“A Canadian Loser”: Brian Moore’s The Mangan Inheritance

Now as he came closer the man reached up to the collar of his slicker and opened it, letting it fall back to reveal his windburned face, which was partly hidden by a few weeks’ growth of beard. But even with the beard, even in the shadow cast by the low-brimmed hat, Mangan saw it clear. It was his face.

Now that’s some Daphne Du Maurier or Patricia Highsmith-level doubling right there. But this passage isn’t from either of those wonderful writers. Instead it’s from another underappreciated 20th century writer who, like those precursors, works primarily in the realist vein but flirts with its representational others: the fantastic, the Gothic and, especially, the uncanny. Brian Moore was born in Northern Ireland, came to Canada in the late 1940s, and eventually settled in California. He wrote 20 novels and, if The Mangan Inheritance (1979) is any indication, I have a lot of satisfying reading ahead of me.

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The character who sees his own face in another man’s is James Mangan, a former poet, a former journalist, and the former husband of a famous actress. This encounter is in some respects the climax of the novel. It’s precipitated by a moment early in the text, in which Mangan, rummaging through some old family papers while visiting his father, finds a daguerreotype of a man who looks just like him. The image, dated 1849, has the initials J. M. penciled on the back. Mangan believes he is looking at the (actual, I was surprised to learn) 19th century poéte maudit James Clarence Mangan, and, moreover, that the man is his direct ancestor, even though most biographies claim he died childless.

Having suddenly come into a large fortune, and freed of all responsibilities, Mangan travels overseas in order to confirm his suspicion. It is January, and Ireland is cold and rainy and poor. Many of the people he meets are suspicious, even hostile. But he feels ever more alive on the trip, especially when he meets some previously unknown cousins. And always he carries the daguerreotype, carefully wrapped in plastic, in the inside pocket of his coat, for every time he looks at it he feels an electric spark. Some kind of force makes itself felt, convincing him he is connected to his lookalike.

Various misadventures on the wild coasts of southwestern Ireland lead him to the encounter described in that passage, which turns out to be with an uncle everyone thinks is dead. Which means there are three identical men. What connection binds them? Has a creative force, a virtuosic artistic talent, been mysteriously passed among them?

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One of the things I like best about the book is how far Mangan and the novel have travelled to reach this point. The book begins with Mangan in his apartment in New York. The door bell rings. It’s the super, come to fix a leaking faucet. “You have bathroom trouble?” he asks. This trouble is easily fixed, but before long Mangan has plenty of other, less remediable troubles. (Impossible not to read that word without thinking of Ireland’s Troubles, not to mention the wonderful J. G. Farrell novel, also from the 1970s, of the same name.) In the end, the man Mangan discovers, the man who shares his face, has bathroom troubles of his own, albeit of a more disturbing, irreparable, and corporeal sort.

But the swerve away from the domestic (the simple business of replacing a washer) is characteristic of the book’s trajectory, which is to break away from all that seems familiar. (This seems to be a real preoccupation of 1970s English-language fiction: I’m thinking of some of my favourite novels: The Summer before the Dark, Desperate Characters, Bear. Make of that what you will.) The book keeps moving, ever onward, from New York to Montreal to the snowy Laurentians and on to Ireland, and, once there, from small towns to a shuttered and ominous Big House to a windswept headland and a man in a tumbled down Norman keep. Only in the last handful of pages is there a return of any sort, and even then it is only geographic. Mangan goes back to Montreal, his home town, but to greatly changed circumstances that will require him to live a different life, if he is willing to do so.

Mangan’s isolation is as much emotional as geographic. Just as he is led further and further off the beaten track so too do his connections to other people fray. His initial exultation at meeting his extended family doesn’t last; before long, Mangan finds himself increasingly adrift. The more he learns about the men who share his face, the less he wants to be like and with them.

