The Paying Guests–Sarah Waters (2014)

Just so you know, I reveal details of the plot here, so maybe bookmark this for later if you’re planning to read the book anytime soon.

Near the beginning of The Paying Guests, Frances Wray, the novel’s protagonist, looks in on her mother before going to bed. Mrs. Wray is sitting up in bed with “a book in her lap, a little railway thing called Puzzles and Conundrums: she had been trying out answers to an acrostic.” Near the end of the book, after dramatic events that Frances has kept secret, she feverishly speculates that her mother has guessed part of what has happened: “But how long before she worked out more? How long before the whole thing knitted itself together, like one of her wretched acrostics?”

These references are quite disparaging (“a little railway thing,” “wretched”), which is surprising, since, on the face of it at least, The Paying Guests is greatly interested in puzzles, mysteries, enigmas, and the like. In the great tradition of Golden Age British crime fiction, these mysteries concern unlikely protagonists. The Paying Guests’s Wrays live in a respectable London suburb. The Great War has been over for four years but its effects persist, not least in their household. Frances’s two brothers died in the fighting, and her father of ill health and grief soon after, leaving behind an unpleasant surprise: his investments turn out to be nearly worthless. Mother and daughter live on in the family home, a home that is too big for them, and too expensive. They have long since let the servants go; now the only solution to their financial straits is to let part of the house to strangers.

The novel begins with the arrival of the lodgers, the Barbers. (Mrs. Wray calls them “paying guests,” in keeping with her willingness to delude herself about anything she doesn’t want to face.) Leonard and Lilian are a young lower-middle class couple: he works as an insurance agent, she looks after their home and dreams of art school. They are the novel’s first puzzle: we share in the Wrays’ half-horrified, half-fascinated efforts to figure them out. Their manner of speaking, their gramophone, their rooms decorated in garish bohemianism: all set them apart from the fastidious, self-regarding, and yet increasingly threadbare world of their landladies (a term Frances uses to shock her mother).

Frances is a character we’ve come to know from some of Waters’s other books, especially The Night Watch (2006): the melancholic lesbian. Much of the great sadness of the Wray household arises from her thwarted hopes. We learn of her pacifist and suffragist activism during the war years (she was briefly arrested for throwing a shoe at an MP), and the woman, Christina, she met and fell in love with during that time. Later we learn of the crisis when Christina asks her to live with her and Frances bows to her sense of family obligation and breaks the relationship off. Frances cares for her mother and the household, she manages the finances as best she can. The book is a study in the exhaustion that comes from making small economies at a time when the daily business of keeping up a household was much more labour intensive than it is now. Waters describes the housework in detail: the fires to be made and kept up, the dusting and sweeping, the scrubbing by hand of the tiles, twice, first with vinegar to remove the dirt, then again with water to get a shine (which of course soon fades). Bathwater must be heated; the WC is across the yard. Even going to bed is “a round of chores—the gatherings, the turnings-down, the cushion-plumpings and the lockings-up.”

Frances, though a puzzle to her family (her mother in particular effects not to know about her daughter’s sexual orientation, holding out hope that she will find a man, and therefore a purpose to her life), isn’t one to herself. She knows the solution to her ennui (meaningful work, recognition, a room of her own, love, life) but can’t imagine where it might come from. To her surprise—but not to ours, at least not to those of us who have read Waters before—the solution turns out to be right in front of her, right under her roof in fact.

Frances and Lilian, who are often alone in the house together, slowly become friendly, their relationship characterized, on Frances’s part at least, by a muted gallantry that is part of the way she keeps all the important things about herself in check, hidden from everyone, even, almost, herself. Eventually Frances outs herself to Lilian, telling her about Christina. Lilian’s responds with wary reserve; Frances curses herself for saying too much; the intimacy dies as quickly as it had flared. But one night everything suddenly changes, Lilian’s reserve is revealed to have been fear of her feelings, and the two fall headlong into a charged relationship that consists, like the experience of being closeted, of hiding in plain sight: they steal moments together whenever they can, even under the very noses of Leonard and Mrs. Wray.

