Below Stairs: Jo Baker, Longbourn

longbournElizabeth’s departure, once the rain had stopped, caused no particular trouble to anyone below stairs. She just put on her walking shoes and buttoned up her good spencer, threw a cape over it all, and grabbed an umbrella just in case the rain came on again. Such self-sufficiency was to be valued in a person, but seeing her set off down the track, and then climb the stile, Sarah could not help but think that those stockings would be perfectly ruined, and that petticoat would never be the same again, no matter how long she soaked it. You just could not get mud out of pink Persian. Silk was too delicate a cloth to boil.

Anyone who’s read Pride and Prejudice will immediately recognize this moment. Jane has come down with a cold thanks to her mother’s insistence that she ride to Netherfield “because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night”—a highly successful strategy, as it turns out. Elizabeth, “feeling really anxious, was determined to go to her, though the carriage was not to be had; and as she was no horsewoman, walking was her only alternative.” And so she sets out on foot,

crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.

The residents of Netherfield are shocked at her impropriety, but though they notice that her petticoat is “six inches deep in mud,” not one of them gives a moment’s thought to the extra work Elizabeth’s “country-town indifference to decorum” creates for the household staff. Neither, as far as we know, do Jane and Elizabeth: in this privileged indifference to the labor that supports their lifestyle, if in nothing else, they are very much at one with their hosts.

longbourn2Jo Baker’s Longbourn would be a pretty tedious novel if all it did was highlight or criticize these aspects of Austen’s “light, bright, and sparkling” original, and (to me at least) it would also be a boring one if all it did was tell the same story as Pride and Prejudice from a different point of view. I had avoided reading Longbourn up to now because I was so sure it would fall into at least one of these traps, or just be bad by comparison, as so many novels “inspired” by great novels are. (Exhibit A, the worst.) I have also been tired of the endless appetite for all things Austen for a long time: so many of the results seem either too fannish or just plain parasitic. Finally, I am not by personal taste a Janeite (I like only two of her novels, though I am capable, in my better moods, of appreciating what’s excellent about a couple of the others). It just seemed so unlikely that I’d enjoy Longbourn!

And yet enjoy it I did, quite a lot, which naturally has got me thinking about why—about what Baker does that worked for me where other books in the same vein have failed. I overcame my prejudices enough to try it in the first place because I really liked A Country Road, A Tree: the writer of that smart, sensitive novel about one great writer probably (I reasoned) would not be cheap or shallow in her novel inspired by another. But A Country Road, A Tree is a biographical novel, a different subcategory of literary homage: it undertakes to investigate the writing process, not to rewrite the resultsan approach which risks pitting the new author against the old, or, worse, setting the new author above the old. I think Longbourn succeeds because it sits beside the original: Baker is rounding out the story Austen tells, adding to it in ways that inevitably complicate how we think about it, but she is also clearly writing her own novel, and it stands up well on those terms. In fact, at times I wondered if (marketing advantage aside) Baker really needed the Austen hook: couldn’t Longbourn just have been a historical novel about servants in any elegant Regency household? 

pride-and-prejudice-penguinI’m undecided about that (and I’d be curious to know what other people think). Certainly some of Longbourn‘s appeal comes from its engagement with its excessively well-known inspiration. It was fun to know exactly what was going on upstairs even when Baker’s characters don’twhen Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth at Hunsford, for example. Sarah, who has accompanied Lizzie on the trip to see Charlotte, now Mrs. Collins, is busy with her own thoughts, especially about her relationship with James Smith, when she hears “a door shut within the house”:

There were quick footfalls coming down the hall. She got up off the step and stood aside just in time, or he would have walked straight through her; the front door was whisked wide, and Mr. Darcy strode past her shadow, and marched down the path. He left the gate swinging … Back in the house, she crept down the hall and cocked an ear outside the parlour door. She could hear the quiet sounds of Elizabeth crying.

I guess we do need to know Pride and Prejudice to appreciate this moment fully, but that doesn’t mean Longbourn needed to be attached to the other novel in this way to fulfill its own (other) aims.

The connection is more significant in the other direction, I think: having read Longbourn, you are likely to be more aware of the elements that are absent from Pride and Prejudice the next time you read Austen’s novel. I say “absent” rather than “missing from” because I think the former allows us to acknowledge the limited scope of Pride and Prejudice without insisting on that as a fault in it: it is what it is, and Longbourn is something else, is about something elsenot the same themes of manners and morals, not the same political themes or philosophies, as Pride and Prejudice, but other social and political themes, including class (which of course Austen’s novel is also about), race, and empire, topics which are relevant to the lives of Austen’s characters (and especially to their wealth) in ways the original novel does not explicitly acknowledge. Of course the result is some (mostly implicit) critique, especially around the source of the Bingleys’ wealth, which Austen tells us was “acquired by trade” but which Baker attributes more specifically to sugar. “I would love to be in sugar,” exclaims the little maid Polly.