That uneasiness appears in a scene in which Mangan, blundering in the dark through a house that once belonged to the family but has been sold to a foreigner, comes across a mirror. He’s led to an uncomfortable thought:

He stared in terror at the face: a narrow old mirror framed in a gold-scrolled leaf and in it, glaring at him, ghostly pale, eyes glittering with the steely hysteria of an insane person, the features frighteningly bruised, lip swollen, missing front tooth: himself. And in that moment he knew why the house resisted him. I am the ghost that haunts it. (Moore’s italics)

How about that first sentence? That second colon, unusual where we might expect a comma to complete the itself incomplete (since the verb is elided) clause “and in it himself,” has the effect of suggesting that he himself is essentially this bruised and swollen figure. (He’s been jumped in a bar—and in so doing becomes ever more like the 19th century poet, not only in his dissolute-ness but also in his physique: the daguerreotype shows him missing the same tooth.)

And how about that final sentence? I am the ghost that haunts it. Creepy! Yet here is where Moore diverges from writers like Du Maurier or Highsmith. Whereas those writers would ask us to take the haunting seriously, as a way to make a point about identity, say, Moore ends up rejecting it. Or, rather, his ghosts are more mundane, if no less scarring. The Mangan family isn’t the repository of creative vitality, the flip side of which would be demonic grandiosity. More upsettingly, the family is ordinary in its cruelty. Some dramatic and sordid things have happened to its members, but they result from common, though terrible, bad behaviour.

All of which is to say that the terror Mangan experiences in front of the mirror is as misguided as the exultation he feels later when, in a sample of the lovely description of landscapes that Moore almost offhandedly weaves into the text, he makes his way to the encounter that he thinks will change his life:

On the other side of the wall was a footpath, a narrow, little-used track in the long rush grasses, leading back up the headland to a white, two-story farmhouse overlooking the sea. It seemed to be about half a mile away, and as he settled down to the uphill walk, the intermittent rain through which he had driven all morning was hurried off by strong, gusty winds coming in from the sea. High cumulus clouds sailed over the blue dome of the sky. Below, to his left, the sea fielded a platoon of angry whitecaps to race on top of its blue-marine depths. The bare green headland, the white house, the azure sky, all of it reminded him of a painting harshly etched, lonely as a Hopper landscape. He felt alive with expectation, as though, like someone in an old tale, he at last approached the sacred place to meet the oracle who knew all secrets. He put his hand in his pocket and touched the daguerreotype as though it were a charm.

When he passes the farmhouse and toils to another slope to his final destination and encounters a man who looks just like him, as described in the passage I quoted at the beginning of this post, he feels “elated as though he had stumbled on a treasure.” But the vision of “a man amid his books in a ruined Norman tower, living liked a hermit writing his verse” quickly sours.

Indeed, the promise of his own artistic rejuvenation, passed from the 19the century poet through the hermit and his verses reverses itself: rather than passing down genius perhaps his doubles can offer him only sordidness. Mangan speculates that “his double, like some scabrous sufferer from a dread disease, signaled that his listener was also infected.”

 

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In the end, this speculation is a fanciful as the one that led him there. No genius throbs in the Mangan blood, but neither does there lurk degeneracy. The Mangan Inheritance is ironic in its title, and indeed its disposition. It rejects genetics as an explanatory force. The inheritance of anything more than mere physical appearance proves to be a myth. There were and are no poetic geniuses in the family, but that’s okay since genius has been used to whitewash abuse. The book has no time for the idea of inherited traits. Nothing is passed down; rather, things are passed onward. Mere circulation matters more to the novel than any idea of fate or destiny. After all, the most important inheritance, the only one that has any actual force, is the one that comes to Mangan from his ex-wife. And that one, the Abbot Inheritance, wasn’t even earned by her, despite her fame.

Transmission in The Mangan Inheritance takes the form of capital, not genes: and capital doesn’t care who it belongs to or what right they think they have to it, what belief systems they’ve created to legitimize it. It just wants to be spent, like a virus blindly seeking out a new host. (A salutary lesson for our own era, which is as obsessed with genes as with capital, and, with every advertisement for genetics testing, binds them more tightly and ruinously together.)

