which readers of this blog will recognize as an old favourite of mine). When I saw the announcement for the bicentenary conference the first thing I thought of was that he and I should put together a panel on bringing George Eliot to broader audiences. Happily, he liked the idea too, and that’s what we did; we called it “George Eliot in the Wider World.”

strangled-tote.pngEach of the presenters on our panel addressed quite a different “application” for George Eliot. I spoke about what I see as reasons for but also the difficulties with “pitching” her work to the kind of bookish public I have been trying to write for–at left is my design for a George Eliot tote bag meant to illustrate the case I made that her books are not, as too often assumed, too long and dull for the “common reader” but too fierce. Phil spoke about the often profound impact Eliot’s work has on participants in the groups run by the Reader Organisation; his University of Liverpool colleague Josie Billington discussed the therapeutic value of particular elements of George Eliot’s writing, especially her use of free indirect discourse; and Alison Liebling from Cambridge University talked about the relevance of George Eliot’s ideas to her work on the ethics of prison culture. I admit, hearing the other speakers made me fret for a while that my contribution was on the frivolous side: it seemed to matter much more to help people change their lives or feel more human than to compete for the attention of editors and magazine readers. But then I thought about the essays I have in fact written and I felt OK, both about them and about the people I have actually reached with them. If one thing unified our slightly disparate presentations it was a shared conviction that the more people who read George Eliot the better, in however many different ways and for whatever different purposes.

GE-Plaque-Griff-House

So far so good! I would also add a couple of other sessions to the unequivocal plus column. One was on teaching George Eliot, which of course is something I work on and worry about a lot; I particularly appreciated the presentations by Jennifer Holberg and Steven Venturino (both Twitter friends I was so happy to hang out with in person!), which made me think a lot about ways to slow down by, for instance, letting go a bit of the coverage model and allowing more time for things like reading passages aloud and really lingering on them. I have always done some of this, of course, but there’s no question that for many students keeping up with reading long books is a challenge these days. Jennifer offered some really useful data related to that, partly to make the point that we need to focus on teaching the students we actually have, not the ones we might wish we have or–a common problem, I think–the ones we were ourselves, or at least think we were. Steven spoke convincingly about the value of “serial reading.” The other panel I would single out was on George Eliot and the modern reader; in particular, Valerie Sanders’s paper about how George Eliot is discussed or drawn on in contemporary literary culture had strong resonances with my own.

Book Club Cover

What distinguished these three panels from the others I attended is that they were outward-facing: they were all organized around ideas for talking about George Eliot and her fiction to people besides other scholars and academics. They focused on and generated discussions about mobilizing what we know about her work, about turning our informed enthusiasm into something for other people to use or share or benefit from. I want to make sure I am very clear about this next point (because the opposite case is made too often by people with very different aims than mine): I have no objection to discourse that is exclusively for and between experts. Not every conversation has to be for everybody, and literary scholarship is a specialized field of inquiry like any other: those who pursue it need opportunities to share and test their ideas with other specialists. Although I have written many times on this site about my own vexed relationship with academic literary criticism, I have consistently explained that I don’t think nobody should do it–I just no longer believe that it’s the only (or, sometimes, the most valuable) kind of work for people in my profession to pursue. Crucially, I no longer think it is the kind of work I want to do. (I haven’t written as much about these issues lately; if you want to review what I have said about them you can browse the academia or criticism indexes and read as much or as little as you like!)

What I’m going to say next follows predictably both from what I just said and from what I’ve been saying here for over a decade. The part of the conference I (mostly) did not enjoy or find rewarding was what some people might consider the actual conference, that is, the panels of finely wrought, scrupulously argued, and (by and large) highly abstract and specialized academic papers. I really tried–to listen closely, to engage with the ideas and arguments, to think my way into the conversations they were having. Mostly, I failed. I found this genuinely disheartening, though really I should not have been surprised. I am not criticizing the presenters. They were doing what they came to do, what their profession requires of them, what–presumably–they find interesting and intellectually stimulating, and they were doing it well. Some good evidence for that is that at every panel I attended, there were questions from the audience that showed a high level of attention and engagement. As the conference wound up, there were many expressions of excitement about how stimulating and transformative and generative it had been. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity. For people who like this kind of thing, there was a lot of it to like at this conference!