“You’d go sailing out”—James traced a triangle in the air with a fork—”loaded to the gunwales with English guns and ironware. You’d follow the trade-winds south to Africa … In African, you can trade all that, and guns, for people; you load them up in your hold, and you ship them off to the West indies, and trade them there for sugar, and then you ship the sugar back home to England. The triangular Trade, they call it.

“I didn’t know they paid for sugar that way,” says Polly uncomfortably, “with people.” Another  pointed moment comes near the end, when Sarah tells Elizabeth (whom she is now serving at Pemberley) that she is leaving. “But where will you go, Sarah?” Elizabeth asks; “What can a woman do, all on her own, and unsupported?” “Work,” Sarah replies. “I can always work.” That, of course, is an alternative Elizabeth herself never contemplates when faced with the dire prospect of marrying Mr. Collins or risking poverty.

longbourn3But Baker isn’t rewriting Pride and Prejudice, which carries on cheerfully, and more or less exactly as Austen wrote it, even as Baker’s own drama plays out. She adds some pieces to it: the most important one is Mr. Bennet’s early dalliance which resulted in the living son he and Mrs. Bennet never have (thus the whole rest of Austen’s plot!). I wasn’t convinced that this storyline really fit Mr. Bennet, but I liked the way the presence of this illegitimate heir added to Austen’s critique of the laws of inheritance: it highlights a different kind of injustice from the one the Bennet sisters face. (Some of the plot points around this son struck me as a bit too pat, but the section about his wartime experiences is really well done—gripping, even harrowing, in a most un-Austen-like way.) I particularly liked the way Baker used Wickham: everything about his role in her story seemed entirely in keeping with the man we know from Austen’s. Mostly, though, Austen’s characters are peripheral in Baker’s novel, which I thought was really smart. It gives Baker room to develop her own interesting characters, to set her own vivid scenesin short, to write her own good novel, without relying on Austen to win the game for her.

“Why Lost?”: Xiaolu Guo, A Lover’s Discourse

xiaolu guo“I am feeling wordless. I call it wu yu. It’s like I have lost my language.”

You wrote back:

“Why lost? If you have really lost one language, aren’t you gaining another?”

I read your words a few times. I thought, why can’t I hold on to one language while gaining another at the same time? Why do I have to lose one first? I looked out into the dull night sky, and got no answer.

The title and epigraph for Xiaolu Guo’s A Lover’s Discourse both come from Roland Barthes’ Fragments d’un discours amoureux, which I have never read and know basically nothing about. (The only Barthes I’ve read is S/Z, decades ago and it never “took.” Sorry: it’s too late to rescind my Ph.D.!) Maybe the novel would have made more sense to me—or, would have felt more unified to me—if I understood that intertextual connection. Or maybe not, given that the one thing I do know about Barthes’ work is that it too is fragmentary, which does at least tell me that there is a degree of formal indebtedness and that unity, or completeness, was probably not a goal. That the novel seemed to me to have opened up more questions than it answered is probably not, then, a failure on its part—but I still found it unsatisfying, even faintly irritating.

A Lover’s Discourse reads easily—too easily, I am tempted to say, because the reason the pages go by so quickly is that there’s not much on them. If there’s a lot behind them, then IMHO Xiaolu Guo leaves too much of the work of discovering it up to me. Each short section is like a sketch or vignette; cumulatively these pieces chronicle the relationship between the narrator, a graduate student from China studying “visual anthropology” in London, and her lover, a landscape architect from Germany by way of Australia (or is it the other way around?). They meet, they fall in love, they move in together, they buy a boat to live on, she gets pregnant, they trade the boat for another flat, they get married, they visit his family in Germany, they buy a farm in Germany, they move back to London. (At this level, the novel is very easy to follow, and reasonably enjoyable.) And they talk: this, presumably, is the “discourse” of the title.

loversdiscourseMy confusion-slash-frustration arose from the elements around the novel’s simple plotline—or, arguably, missing from it. One example: The epigraph for each segment is a bit of dialogue from that segment. Why? Does that mean the rest of the section is just there to contextualize those lines? But what’s the value of reading them once out of context and once in it? It seemed both affected and repetitive. Another: What’s the significance of the directional names for the book’s larger divisions (West, South, Up, Down, etc.), which don’t really seem to apply to anything in them? Do they mean that the novel itself is about (finding? losing?) direction? Is disorientation a theme, a formal premise? Along those lines, are my largely unsuccessful attempts to discern meaning and patterns across the novel as a whole evidence that the book is doing what it wanted to, or that I’m reading it badly, or that it is not just impressionistic (artfully so) but incoherent (badly written, or imperfectly conceived)? Is my frustrated wish for the book to explain itself better actually the author’s desired effect, a challenge to my own reading habits? I do tend to value books that feel finished to me, rather than leaving large gaps for me to fill in myself. (Am I, in theory at least, “losing” one reading language and gaining another?)