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James Clarence Mangan, looking suitably diabolical

The only thing I didn’t like about the book is its depiction of Kathleen, Mangan’s young, beautiful, and damaged cousin, with whom he quickly becomes obsessed. She is consistently objectified, and even though the book makes it clear that this is Mangan’s vision, and that he is taking advantage of her (even as it allows us the possibility that she might be doing the same to him), and that this is just one of many things that have gone wrong in the family—not because there’s some mysterious taint in their blood but because they behave badly to each other—I couldn’t get passed the feeling that the book also enjoyed the objectification. This is the only way in which the book felt dated.

But in general Moore’s use of description is compelling. I wouldn’t call it a lyrical book, but there are lots of lovely bits, whether arresting word choices (surprised by a visit from his ex-wife, Mangan feels “his heart hit”—the intransitive use of the verb is evocative in its amorphousness, capturing how lost he feels), memorable phrases (castigating himself for losing his wife to a rival, Mangan tells himself, “And if she ditches you, it’s because you’re a loser. A Canadian loser.” (Is there any other kind?)), meta-reflections on the nature of the narrative masquerading as reflections of the main character (“To sit here in the car while the priest administered extreme unction to a dying Irish woman seemed a dream which like all true dreams moved at its own mysterious pace, without logic, toward a purpose he did not understand”), and evocative descriptions. Here, for example, is Montreal in winter: “Mangan… saw the steaming exhausts of other cars, the high dirty slabs of shoveled snow, the cleared lanes of traffic racing in the smoking Arctic air: a landscape of death.” Yep, been there.

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Like so many 20th century writers, Moore is stranger than he first appears. In this sense, his use of Gothic tropes is a ruse. For Freud, the uncanny, by virtue of its connotation in German of domesticity and coziness (das Unheimliche), is only truly evident when the familiar reveals itself as strange. Only the things we think we know can really spook us. That’s why there’s nothing as uncanny as a house. And The Mangan Inheritance has a haunted house, not to mention a ruined keep (as I was reading I kept thinking of the contemporary Irish version of this space, the housing estates left half-finished in the Crash of 2008, so brilliantly depicted by the Swiss-Irish photographer Valérie Anex). But the real uncanniness of the book lies in its prose. Take for example, the passage I cited at the beginning:

Now as he came closer the man reached up to the collar of his slicker and opened it, letting it fall back to reveal his windburned face, which was partly hidden by a few weeks’ growth of beard. But even with the beard, even in the shadow cast by the low-brimmed hat, Mangan saw it clear. It was his face.

I’m stuck on that “clear.” Yes, it’s not so strange to use an adjective in place of an adverb, especially to mimic speech. But although Moore’s dialogue is pitch-perfect, his narration hasn’t seemed interested in aping speech, and, anyway, Mangan is a pretty formal guy, who’s made his living wielding language, so it seems out of place as a representation of his speech/thought pattern. Instead I think Moore wants us to think not of seeing something (a face) clearly, but of seeing something clear. To see something clear might be to see it off, to pass beyond it. Fanciful, maybe, but this book is all about keeping things moving, and rejecting the past when it is taken as a hypostasized fantasy.

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It’s thanks to Jacqui that I read this book. Her review of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne generated so much praise for Moore that I was inspired to finally get to him. Hearne sounded a bit relentless, but I also had Mangan on the shelf. I’ve now started Hearne (40 pp in and I can tell there’s going to be heartbreak, though not quite at Jean Rhys level, I hope) and checked out several other Moores from the library. Everyone agrees that the variety of his substantial output is one of his strengths. If I even find one or two more I like as much as Mangan I’ll be pleased. Do you have a favourite Moore? Or a suggested reading order? I’d love to hear about it.