Then a lot of things happen at once. Lilian reveals she is pregnant and asks Frances to administer some pills she has purchased illegally from a shady chemist’s. The night she induces a miscarriage is the same night Leonard comes home early from a business meeting. He assumes the child is a sign that Lilian has been involved with another man. When he threatens Lilian, Frances tells him the truth. Leonard attacks her in a rage; a desperate Lilian beats him off with an ashtray, the first thing that comes to hand; the blow to the back of the head kills him.

The women subside in relief that quickly turns to shock. Lilian convinces Frances not to call a doctor or the police. Instead they manage to remove the body—Waters is great on the physicality of bodies, especially as revealed through sex, work, and death: the scene in which they desperately drag the corpse downstairs, out through the garden, and into the lane behind the house, before Frances’s mother comes home from her bridge night is a marvel of suspense and horror—and erase the signs of the struggle. Here the descriptions of cleaning that earlier seemed only to remind us of the emptiness of Frances’s life take on new urgency; so too do the earlier meditations on its futility (everything fades, everything decays: the porcelain collection always collects new dust, the freshly scrubbed floor always attracts someone’s muddy boots) take on new irony: some traces of the crime (bloodstains on the carpet, for example) simply can’t be expunged.

Murder, it seems, will out. The police become increasingly suspicious about the crime. It seems inevitable that the women will be found out. Their actions drive a wedge between them: they are physically separated, Lilian’s family takes her to stay with them, and emotionally separated, caught in a series of emotional upheavals ranging between fear of getting caught, elation at how everything seems to be breaking their way, paranoia that the authorities know more than they’re letting on, shame at having their comfortable lives mixed up in murder, and guilt at the idea that someone else might be held accountable for their actions.

Yet whenever the book seems to become conventional, it shrugs its shoulders, reveals conventionality to have been a red herring. Take for example its decision to limit its narration closely to Frances. We only really know how Frances is feeling. Lilian remains much more shadowy. Thus we too become suspicious of her motivations, her loyalties, her responses. We share in Frances’s suspicions. Did Lilian know, for example, about the large life insurance policy Leonard had taken out on himself only a few months before his death? Does Lilian love her—she’s never been with a woman before, after all—or is she taking advantage of her?

Lilian is the novel’s greatest enigma. We always have to read her through others’ perceptions. Even her most direct utterance—a love letter she sends Frances when away on holiday with Leonard—turns out to be open to more sinister interpretations. Added to this inscrutability are the facts that come to light about Leonard after his death. He turns out to have been having a long-standing affair with another woman, Billie, whose sometime boyfriend/fiancée, Spencer, had beaten him savagely several months earlier. Leonard’s best friend Charlie, meanwhile, was involved with Billie’s sister, which explains why he maintained to the police that he and Leonard were together on the night of his death: he was with that girl and didn’t want his fiancée to know about it. (Are you keeping up with all this? It gets a bit complicated, though Waters is admirably lucid with her details.)

The book’s most interesting surprises have to do with the ease with which the women get away with their crime. No one notices those bloodstains on the carpets, especially after Lilian’s family and the police trample over the Barbers’ rooms. It rains heavily the night of the murder, washing away evidence and ensuring that the only possible witnesses (a spooning couple) couldn’t see anything. Suspicion, which had first fallen on Charlie, comes, after the revelations about Leonard’s affair, to rest on Spencer, a young tough with a record of assault. He admits to the earlier attack on Leonard and relishes, at least at first, being accused of a crime he insists he didn’t commit but which he is glad about. Even when the boy goes on trial for murder, prompting the women to agonize over their responsibility in letting an innocent man be accused, this problem too goes away: a new witness, a fellow lodger of Spencer and his mother—they let rooms in a house much shabbier than the Wrays’—comes forward at the trial to confirm that Spencer had been at home the night of the murder. This man—a war veteran who loses his sales job by testifying (he was meant to have been in Leeds on business)—is the most admirable character, the only one we can unreservedly sympathize with.