Two aspects of the novel seemed particularly important: the narrator’s thesis, a study of a Chinese village where the central trade is creating meticulous copies of fine art masterpieces (so, prompting questions about authenticity, originality, artistry, reproduction, and value); and her lover’s work making art out of nature (so, prompting questions about rural vs. urban, exterior vs. interior, shaping vs. living with nature). These are all really interesting questions and the bits of dialogue about them are also engaging—but I can’t offer a reading of the novel that ties all the pieces together. Again, maybe I’m not supposed to, or maybe I just haven’t put in enough time and effort to do so. (It’s my blog: it’s the one place I’m allowed to write without agonizing first.) I do tend to seek the aboutness of a novel: I don’t think this is about reducing it to one idea or lesson, but about making sense of why this novel contains these elements. Maybe this novel resists that aim of internal coherence. Maybe (see how dubious I am about all of my ideas in this post?) I’m not supposed to feel at home in it. Maybe? I guess I feel that if so, I should actually be sure about that, and not torn between that possibility and the possibility that it’s just not a very good novel.

Now I’m going to read the NYRB piece about Xiaolu Guo, which I’m sure will set me straight.

Update: I notice a fair amount of equivocation in the NYRB review also—a lot of “perhaps” and “maybe”—and no real interpretive conclusion; it’s mostly descriptive. Its author is more appreciative than I am, but there’s no “aha!” moment that shows me up as a fool. 

“My Standard”: Gail Godwin, Old Lovegood Girls

‘I’ve only had one friend in my life so far. My roommate at Lovegood College. I’d like to know why it was we clicked the way we did, and why we were always at rest in each other’s company. We were completely different people from different backgrounds. For an English assignment she wrote a story about our friendship. I was the dark one, haunted by a troubled past, and she was the light ‘ordinary’ one who hadn’t had any troubles. I made her change ‘ordinary’ to optimistic. She was the first person to arouse my competitiveness, but she also made me aware of my lack of goodness. She remains my standard for what a friend should be, though I might not ever see her again.’

I’ve read and liked a number of Gail Godwin’s novels, going back as far as The Odd Woman (1974—though of course I didn’t read it quite that long ago!) and including Evenings at Five and The Good Husband, all of which I own. A couple of her more recent ones look familiar but I find no record of them here, so maybe I considered but rejected them on bookstore outings, or maybe I read library copies and for some reason never blogged about them. (It’s a bad sign either for them or for me that I can’t remember!) Old Lovegood Girls looked like just my kind of book, especially coming from a trusted author (and with glowing blurbs from reviewers I also usually trust, like Ron Charles)—and if you think this is a set-up for a but, you’re right. Old Lovegood Girls just never clicked for me. Its paired protagonists, Merry and Feron, never came to life, and the episodic narrative felt choppy and artificial. There’s a lot of metafictional material in the novel, from the writing both Merry and Feron do, to explicit references to a lot of ‘classic’ writers. Most of these comments too felt unnatural, manufactured either to give a sense of time (like Feron’s remark that she’s reading “the English writer Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam“) or to create a general impression of literariness—for the characters and also (or so it struck me) for Godwin’s own novel.

The most important comment about writing is in an exchange between Merry and Feron almost at the end:

“I’m writing my book but it’s hard” [says Feron].

“What book?”

“The one about us.”

“How much have you done?”

“A good bit.”

“Can you talk about it?”

“I do it in short takes, like my notebook vignettes for Miss Petrie.”

Aha: so (presumably) Old Lovegood Girls is the result? But I’m not sure (or, not convinced) because there’s material in it—about their teachers, for example—that I don’t think Feron could know. Maybe she just made it up? Or had sources, the way her insights into Merry’s point of view are justified by her acquisition of Merry’s notebooks? At any rate, that comment about vignettes explains the rather scattered quality of Old Lovegood Girls, which is basically continuous, chronological, but made up of parts that never feel quite finished or complete.

Despite that, there were things I enjoyed about this novel. The whole set-up is a good one: a friendship formed at a time when the girls’ identities and futures are still not fixed (not yet ‘set in jello,’ as they aptly describe an older person’s life) and then tracked across the decades. I think one reason it seemed thin and unconvincing to me is that I reread Disturbances in the Field so recently and, for me anyway, Schwartz’s novel is just richer and also riskier. The other novel this called to mind is William Boyd’s Any Human Heart: like Boyd’s, Godwin’s story gains weight as it goes on, simply because we have been with its characters for so long and through so much, and there is an intrinsic poignancy in that kind of ‘beginning to end’ narrative. Unlike Boyd, though, I felt Godwin was striving for it; reading Any Human Heart, the pathos crept up on me and eventually was quite powerful.