Books

But I don’t like it–not much, or not usually, and, mostly, not this time either. I thought I might do better when all the papers were on George Eliot, but that just made me more frustrated–at myself, mostly, for not getting it. I have previously described my experience of attending academic talks (#NotAllAcademicTalks) as making me feel like a non-believer in church, and for all my belief–for all our shared belief–in the interest and value of paying close attention to George Eliot, that’s how I felt at a lot of the sessions I attended. I wondered beforehand if the conference would inspire me to return to more conventional academic scholarship, if not as a producer, at least as a reader. I even hoped, a little, that it would. I did hear about some projects and lines of inquiry that seemed genuinely interesting, and there was something generally encouraging about the evident energy around the scholarly enterprise as a whole (as I have said here before, whatever my feelings about individual trees, I am a committed supporter of the academic forest).  Overall, however, my conference experience reminded me of the reasons why I have been doing something else for so long. This is where the cognitive dissonance comes in, though: how can I think it’s a good thing and yet want no part of it myself?

Cover2It isn’t exactly that I want no part of it, though. As I hope I have also made clear here over the years, my own intellectual life has been shaped and enriched by many kinds of academic scholarship (though not always the most currently trendy kinds). I have contributed to that specialized work and remain proud of those contributions. Who knows: I may make more! Probably not about George Eliot, though–the conference confirmed for me that I want to keep moving in a different direction with my research. I’m not ruling out doing any more writing about George Eliot. I already have one piece in the works for the fall (I hope) and she will always have my heart. But after three immersive days listening in on what academics talk about when they talk about George Eliot now, I am more convinced than ever, not that I don’t need them, but that they don’t need me. I have nothing to add to the work they are doing, and (as I have long argued) there are enough people engaged in it that the field can spare a few of us to go and do otherwise–indeed, it not just can, but almost certainly should.

“Educated to Tragedy”: John Le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl

drummer-girl1She was entering by degrees exactly that condition which Joseph had predicted. She was being educated to tragedy, and the tragedy absolved her of the need to explain herself. She was a blinkered rider, being conveyed through events and emotions too great for her to encompass, into a land where merely to be present was to be part of a monstrous injustice. She had joined the victims and was finally reconciled to her deceit.

At first, reading The Little Drummer Girl, I really missed Smiley. It’s not just that he is a great character–original, distinctive, and perversely inviting. It’s also that for all his gloom (and perhaps in part because of it) he is the moral center of his novels, dogged in his determination to rest what he can of righteousness out of circumstances that make it not just inaccessible but nearly inconceivable. The books are melancholy because they occupy such disillusioned territory, and because in spite of that, there’s something lovable as well as admirable about Smiley, something comforting, even, in what he stands for (and fights for) as a government agent. Because he is what he is, we mourn his losses and failures and betrayals of principle.

In The Little Drummer Girl, though, we are surrounded not by operatives but by ideologues, and at the center of it is only Charlie–vain, impulsive, erratic, susceptible. It’s true that she is also smart, courageous, and determined, but to what (or whose) ends? For some time, as I read the novel, I was frustrated by her. Not only is she a kind of character I almost instinctively dislike, but she did nothing to anchor the novel morally. She never really does, but by the end I came to see her instability as essential to the role she plays, both in the novel’s elaborate scheme of deception and in its treatment of the political conflict it engages us with. She herself can’t belong to either side or neither side could use her–and that means Le Carré can use her to move our sympathies back and forth between them.

drummer-girl2Talking about our sympathies seems almost out of place, though, which is something else I found interesting about The Little Drummer Girl. It seems to me to be fairly careful about laying out the arguments for both sides, allowing neither Israel nor the Palestinians the moral high ground. Joseph is a crucial device in this respect, for us and for Charlie. As he lays out the case for Palestinian resistance, building the elaborate fiction that she will inhabit as a double-agent, she marvels “at the paradoxes of a man who could dance with so many of his own conflicting shadows, and still stand up.” Later, playing the part he has written for her, it is Joseph who begins to feel to her like the fiction, while the role he created becomes her reality:

Day and night, therefore, she strove–for Michel, for her own mad sanity, for Palestine, for Fatmeh and for Slam and the bombed children in the Sidon prison; driving herself outward in order to escape the chaos inside; gathering together the elements of her assumed character as never before, welding them into a single, combative entity. . . .

I have put my hand on the Palestinian heart; I am pledged to lift the world up by its ears to make it listen.

Horrors on one side, atrocities on the other, and between them we have Joseph, who knows it all but is clear about where his loyalties lie, and Charlie, whose allegiance is never truly political but always personal. For her, as her handlers expect and devise, the double-edged story they devise for her becomes its own justification and necessity:

So it went on, one argument predicating another, until the only logic was the fiction, and the fiction was a web that enmeshed everyone who tried to sweep it away.