Significantly, the man is never named, and so stands, not as a British Everyman, but as a symbol of the possible integrity that might remain in a society that has been thoroughly transformed by war, no matter how people like Mrs. Wray try to pretend it hasn’t. Like so many other veterans, various examples of which flit through the novel, the man is scraping to make ends meet, trying out all sorts of odd jobs. To lose this one is a hardship: doing so reinforces his bitterness at the society that fails to acknowledge the things he went through on its behalf.

Unacknowledged sacrifices are everywhere in the book. These losses are as much of people as of ideals, most obviously of sons and brothers, but also of lovers, especially same-sex ones. They are losses of expectation and hope. Is this, various characters ask, what we fought the war for? In this regard, the paying guests of the title might be everyone in England, or almost everyone. Certain no one seems at home in the new order, and everyone has had to pay.

Everyone except, suddenly, Frances & Lilian. The jury is convinced by the ex-serviceman’s testimony and finds Spenser not guilty. Leonard’s death is destined to remain unsolved. The women are free, their consciousnesses mostly assuaged. And just when it seems as though none of those things are enough to overcome the harm that’s come to their relationship, just when Frances has contemplated suicide from the Battersea bridge (but, in her sensible way, quickly rejected it), at that very moment Lilian breathlessly arrives and the novel concludes by intimating a new beginning for the two of them.

In this way, The Paying Guests uses its crime story framework to ask the question, what would happen if you got what you wanted, if all the obstacles to your desire melted away? One answer is that there’s no such thing: there are always obstacles, we never get what we want. That’s the lesson of most crime stories, from Macbeth to Patricia Highsmith.

But the novel’s more interesting answer is that this crime does pay, because of the desire that motivates it. The most ingenious thing Waters has done here is to use the conventions of crime fiction to make her point about the invisibleness of same-sex, especially lesbian desire. Although Waters creates a lot of suspense as to whether suspicion will fall on Frances and Lilian, ultimately, she suggests, that suspense is beside the point. The law—exclusively, even obstreperously male here—simply cannot imagine Frances and Lilian as co-perpetrators, as co- anything. The police are no different from Leonard, who assumes his wife must have been with another man. We can imagine that, had the women confessed, the police would have been as unforgiving as Leonard was. But they’ll never get there on their own. Only other women—Lilian’s sisters in particular—can even begin to imagine the truth—not about the murder, but about the nature of Frances and Lilian’s relationship. But that “knowledge” can’t extend beyond an inarticulate suspicion of something queer.

Waters is too attuned to historical reality to paint too optimistic a picture of the possibilities enabled by the invisibility of lesbian desire. After all, the relationship between Frances’s former lover, Christa, and her artist friend Stevie appears only at the margins of the story: their life together seems precarious. And Waters doesn’t show us what Frances and Lilian’s life together looks like. But the absence of robust, open, healthy lesbian relationships isn’t just an acknowledgement of history. It’s also, more interestingly, a function of the book’s narrative form.

Waters hasn’t always handled similar material in the same way. The Night Watch, for example, is another story of war and homosexuality. There too, forms of life, expressions of desire, that are possible in wartime (in this case, WWII) become much more difficult afterwards. But that novel qualified its narrative of the rise of peacetime conventionality by telling its events in reverse (that was the source of much of its power), so that the narrative of the book countered the narrative of history.

By contrast, the conventional structure of The Paying Guests left me unsatisfied. Although suspenseful, it more often feels inert, as if it were leading to something it chooses not to develop. It’s not just my naïve desire to know whether things turn out happily ever after that was disappointed by the ending. I wanted the book to take on the challenge of imagining what Frances and Lilian’s life would look like, as two women living together, let alone two women who bore the burden of the secret of their responsibility in a crime.

I think the book is aware of this failure, if not in terms of its characters then in terms of its form. Remember those references to acrostics I started with. Although it’s helpful of Waters to use the second reference to remind us of the first, there’s an obviousness here—aren’t we supposed to make the connection between the daughter’s situation and the mother’s puzzles?—that makes me think about what kind of book The Paying Guests wants to be. For not all books are supposed to be puzzles. In this regard, the part of these passages that seems the most important is nothing to do with puzzles per se but rather with the kind of book the puzzles are in: “a little railway thing.” The dismissal is Frances’s, though it might equally be her echo of Mrs. Wray’s sensibility: its snobbishness disguised as self-deprecation suits her to a tee. It doesn’t really matter, since, at the beginning of the book, mother and daughter quite agree, at least on matters of social class.