Stories about long-lasting friendships can also tap into emotions that are ours, not theirs, and in this case Godwin’s novel did benefit from the way it made me think about my own oldest friends, one close and dear since high school, two close and dear since university. None of us are much like either Merry or Feron, but we have been separated geographically for a long time now, as Godwin’s “girls” are, and that means that for decades we have maintained our closeness through correspondence, telephone, and occasional visits. Since COVID, which ruined my plans for a nice long trip to Vancouver in summer 2020, we have stepped up our phone conversations, and that has been really great. Old Lovegood Girls did make me think about what makes some friendships last and others fade. Feron and Merry are, as my opening quotation shows, set up as foil characters, but despite their contrasts Godwin does not develop them as antagonists, which was a relief. One of the (many) things I found alienating about “Ferrante fever” was the tendency to declare that Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet had captured something essential, even universal, about “female friendship,” as if there is any one version of it. I have never been—and hope never to be in—a relationship like Lila and Elena’s! I am so grateful that these three friendships have survived so much time and distance. Something I think Godwin really gets right is that, precious as newer friendships also are, there’s an ease about being with (or talking with) someone who knows your history, and who therefore doesn’t just see who and where you are but also understands how you got there.

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.

Reading Around (and Around)

little-strangerIt has been quiet at Novel Readings this week but that’s not because I haven’t been reading! It’s more that there hasn’t seemed to be much to say about the reading I’ve been doing. My recent novel reading has mostly been rereading: Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds (nice, light, familiar, but also, as I remarked in that earlier post, a bit on the melancholy side for ‘comfort reading’); Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field (an old favorite that, oddly, I have never written about at any greater length than this brief note at John Williams’ old site); and, following on the success of rereading Affinity, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (still a good read, still to me a bit dissatisfying with its irresolute ending – just how unreliable is Dr. Faraday? just how literally should we take his final revelation?).

oup-the-yearsThose are the novels I’ve reread for “fun” (though as I’ve said before, it is never 100% clear to me when or why my reading shades into “research”). I’ve also just finished rereading The Years, and I am a few chapters along in yet another time through South Riding, both of these with an eye to whatever it is that I’m one day going to write about them and the ideas and material I was deep into during my last sabbatical. I had some real momentum for this work going into Fall 2019 and in fact I sent off a proposal related to it early in 2020—but then came COVID and since then I haven’t returned to it in any systematic way. Last summer it was as much as I could do to finish a couple of smaller, more narrowly defined pieces of writing in between the work I was putting in on preparing for my first year of online teaching; while I was actually doing that teaching, I had energy to spare for only a couple of other similarly finite writing projects. (The main one, a feature on Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, will be out soon in the TLS, I hope!) The work of the term is mostly wrapped up now, though, and even if Fall 2021 is partly (or even completely) online again, it won’t require nearly the same amount of effort to prepare for it, so I am determined to use this summer to reinvigorate this research and figure out what to do with it. This means not just rereading the relevant novels but also revisiting and adding to my folder of related scholarship.

VS-2020The other reading I’ve been doing pretty steadily is also for research purposes, but with an eye to my teaching rather than my writing: I’m always gathering up references to new or (to me) unfamiliar scholarship in, around, and about “my” field, and at intervals I resolve to dig into it and see what else I could or should be talking about in the classroom, or just thinking about. Since the end of term I’ve been trying to go through 2-3 articles a day from that folder. This exercise tends to be equal parts exhilarating and exhausting: I enjoy feeling as if I’m learning new things or seeing familiar things from fresh angles, but I have long had a vexed relationship with academic criticism. About a decade ago I resolved to stop worrying so much about it and just get on with my own work; sometimes this reading (which I do consider one of my professional responsibilities) reminds me why I started looking around—and advocating for—other (complementary) possibilities.

blessingI’m not sure what I’m going to read next “just” for myself. I bought Lonesome Dove as a summer treat, but I’m saving it for real summer weather: it looks perfect for reading on the deck. My book club’s next choice is Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing (we wanted something light for summer, and this was one of hers that none of us had already read)—but I don’t have it in hand yet. Of course, like everyone likely to read this post I have a number of unread books on my shelf (not as many as some of you have, though, I’m pretty sure!) but none of them look that tempting  right now, which is probably why I haven’t read them already … Maybe I’ll reread something else I know I’ll like, if only to keep the temptation to order yet more new books at bay!

“Your Own Dark Cell”: Sarah Waters, Affinity

affinity‘And if you don’t take me,’ she said, ‘—well, when they put an end to your visits, what will you do then? Will you go on envying your sister’s life? Will you go on being a prisoner, in your own dark cell, forever?’

And I had again that dreary vision, of Mother growing querulous and aged—scolding when I read too softly or too fast. I saw myself beside her in a mud-brown dress.