Her relationship with Joseph becomes so closely overlaid with her role as Michel’s lover that sometimes I almost forgot, as she almost does, which man she has in fact longed for, talked with, slept beside, trusted.

A bit like Edward Waverley in Waverley, Charlie is useful because she needs to be educated into the conflict she finds herself in the midst of. By the end of Scott’s novel, however, Waverley’s enthusiasm for the Jacobite cause has been played out, and both the danger and the romantic allure of Fergus and Flora have been relegated to a picturesque past. I don’t think Le Carré takes sides so clearly in The Little Drummer Girl. I suppose we might assume that the side Charlie is “really” on is the right side; some evidence on that side would be that she does persist in her undercover mission, and also that no matter how roused her passions are on behalf of her Palestinian contacts, she still turns to Joseph (including, in what I thought was the novel’s weakest moment, at the very end). But you could also argue that her intense reaction after the job is done–her disgust with them all and with herself–is a criticism, a rejection, of their purposes, or at least of the means the Israelis have accepted to their ends, and also that everything she has seen for herself justifies the resistance they have provoked. In his introduction, Le Carré himself describes Charlie as “torn to pieces by the battle between two peoples who both have justice on their side.”

drummer-girl3Given the ruthless and destructive behavior the novel shows by both “peoples” in pursuit of the justice they claim, is the novel’s message about the Israel-Palestine conflict “a plague on both their houses”? That angry impatience doesn’t seem to fit with the tone of the novel, which is relentlessly grim but also (and in this it definitely reminded me of the other Le Carré novels I’ve read so far) almost clinical. The characters frequently get heated but the novel remains coolly descriptive, not moralizing or judgmental. Everyone running Charlie, Israeli or Palestinian, is just doing what they think must be done: if there’s some other way forward, some better ought arising from the is of both recent history and current circumstances, nobody in the novel is talking about it. There’s certainly no thread of wistful “can’t we all just get along” idealism: this is not the kind of novel that “puts a human face” on a political problem in order to urge reconciliation. At most, it does this through negative example and by proxy, through Charlie–but I’m not sure we can take her case as a lesson about how innocents suffer: “And you are the same English,” Khalil says quietly, when the crisis has come, “who gave away my country.”

“Disconcerting Clarity”: John Le Carré, Smiley’s People

smiley-people-1

He was in late age, yet his tradecraft had never been better; for the first time in his career, he held the advantage over his old adversary.

On the other hand, that adversary had acquired a human face of disconcerting clarity. It was no brute whom Smiley was pursuing with such mastery, no unqualified fanatic after all, no automaton. It was a man; and one whose downfall, if Smiley chose to bring it about, would be caused by nothing more sinister than excessive love, a weakness with which Smiley himself, from his own tangled life, was eminently familiar.

[Warning: This post contains spoilers!]

In his preface to my edition of Smiley’s People, John Le Carré says that he intended the novel to be a “requiem” to George Smiley, a fitting send-off to a character he loved but was ready to leave behind. It certainly has the feeling of a fond but mournful farewell–not just to Smiley but to the motivating conflicts and underlying values that both previous books in the trilogy have explored. They too are not simplistic celebrations of the ideological antagonism of which Smiley and his colleagues are agents, of course, but by the end of Smiley’s People there is no possibility of fanfare for even the most exhilarating victory: there’s only futility and an unhappy recognition of kinship across lines of enmity that once seemed definitive.

smiley-people-2The enemy here is once again the shadowy figure known as “Karla.” For Smiley, as Le Carré makes very clear, the pursuit is as much personal as political. “It’s to do with the people who ruined Bill Haydon,” he tells Ann in a scene full of devastatingly understated emotional pain–but he is thinking, “who ruined you.” Later, waiting to see if Karla will take “the last step,” Smiley rehearses the case against him:

He thought of Vladimir and Otto Leipzig and the dead Kirov; he thought of Haydon and his own life’s work ruined; he thought of Ann, permanently stained for him by Karla’s cunning and Haydon’s scheming embrace. He recited in his despair a whole list of crimes–the tortures, the killings, the endless ring of corruption–to lay upon the frail shoulders of this one pedestrian on the bridge …

To get to that point Smiley has in fact triumphed, but the story of his success is as sad as it is thrilling, as the complicated entanglement of agents and double-agents, watched and watchers, enforcers and dissidents, gradually simplifies into the story of a father and daughter.

smiley-guinessEvery element of the case is shot through with moral and emotional ambivalence. The high point of the novel–the turning of one of Karla’s agents–wins Smiley the admiration of his people, reported to us in elegiac retrospection:

Once again, Toby insists on bearing witness here to Smiley’s unique mastery of the occasion. It was the strongest proof yet of Smiley’s tradecraft, says Toby … that throughout Grigoriev’s protracted narrative, he never once, whether by an over-hasty follow-up question or the smallest false inflection of his voice, departed from the faceless role he had assumed for the interrogation. By his self-effacement, Toby insists, George held the whole scene “like a thrush’s egg in his hand.” The slightest careless movement on his part could have destroyed everything, but he never made it.