But does Waters agree? I don’t think so. I think she wants to write “a little railway thing”—though, to be sure, and this is a significant difference, a queer one. Waters has always loved popular late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century literary forms (sensation fiction, detective fiction, gothic fiction, suffragette memoirs). But her desire to re-write them from a queer perspective means she can never inhabit them fully. In her past work, this has felt like an enlivening tension. But here the ambivalence comes across as more uncertain. One way to take the measure of that uncertainty is to consider the novel’s allusions to canonical literary modernism, a movement that prided itself on being puzzling.

The opening line—“The Barbers had said they would arrive by three”—feels like a flat echo of the one that famously begins Mrs. Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Frances’s meditation on her neighbourhood’s seclusion—“you’d never guess that a mile or two further north lay London, life, glamour, all that”—sounds like a drier, less rhapsodic version of Clarissa’s hymn to “what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.” (Waters’s book, by contrast, begins on “a wet April evening.”) But when Frances does slip into the city, she sounds like the much-wealthier Clarissa:

She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged… It was like being a string, and being plucked, giving out the single, pure note that on was made for. How odd, that no one else could hear it!

The rush of metaphors, the sensual attunement to the world, the exclamatory free indirect discourse: why, Frances here almost makes herself into the peals of Big Ben that boom and dissolve across Woolf’s novel.

As I read on, I kept finding other modernist references: the flower-seller Frances dashes over to as she accompanies Christina reminded me of the destination of Clarissa’s initial errand. Other references seemed more overt. The description of a sudden, pregnant silence—“She was aware of rain, in a sudden shower”—echoes the line from “The Waste Land” about the summer that surprises “in a shower of rain.” Frances’s hysterical vision, as she waits for Lilia not return from the chemist’s with the abortifacients, of a London overrun with infants—“Everywhere she looked she saw prams, she saw babies with pink, alive faces”—echoes Vivienne Eliot’s similar yet much more horrified vision in a letter to her husband. And Lilian’s exclamation about a poor world reminded me of Stevie’s heartfelt cry in The Secret Agent, “Bad world for poor people!”

At times I thought Waters might be thinking of her own novel as a kind of dialogue with that earlier novel, Conrad’s own remarkable exploration of the uses that genre fiction (spy stories, detective fiction) might be put to. I haven’t the energy to check if I’ve remembered this correctly, but Leonard stays in my mind as fleshly, rather like Conrad’s Verloc, and there is, of course, the similarity between the novels of a murder committed from outraged despair at the thought that the person one most loves might be threatened. Conrad subordinates genre convention to modernist imperative much more than Waters; and his book is much more pessimistic, even deterministic. So I don’t want to suggest they’re in any way the same book. I’m similarly willing to admit that I may be finding these allusions where they don’t really exist. (Did anyone else notice them?) But they struck me as signs of Waters’s own uncertainty about what kind of a book she’d written: a conventionally, if carefully structured crime story that might while away a railway journey that sometimes willfully disdains the more experimental literature of the period in which it is set yet which sometimes yearns for, even needs that very experimentalism as a way to be able to tell what, in the actual genre fiction of the period, would have been an untellable story. (Again, maybe I’m wrong. There might be a ton of Golden Age lesbian crime fiction that I don’t know about. If so, please enlighten me!)

I certainly don’t regret reading The Paying Guests (it’s long, probably too long, but a quick read). I’ll read anything Waters writes. But I don’t think this one quite came off. Perhaps we might think of it as a bit of a paying guest amongst the more established instances of her impressive body of work.


Miscellany (3)

I knew it would be hard to return from sabbatical, but I’d forgotten how quickly the semester becomes relentless, each day an exhausting headlong rush. I’ve missed writing here. But I’ve managed to carve out enough time to say a few words about some of the books I read at the end of the summer and even one or two I’ve squeezed into the semester.