This post is more or less a mea culpa for the many times I have remarked that Affinity is my least favorite Sarah Waters novel. I usually elaborate on that by noting that her very worst novel would still be better than most novelists’ best (a distinction she shares, at least in my opinion, with a pretty small cohort including, just for example, Hilary Mantel). I usually point to Fingersmith as my personal favorite, a preference that’s probably based in my interest in Victorian sensation fiction; I’ve assigned it often in a seminar on that topic and digging in on its details in the way you do when you’re working through a reading with students has only deepened my appreciation for it.

affinity2I decided to reread Affinity because I have always wondered if I’d underestimated it; because I was in the mood for something plotty but smart and (sadly) Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water, which I just read for my book club, looked promising but turned out not to be very good; and because I recently “attended” an interview with Waters as part of the London Library Book Festival, which of course was lively and fascinating. And here’s the thing. Affinity probably remains my least favorite Sarah Waters novel—but reading it this time, I was very conscious of just what a high bar that actually is! I was gripped from the first page and absorbed from beginning to end. I was surprised by it, because I read it long enough ago that I didn’t remember the details, and I was satisfied by it because its details are so well considered.  Waters has the rare knack of making her historical research feel alive on the page, and somehow her characters feel true in a way that Turton’s never did for me. I don’t know if I could point to any specific example or highlight anything in particular that she does differently, but reading Waters right after reading Turton reminded me of the bit in Henry James’s “The Art of Fiction” when he notes that, on the subject of childhood, “with M. de Goncourt I should have for the most part to say No. With George Eliot, when she painted that country, I always said Yes.” I ended up saying “no” to Turton; Waters is a writer to whom I always say “yes.”

dorrit-illustrationI’m not going to go into a lot of detail about the novel because one of its pleasures is how tense and twisty it is. I will say that one aspect of the novel that I especially enjoyed this time was how nicely Waters uses Little Dorrit to signal some of her own themes. Like Dickens’s novel, which Waters’ protagonist Margaret Prior reads with her mother, Affinity is set in a literal prison but is also very much about metaphorical prisons—social, psychological, and emotional. Much as Dickens does, Waters plays this idea out like a theme and variations, so that various meanings overlap and amplify each other. Margaret is free to come and go from London’s grim Millbank Prison, where she volunteers as a “Lady Visitor” offering company and comfort to the inmates, but she is unable to escape the crushing expectations and limitations of life as an unmarried woman whose interests and desires do not fit the life she is supposed to lead. When the novel’s action begins, she has already tried to commit suicide; thus life itself, to which she was unwillingly returned, is a kind of confinement, and her misery about her circumstances makes her eager to believe in the possibility of spirits that can pass back and forth over the threshold between life and death.  Unable to express, much less claim, the love that might make her happy (for her sister-in-law Helen, for example), Margaret is also trapped by her loneliness. When she meets Selina Dawes, imprisoned at Millbank for fraud and assault, she gradually comes to believe that she has found the key that will set her free. Selina, in her turn, seeks liberation, from her literal cell but also from other forces the novel only gradually unveils for us.

fingersmithWhat can these two imprisoned women mean to each other? What place is there for them in the world? I think the main reason I still find Affinity less exciting than Fingersmith is that its answer to these questions is [vague spoiler alert] sadder. Fingersmith goes to pretty bleak places, worse even (perhaps) than the “darks” of Millgate, but something luminous and beautiful emerges at the end. I’ve always remembered Affinity as dour by comparison, and this reading confirmed that impression; its grimness is not lifted in the same way by the sense of possibility, of escape, that the conclusion of Fingersmith offers. I might tentatively say that Affinity is more Gothic while Fingersmith is more Victorian, though like many such period or genre distinctions, that one may confuse more than it illuminates! At any rate, both novels are great reads and I’m glad I gave Affinity another chance. I might reread some of Waters’ other novels this summer: how is it possible that it has already been more than a decade since The Little Stranger came out?

“The Merely Human”: Anne Enright, Actress

actressThe headline, the article, it all points to one thing, the actress and her overshadowed child. The picture adds to the lie that I am a poor copy of my mother, that she was timeless, and I am not—the iconic gives birth to the merely human. But that was not how it was between us. That is not how we felt about ourselves.

Anne Enright’s Actress reads swiftly and piercingly, and yet it also felt fleeting to me: I finished it without any sense that it had gone deep or would linger with me. There’s a lot that’s interesting and well told in this story of a glamorous but (or, the novel suggests, therefore) unstable mother and her daughter and their different but related struggles with her fame and its side-effects. The most powerful element of the novel for me was its exploration of the many ways women’s beauty, ambition, and vulnerability are exploited: to act, to perform, is to court admiration that the novel shows is always going to be a two-edged sword—to require and reward exposure that makes unwanted attention impossible to avoid. There is a lot of poignancy in the story of Katherine O’Dell, who puts on her beautiful public face and plays the part of an Irish heroine for an audience that is demanding, fickle, and judgmental. There’s corresponding pathos in her daughter Norah’s struggles to figure out who she can be and also, belatedly, to understand who her mother really was and how her own identity—she is born of a father Katherine refuses, for reasons we eventually learn, to acknowledge—embodies both the best and the worst of her mother’s fraught history.