But this long and gripping scene, this relentless demonstration of Smiley’s self-control and skill, is at the expense of “a humane and decent man caught in the net of events beyond his understanding or control,” and in the service of a quest to ruin another man by using his “one great love” against him. Smiley has long been driven by Karla’s “absolutism,”

which at least gave point to the perpetual chaos that was life’s condition; point to violence, and to death; … Karla, for whom killing had never been more than the necessary adjunct of a grand design.

Against this, he had imagined himself hampered “by doubt and a sense of decency.” Now he sees another Karla, “the Karla flawed by humanity.” Who, now, is the absolutist, the fanatic?

smiley-people-3As Smiley awaits the resolution of his quest, which he has undertaken in defiance of changed policies and protocols, under the shadow of “complete deniability” from the higher-ups, because this, this, is what they had once staked everything on, because this is the man against whom he has defined himself–as he stands in the shadows of the Berlin Wall, that relentless symbol of everything that divides his side from the other side–Smiley knows that if he wins this game he has made the difference between them irrelevant. “I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred,” he reflects, “and they are his. We have crossed each other’s frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man’s-land.” And so he finds himself, against all odds, perhaps against all reason, hoping that Karla will not cross, or will not make it: “Don’t come, thought Smiley. Shoot, Smiley thought, talking to Karla’s people, not his own.”

But Karla does cross, only that too is not a triumphant moment. “One little man, hatless, with a satchel”: is that, in the end, what it has all been about? No, of course, as the grim checkpoint, with its “halo” of light on the Western side and its sharpshooters on the other, reminds us. Waiting, watching, however, Smiley finds it impossible to think of Karla only as the agent of a murderous state. “He did not want these spoils, won by these methods,” he thinks,  and Le Carré leaves us too feeling dissatisfied at the ongoing paradox that some wars can only be won by losing, by giving up your allegiance to the very thing you are fighting for. “What shall it profit a man,” as the Bible verse has it, “if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?” Yet Smiley too is both man and operative; his actions in Smiley’s People are not aberrations but the fulfillment of his life’s work, the perfection of its intrinsic contradictions and longstanding moral dilemmas. In this requiem there is no note of redemption: there’s only resignation and regret. “You won, George,” says his old friend Peter Guillam. “I suppose I did,” is Smiley’s perfectly equivocal reply.

“This Time By Words”: Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End

reasons-end

Three excerpts from an unwilling elegy.

1.

We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood; and I’m doing it over again, this time by words,

2.

How can anyone believe that one day he was here and the next day he was gone?

Yet how can one, I thought. How can one know a fact without accepting it? How can one accept a person’s choice without questioning it? How can one question without reaching a dead end? How much reaching does one have to do before one finds another end beyond the dead end? And if there is another end beyond the dead end, it cannot be called dead, can it?

How good you are, Nikolai said, at befuddling yourself.

3.

You write fiction, Nikolai said.

Yes.

Then you can make up whatever you want.

One never makes up things in fiction, I said. One has to live there as one has to live here.

Here is where you are, not where I am. I am in fiction, he said. I am in fiction now.

Then where you are is there, which is also where I live.

Some books are too hard to write about. Imagine how hard this one was to write: if you think about that while you’re reading it, you might have to stop, as I nearly did. I liked this review by John Self, in the Irish Times. This one by Rachel Veroff in the LARB is good too.

“Someone Always Pays”: Tayari Jones, An American Marriage

jones-1

We believed we could talk this out, reasoning our way through this. But someone was going to pay for what happened to Roy, just as Roy paid for what happened to that woman. Someone always pays. Bullet don’t have nobody’s name on it, that’s what people say. I think the same is true for vengeance. Maybe even for love. It’s out there, random and deadly, like a tornado.

I was irrationally surprised at how personal a story An American Marriage tells. I say ‘irrationally’ because it’s right there in the title, after all! Still, the novel’s premise made me expect something different: less about love and more about injustice, less time at home and more time in court and in prison. One of the novel’s underlying ideas is that you can’t separate these things: of course everything in the book that is personal is also political, everything that happens to its central characters and especially to Roy cannot simply be called ‘private life’ as if the action of the novel isn’t directly affected by larger public and systemic forces. What happens to Roy in prison, too, though we see very little of it directly, affects the whole direction of his character when he is released. “Roy,” Celestial says,

“Tell me the truth. Would you have waited on me for five years?”