Rennie Airth, The Reckoning (2014)

Superior if self-consciously solemn installment of superior if self-consciously solemn crime series centered on the aftermath of WWI in England. The good guys are all a little too good (worse, worthy), but the prose is better than average, and the plot suspenseful. Hard to know where the series can go from here, though I’d have said that after the last one too. I appreciate Airth’s deliberateness: only four books in fifteen years.

Karin Slaughter, Cop Town (2014)

I haven’t read Slaughter before, though she seems awfully popular and prolific. (Is that seriously her last name? It’s a bit like the inventors of cinema being named Lumieres.) I enjoyed this stand-alone, even if I found the resolution of the crime itself tedious. Like too many crime novels, Cop Town is too long. The interesting stuff concerns the introduction (I was going to say integration, but that’s just what it wasn’t) of women into the Atlanta police force in the mid 1970s. I assume the depiction is accurate: it’s awfully compelling, at any rate, without being self-congratulatory (“Look how far we’ve come”; “Can you believe what people did or said back then?”). I also enjoyed the surprising—and surprisingly successful—Jewish subplot. I’d read more of her stuff, especially if anyone has any recommendations.

Georges Perec, W., or The Memory of Childhood (1975, English Translation by David Bellos, 1988)

I read this several months ago in preparation for a course on the Holocaust and what Marianne Hirsch calls postmemory: the “memories” of the missed event that haunt child survivors and the children of survivors. I planned to write about it at length here, but never got around to it. At first I decided not to include the text in the course. Then, at the last minute, when I was finishing the syllabus, I decided I needed to include at least a short selection. The book just wouldn’t quite let me go.

W. switches between two layers: a memoir of Perec’s wartime experience as a child evacuee in rural France, and a fictional tale—half boys’ own adventure story, half anthropological treatise—about a man who discovers the remote island of W., a place organized entirely around the pursuit of competitive sport.

It’s obvious the two are related, in that the second is an allegory for what cannot be described or even referred to in the first: the concentration camps that swallowed up Perec’s mother, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and died there, probably the following year. The whole exercise becomes more moving, more uncanny when we learn that the story of W. is based on one written by Perec when he was only twelve or thirteen, that is, in the years just after the war. David Bellos, the book’s translator, explains that the letter “w” in French is the double-vee, le double-vé, in which it’s hard not to hear an echo of the double life, la double vie, which Perec lived as a young child in Vichy France.

I initially decided not to assign the book because I worried students would get caught up in untangling the allegory, in making the connections between the two halves explicit, even though the book never hides those connections, indeed advertizes them. I wondered if I could get them past thinking that, having done so, their interpretive task was done. And I didn’t know what I thought about the book, couldn’t decide whether I liked it. (Which is actually a good reason to assign something.) I’m probably selling my students short; at any rate, I’ll see how they do with the excerpt. The section I’ve chosen is a remarkable description of Perec’s uncertainty about his parents and their fate, centered on descriptions of absent photographs. In that regard it will complement our discussions of photographs in Maus and Austerlitz.

Although I prefer Kofman’s Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, a text which also deals with a child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to France who was hidden during the Occupation, mostly because Kofman is more interested in the psychic and affective aspects of her experiences, I think about Perec’s book often, all these months later, one of the truest signs that a book is important to me.

Jorn Lier Horst, Dregs (2010, translated into English by Anne Bruce, 2011)

Dreadful Norwegian procedural. Really felt let down by this since I’d heard it praised to the skies by a number of generally reliable bloggers. Wooden translation, leaden plot, the always-irritating detective’s-child-in-harm’s-way subplot: really the full nine stinker yards. File under: title, accurate.

Henning Mankell, An Event in Autumn (2013, translated into English by Laurie Thomson, 2014)

Melancholy because apparently absolutely, definitely, unquestionably final installment of the Wallander series. (Though we know how reliable those sorts of claims can be: cf Reichenbach Falls.) Set before the events of the brilliant, distressing The Troubled Man, this work, slight even for a novella, will be enjoyed by fans of the series. Newcomers shouldn’t start here. Basically it’s a throwaway, as Mankell himself admits (he wrote it as a charity exercise to support Dutch booksellers, or something of the sort). But for me Wallander is one of the great detectives. I always love how irritated and grumpy he is about little things without ever becoming a caricature (curmudgeonly, endearing, gruff exterior but gentle interior, etc).