Actress+Anne+EnrightMuch as I was moved by both Katherine and Norah and engaged by the meticulously evoked historical and theatrical settings of the novel, though, I found the reading experience fragmented, the pieces of the novel difficult to integrate. Maybe if I reread it or thought harder about it I would understand why some of the bits and pieces are there, or why they are ordered in the novel as they are. I admit that right now I am a bit impatient with novelists who leave what feels like too much of that work up to me. I miss exposition, linearity, confidence that the novel as a form is robust enough to be “traditional” in these ways and still new. Actress is not by any means as conspicuously piecemeal as some recent novels, and it isn’t really minimalist, just condensed and somewhat episodic. Maybe it should be enough that it made me feel for the characters, and that Katherine especially seemed vivid enough to be more than a type—though I did feel at times that her pathos and melodrama and ‘madness’ (as her daughter characterizes it) verged on cliché. Is it the red hair (acquired to boost her ‘Irish’ identity) that meant I kept picturing her as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit? That, and her drinking and her flamboyance and her misery and her endless performance as a character in her own drama: that she lacks (or can’t rely on) her authentic self is part of Katherine’s tragedy, but it also made her poor company, and Norah is similarly, if more quietly, histrionic.

Having said all that, the story of their relationship is ultimately moving: it requires empathy and forgiveness to love a mother like that, and by the novel’s end Norah has found her way to a version of her mother’s life story that gives priority to her best efforts, especially her care for her daughter—uneven, imperfect, but genuine. Early on Norah comments, “Did I already know that she was crazy? Just the way all mothers are crazy to their daughters, all mothers are wrong.” Most mothers probably feel the truth and the sting of that remark; Actress tells a story about moving past that alienating judgment to forgiveness and love.

Summer Read-Along: Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale

penguin-bennettDorian and I thought it would be fun to do some kind of informal collaborative summer read-along; we settled on Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale as a book that neither of us knows and that lies in between our two main “periods” (me, Victorian; Dorian, Modern). I’ve been wanting to get to know Bennett on his own terms for a long time—suspecting, for instance, that Woolf’s brilliant but inevitably Woolfian perspective on Bennett in her (in)famous essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” is far from the only way to think about his contributions to the history of the novel.

The basic idea is that we’ll read The Old Wives’ Tale in instalments and take turns posting at our blogs to begin the discussion. Anyone who wants to can read along and join in, in the comments – or on Twitter or, of course, they can just post on their own blogs! When we get started, we’ll use a Twitter hashtag (probably #OldWivesTale21) so people can either follow it or mute it, depending on how they feel about this undertaking. 🙂

Here’s our (tentative) schedule, subject to the kinds of adjustments that both the pandemic and the fluidity of our summer plans mean are probably inevitable.

Bennett Schedule

Our intention is to keep this quite low-key: the instalments are pretty modest, the overall time-frame for reading the novel is generous, and there are no rules about what or how much we will be posting or how the spin-off discussions should go. It just seemed like a bit of structure would be a good way to make sure we actually do this! Please do join us on whatever terms would make it fun for you.

“Decency Among the Ruins”: Jo Baker, A Country Road, A Tree

baker1My near total first-hand ignorance of Samuel Beckett’s work would probably be a real advantage to me in David Lodge’s famous game ‘Humiliation.’ Even my second-hand knowledge is pretty limited: I have a casual idea of what Waiting for Godot is like and about, and that’s it. As with all novels steeped in another author’s lives and ideas, Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree is probably better appreciated by someone else, then, someone who can do more than stumble over a reference to an ‘endgame’ and think “hey, that’s probably an allusion!” or who can read Baker’s moving description  of Beckett’s epiphany about his own writing and really understand what it meant in practice:

There is nothing grand about it; no waves, no wind, no briny spray. The world is not and never was in sympathy with him, nor with anybody else. But this is the moment when everything changes, the moment when the wide chaotic chatter and stink of it, all that wild Shem-beloved hubbub, falls away, and his eyes are trained on darkness and his ears on silence. On that stark figure, framed there on the threshold, unknowable, and his.

By this point in Baker’s novel, though, I did at least know enough about Beckett (or, about her version of Beckett) to recognize the importance of this moment as a break away from the brooding and now posthumous influence of James Joyce (“Shem”), whom Beckett assisted and idolized. “Oh you poor thing,” his friend Anna Beamish exclaims when he tells her that he helped Joyce with Finnegans Wake; “Being friends with a genius.”

Throughout A Country Road, A Tree Beckett is trying—wracked with self-doubt and haunted by the oddity of writing at all in the midst of calamity and danger—to figure out how to write his way:

He stares now at the three words he has written. They are ridiculous. Writing is ridiculous. A sentence, any sentence, is absurd. Just the idea of it: jam one word up against another, shoulder-to-shoulder, jaw-to-jaw; hem them in with punctuation so they can’t move an inch. And then hand that over to someone else to peer at, and expect something to be communicated, something understood. It’s not just pointless. It is ethically suspect.

When it’s possible, writing is an escape for him, a source of clarity and comfort, but when the spell breaks, the results bring him little satisfaction:

even to have written this little is an excess, it is an overflowing, an excretion. Too many words. There are just too many words. Nobody wants them, nobody needs them. And still they keep on, keep on, keep on coming.