He twitched that same shrug. “Celestial,” he said, like he was talking to someone very young, “this shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”

Roy’s laconic response is all the more powerful for its lack of hyperbole. There it is: the persecution, injustice, and suffering Roy has endured is not personal but representative–and yet he experiences it as a specific individual, as do his family and friends, and that’s what the novel is about.

But something in the balance between this story and the actual plot of An American Marriage seemed off to me. Roy’s imprisonment turns out to be little more than a device, a galvanizing force for the development of a fraught love triangle. The novel handles his time ‘away’ almost lightly, and mostly indirectly, with an epistolary section in which a lot of what matters can’t be or isn’t talked about. Then when he comes out we are propelled into Celestial’s ethical quandary, as she chooses which of the men she loves she will stay with. In fact, a lot of the argument is about which of the men she loves she should stay with: although both men at several points remark that she is nobody’s property, one thing that bothered me is the pressure on her–not just from them but, I felt, from the novel itself–to choose rightly between them. There’s more emphasis on what her choice means to and about Andre and Roy than on what Celestial really wants–although, to be fair, that’s partly because she too seems preoccupied with herself in relation to them. Maybe, the novel seems to be saying, what you want doesn’t matter as much as what you owe someone else, particularly the person you said your marriage vows with. But I found the almost talismanic force attributed to marriage by many characters in the novel uncomfortable and constricting, even though by the end of the novel its grip on Celestial has been loosened.

An+American+MarriageThere was also something uncomfortable for me in the way gender roles were defined in the novel, especially by Roy. It’s tricky, of course, with first-person narratives, to figure out how or if a book is asking us to step back from a character’s attitudes. I didn’t think, though, that Roy’s view of women as men’s saviors was set up as clearly problematic, though it certainly struck me that way. “The vast generosity of women is a mysterious tunnel, and nobody knows where it leads,” Roy says near the end. “Sometimes,” he also remarks, “the only thing that can cure a man is the inside of a woman, the right woman who does things the right way”; he credits the woman he sleeps with right after his release from prison as having “showed me how to be myself again.” “It wasn’t purely sexual,” he insists, but that’s about all we’ve seen of it. Like marriage, sex seems to be given some kind of prevailing power to define or assert character and value.

These problems converged for me in the final scene with Roy and Celestial, in which she has taken him back and they are about to have sex. Roy ultimately refrains on the grounds that even though she is “offering herself to me like a banquet prepared in the presence of my enemies, like a flawless red pear,” she isn’t really truly willing: he recognizes that she is taking him back and “offering herself” because she believes she is obliged to, not because their marriage still means to her what it means to him. He’s not wrong–“I have to do this,” she tells Andre when she sends him away–but I had a hard time receiving this moment as the ethical turning point it was presented as. That he pushed her this far (and that she acquiesced) made me wonder what they (and possibly Jones) think love is, especially because not that many pages before he leans over her in bed saying “I could take it if I wanted to.” “A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way,” Celestial said just before that, as he led her through the house to bed:

Could I deny Roy, my husband, when he returned home from a battle older than his father and his father’s father? The answer is that I could not.

Her callback to the systemic and historic problems that instigated their personal catastrophe is powerful but also disturbing. Surely the real answer is that she can, and that if she wants to, she should. It can’t be that both she and Roy think the price she should pay for the racism that puts him in jail is her autonomy.

oprah-and-jonesThe ending of the novel backs away from this tangled web of private and personal claims and answers Celestial’s question in a better way. Arguably, it repudiates the claims Roy made on her as well as her belief that love and marriage create not just ties but debts, and perhaps also asserts the primacy of the individual life as the right measure of ethical standards. (I’m not sure about these interpretations, though.) Overall the resolution seemed right to me; less so, the terms of the preceding debate itself. And that debate seemed to me the most interesting thing about the novel: it is artfully constructed, but the different narrators didn’t sound markedly different from each other and there didn’t seem to be a strong artistic reason to do the prison term through letters, though I’d be interested to know if anyone else saw something thematically resonant in that formal choice. It’s a very readable novel, perfectly pitched and crafted to provoke discussion about Celestial’s choice. (Presumably that’s some of what made it a perfect Oprah choice.) But by the end I thought the whole was, somehow, less than the sum of its parts.