Jean-Patrick Manchette, The Mad and the Bad (1972, translated into English by Donald Nicholson-Smith, 2014)

One of my character flaws is a weakness for nice packaging. I’ve always judged books, and other things, by their covers, and I’ve often been led astray by doing so. (And yet I keep doing it.) I’ve long been utterly seduced by the NYRB classics series—and they’ve republished some marvelous, deserving works. (I wouldn’t know Olivia Manning without them, and a world without her is no world at all.) But just because a book has got those fancy full-color inside covers doesn’t mean it has to be good. This is only the third Manchette I’ve read (the others several years ago, I remember them only dimly) but it’s time to call Emperor’s New Clothes on this guy. I’m all for writing that pushes the conventions of a genre, either in order to invigorate another genre or to contest the very idea of genre, but you can’t do it if, like Manchette, you disdain the genre to begin with.

Many have written about the fundamental conservatism of the crime genre (even when it gets put to liberal ends, supports good causes, etc), but Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, and Macdonald (Manchette’s obvious models) are more radical than Manchette’s pretty ham-handed, self-satisfied critique of capitalism. Consider the book’s set piece: a hit man on the trail of the gang who kidnapped the nanny of the nephew of a wealthy industrialist (is there any other kind?) tracks the bad guys into a department store. The ensuing shoot-out gets out of hand: the store is set aflame and looted by euphoric customers whose frenzied lust for consumer goods spills over into the streets of a provincial French town. J. G. Ballard would have made this both funny and ominous, a tonal instability we wouldn’t quite know what to do with. Manchette makes things clear: there’s no difference between the thieves and the customers. Manchette reminds me of late 60s or early 70s Godard: they’re both tediously earnest, but Manchette has none of Godard’s expressive range, the delirium of style that makes the films work despite themselves. His idea of style is a pretty one-note imitation of the hardboiled. I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

Laurie R King—A Grave Talent (1993)

Although the early 90s now seem what the 70s were to me as a young adult (embarrassing, quaint, hopeless), King’s novel, the first in her Kate Martinelli series, doesn’t feel dated. It impressed me with its intelligent and subtle representation of a queer relationship, and its vivid description of the forests of Northern California. I wish the book were shorter—it has its longeurs—but it cemented my appreciation for King’s talent. (I really liked her first Holmes pastiche.)

Sarah Waters—Tipping the Velvet (1998)

Having unaccountably stalled out a hundred pages into this book last year, I started over again and read the whole thing in just a few days. It’s a wonderful debut, and I bet people will be reading it for a long time. It’s not perfect, especially when it seems designed to illustrate a caricatured version of Judith Butler. But at its best it impresses with sinuous, incantatory sentences and exciting narrative reversals (which Waters would perfect a few years later in Fingersmith). Sometimes the book is boisterous, but mostly it’s sad. The queer melancholy that returns in full force in The Night Watch is already evident here.

Maybe I’m just an unrepentant modernist, but what’s really stayed with me is the ending, with seems like an homage to and queer rewriting of the end of Forster’s Howards End: in both cases a new kind of non-nuclear, even non-biological family is imagined in a pastoral setting. Forster’s novel is famously anxious about how modernization/development threatens that idyll, complete with class snobbishness about middle-class redbrick spreading like a stain on the countryside. I was left wondering whether Tipping the Velvet, on the face of it so progressive and generous, might not be similarly conservative (if not about class). When Nan, the protagonist, steps in at the end to give the rousing speech that her lover’s brother, a socialist, cannot articulate, showmanship seems to trump politics. Yet Waters is nothing if not knowing: one of her aims is to redeem performance as something other than “mere” appearance, as substance itself. So maybe I am off target here. But something still niggles at me about the book. I liked it best when it’s least in control of itself, least amenable to allegory.

I want to write more extensive posts on some other books I’ve read: two by Nathan Englander and three by Tove Jansson. We’ll see whether the semester lets me.