This revulsion against excess is what underlies that later moment of revelation, which Baker explains further in her Author’s Note:

[The wartime years] marked the start of his paring away at language: a stripping-back of Joycean wordplay and polyphonic extravagance, towards bare bones, and silence.

Baker’s own prose in this novel strikes me as cautiously influenced by that model of “paring away,” though in that respect A Country Road, A Tree isn’t really different from a lot of conspicuously well-crafted recent novels. It is not quite as spare as Normal People, and Baker is particularly good at scene setting with concrete details and vivid imagery: the novel definitely invites the over-used term “atmospheric.” But there is little exposition; the action and dialogue do most of the work.

baker3The specific scenes that need setting are those of Beckett’s years in occupied France, during which he played a part (a small part, he insisted) in the French Resistance. I didn’t know that this was part of Beckett’s story. Anyone’s experience of this kind would make a compelling novel (and of course there have been  many other books of one kind or another about this period), and Baker does a really good job conveying the anxiety of it all: it’s an extremely tense narrative, especially from the first moment Beckett joins in with the resistance efforts. The vicarious pressure of living in constant fear of exposure or betrayal, and then with the immediate hazards of escape and living in hiding, was almost too much to add to my own currently high levels of anxiety as the third COVID wave hits Halifax and once again everyday activities feel fraught with risk. In fact, a lot about A Country Road, A Tree felt timely, as something Baker’s Beckett is particularly attuned to is the disorientation induced by the ways crisis defamiliarizes even our most routine activities and intimate spaces. 

baker2Following Beckett’s own lead, Baker never glamorizes Beckett’s resistance work; she doesn’t even treat it as particularly heroic. It’s true that, in retrospect at least, he came through it all pretty well, better than many of his collaborators in these efforts not to mention many, many other people. In the end what’s interesting and important about this particular story about that time and that work is what it meant to Beckett as a writer: that’s really what A Country Road, A Tree is about. Does that trivialize the war, the resistance, the deaths and suffering? I don’t think so. Beckett did more than many of us would to push back against evil, but that wasn’t his chosen work, and it seems right to pay attention to what he made of that experience, or what that experience meant to him, when its imperatives lifted and he was once again able to create unimpeded–or, at any rate, unimpeded by quite the same array of external crises. We shouldn’t let war (or COVID) convince us that things not obviously or directly related to them are not important, that the right response is to marginalize or pare away things we genuinely value. Apparently Churchill’s line about preserving the arts (“then what are we fighting for?”) is apocryphal, something he never said, but the sentiment it expresses is surely true, or at least a lot of us agree with it. To think that Beckett’s writing is less important than his efforts against the Nazis is, in a way, to lose the war. (I have questions like this about what really matters during a crisis in mind because it’s part of what I decided to write about in the essay I’ve been working on about The Balkan Trilogy—out soon, I hope.) 529px-Samuel_Beckett,_Pic,_1_(cropped)And it is probably in this case best, anyway, not to consider these things as in opposition. Writers’ experiences become their art, and that’s what Baker is primarily exploring: how being alone and afraid and constantly confronted with irrationality and violence and threats both literal and existential brought Beckett to an understanding of what he wanted to write and how.

I think one reason I hadn’t pursued any further information about or experience of Beckett was that what I (vaguely) thought I knew about Waiting for Godot made me think I’d find his work both confusing and kind of depressing. Baker’s novel showed me something more appealing—not easy answers about “the meaning of life” or uplifting stories of courage under fire, but reasons for the kind of quiet optimism that depends on just doing the best we can:

Things are getting better. Things are becoming sound. There’s asphalt on the roads and on the paths. There’s glass, or something like glass, in all the windows. There’s lino on the labour-room floor—since there is breeding still, even now, even in this devastation. There are curtains round the beds, and clean sheets and warm blankets neatly tucked in. . . There is tea and there are biscuits and there is bread-and-jam when it is required, and it is often required. There’s kindness here. There’s decency among the ruins. It is something to behold.


Recent Reading: Herron, Hardy, Drabble, Thorne

Although until a couple of days ago I was awash in end-of-term work, especially evaluating final essays and exams, I have been managing to fit in some “leisure” reading (although, given my line of work, what reading is ever purely personal is never clear). Partly just to break the inertia of not blogging, I thought I’d write the books up briefly; hopefully that will clear my mind enough that some more thoughtful posts will follow over the next few days, including some kind of wrap-up post about my first full year of teaching online.

First up: Mick Herron’s Down Cemetery Road. I have really enjoyed the three books I’ve read so far in Herron’s Slough House series and usually crime fiction is more my thing than spy novels, so I had high hopes for this one. It didn’t really live up to them, but I think that’s more because of a mismatch between my expectations and Herron’s book, rather than any faults with Down Cemetery Road on its own terms: it is more a thriller than a whodunnit, and while it has some good characters, it is more about plot and suspense than about developing them. It’s pretty dour, even dark, and also pretty political, with its crimes reaching back to things like experimentation with chemical weapons and war crimes. If that’s your thing, you’ll probably like it! It’s well written and pretty fast paced. I won’t be seeking out more in this series, though; I’m much more interested in reading more of the Slough House ones.

Next up: The Mayor of Casterbridge. One of my vague plans for ages has been to revisit some Hardy in case there’s something I’d rather assign in the ‘Dickens to Hardy’ course than Tess or Jude, so the last time I ventured out to campus I brought back two likely suspects to read over the summer, The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge. Picking up Mayor a bit randomly the other day, I found that for whatever reason, I could stick with it better than with the contemporary novels I’d been sampling, so I stuck with it. I think it had been 15 years or more since I last read it: presumably I didn’t love it then or it would promptly have taken its place on my syllabus, and I didn’t end up caring that much for it this time, though I can see that it probably teaches well. As an aside, I mentioned on Twitter that it wasn’t for me and (inevitably, I have learned) people popped up in the replies to tell me that it’s a great novel, or Hardy is a great novelist. Honestly, that’s not a particularly relevant response: even setting aside the vagaries of terms like “great,” tastes vary. By all means tell me that you like it, and better yet tell me what you like about it, but I don’t enjoy replies that sound as if they are correcting my “mistake.”  (I’m sure some people do not mean to chastise you when they tell you how good a book is that you’ve admitted to not liking, but especially when it’s a “classic,” I do find that it often sounds like they are saying that you should know [that is, read] better. Tone is notoriously difficult to convey online!) I really hope I don’t do that when people say (as they pretty often do) that they don’t like Middlemarch.

I also picked up Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises pretty randomly: it has been ripening unread on the shelf since I picked it up used at the symphony book sale, which has not been held now since 2019. (How I have missed it!) Isn’t it odd how the right moment for a book just arrives, sometimes? I think I hadn’t read it before because it has a dreary cover and sounded dour–and if that makes you wonder, then, why I even bought it, well, it was only $2, and Drabble is a novelist I often like, so it seemed worth the very small risk. That said, it is a bit dour, but it’s also sometimes mordantly funny and also kind of encouraging, for a novel that is mostly about death–because what it is really about is what it means or looks like to live a good life. A number of its characters are near the end of their lives; it is not written in the spirit of raging against the dying of the light so much as of seizing what small comforts you can, an idea encapsulated really nicely in Robert Nye’s poem “Going On,” which is quoted in the novel in full. Here are the last line, though of course they mean the most in context:

Now when I think I can’t go on

What I remember is that man

With some small comforts in his hands

Passing along a crowded street

Towards a room all of his own.

Drabble’s eye is really sharp and she does not soften her stories of middle or old age at all. What I appreciate is that the resulting perspective, while resolutely unsentimental, is also not cruel or harsh: it’s just perceptive and kind of curious, as if she’s puzzling out what odd creatures people are and examining the various ways they get as best they can from one day to the next.

Finally, my ‘light’ reading: I had pre-ordered Sally Thorne’s latest romance, Second First Impressions, and was happy when it showed up on my Kobo just when everything else felt like a bit too much. I thought it was just OK. I really enjoyed her first novel, The Hating Game, though I know it was a bit polarizing among other readers. To me it felt fresh and believable, and it’s also very funny; I’ve reread it a few times when I needed a diversion. I can’t imagine rereading this one: its people just didn’t stand out and it all felt a bit too manufactured. I think it might have been better if she’d alternated points of view: the ‘hero’ never quite came into focus for me. It wasn’t bad, though, and it had a lot of cute elements.

What’s next? Right now I’m reading Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth, which is going pretty well so far. It’s a bit hard to roll with some of his devices for Shakespeare’s characters and plots; I’ve just reached the murder of Duncan and that, in particular, seemed insufficiently motivated for these updated characters, who don’t exactly live in a world where “killing the king” is a thing people do to get ahead. The exercise itself is fun, though; I’ve read a couple others in this venture (Vinegar Girl, for one, and also Hag-Seed) and part of the pleasure is just seeing what creative approach the contemporary author comes up with. As far as other reading plans go, I started The Garden of the Finzi-Continis but wasn’t getting along well with it, so I’m saving it for a day when I can read it on the deck, basking in the sunshine and tuning out the fretful world better than I can at the moment. I’ve got Lonesome Dove on order, and I’m looking forward to that, as it sounds as if it’s an adventure in great old-fashioned story-telling. Plus in honor of Independent Bookstore day, I’ve ordered Anne Enright’s Actress and Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree, both recommended by other trusted readers and books that also look smart without being too demanding.

Pretty soon, too, the last of the administrative work for the term will be done and then I will finally–for the first time since last March, really–be able to turn my attention away from online teaching and sort out some priorities and plans for longer-term reading and writing projects, probably including a return to the work I’d been doing on and around The Years. What a nice thought! It’s almost (but not quite) enough to cheer me up in the face of today’s dismal and rather frightening COVID numbers.