“Abandoning myself entirely to the buzzing, hot stillness”: Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall

A woman accepts an invitation to stay with friends at their hunting lodge in the Alps. The lodge is actually a two-story wooden villa with some outbuildings, including a hut for the gamekeeper and his dog. Her hosts are unusual—he, Hugo, heir to a saucepan fortune and something of a hypochondriac, has stockpiled food and supplies in the house; she, Luise, is a passionate hunter. The two don’t seem to have much in common, but almost as soon as they arrive, Luise convinces her husband to accompany her to the nearest village for a drink at the inn. Afternoon turns to evening; the couple doesn’t return. The woman is restless, but succumbs to fatigue: she makes herself something to eat and goes to bed without waiting up for her hosts. The next morning, there’s still no sign of them, and so, calling the dog, Lynx, to accompany her, the woman sets out to see what’s happened. The dog is running ahead, and suddenly he cries out in pain. He’s hurt, bleeding from the mouth, and whining in fear. The woman can’t see what could have caused the injury; she gently pushes the dog aside and continues down the path—and immediately bangs her head on something she can’t see. Apparently, an invisible barrier has been thrown up in front of her. No matter how carefully she moves her hands along it, she find no end to it; she can’t pass it. In a distant field she sees a farmhouse and the figure of a man. She calls out to him, but he doesn’t move and as she looks more closely she sees that he isn’t breathing; he’s frozen in place. Everything on the other side of the invisible barrier is as though turned to stone. The woman and the dog give up and return to the lodge. Soon she has to face facts: somehow, she and a few animals in the surrounding woods, meadows, and mountains are the only beings still alive.

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So begins Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, a sad, moving, and beautiful novel first published in Austria in 1962 and translated by Shaun Whiteside into English in 1990. Haushofer—about whom I know little: she was born in Upper Austria, went to school in Linz, university in Vienna and Graz, and spent most of her life in Steyr, where she married the same man twice and raised a family—had a short life (1920-1970) and didn’t write many books, but on the evidence of this one she was the real thing.

The Wall is filled with lovely low-key descriptions of the land from which the narrator struggles to rest a living. But these descriptions are always practical, always connected to the task of surviving; this narrator has no time for lyric effusions about the landscape. Here for example a storm is about to break:

It’s never entirely silent in the forest. You only imagine it’s silent, but there is always a whole host of noises. A woodpecker taps in the distance, a bird calls, the wind hisses through the grass in the forest, a big branch knocks against a tree-trunk, and the twigs rustle as little animals scurry around. Everything is alive, everything is working. But that evening it really almost was silent. The silencing of the many familiar noises frightened me. Even the splashing of the stream sounded restrained and muted, as if the water too was only moving lethargically and unwillingly. Lynx stood up, jumped miserably up on the bench beside me and nudged me gently, intimidated by the terrible silence.

Haushofer reminds me a bit of Lawrence. She shares his fondness for parataxis (though admittedly this is much more common and in fact grammatically sound in German than in English), as well as his willingness to repeat words and phrases, to the point of ungainliness. Also like Lawrence, she is brilliant on animals. The Wall is a great book about how much people need animals. (I realize people are animals; I mean non-human animals.) In addition to Lynx, probably my favourite character, the narrator becomes close to several cats and to her cow, lovely, patient, beautiful Bella, whose milk keeps all of them alive.

The Wall, then, is a book about living beings—about what it feels like to be alive, and what it takes to stay alive. Mostly it takes hard work. Here’s the narrator, having decided to take Bella and her calf to summer in an alpine meadow and painfully lugged everything she needs to keep herself whole up the mountain, clearing out the long-abandoned hut in which she will live:

The hut was thick with dirt, and that disturbed me a great deal. It was by now too late to start spring-cleaning. So I washed only the necessary pots with the wire brush and sand, and put a little pot of potatoes on the spirit stove. Then I dismantled the bed and carted the musty pallet to the meadow and beat it with a stick. A cloud of dust arose. I couldn’t do anything more for the time being, but resolved to lay the pallet outside to air on every fine day.

And here she is making hay for the winter (accompanied by Lynx, who, as always, is sharply attuned to her moods but not much help with the work):

The sun cast its full brilliance on the slope. The fresh-cut swathes of hay already lay wilted and dull. I stood up and began to turn them with the fork. The meadow was one great hum of startled insects. I worked slowly, almost drowsily, abandoning myself entirely to the buzzing, hot stillness. Lynx, who had checked that everything was all right with me, trotted to the stream and drank in long, lapping gulps, then lay down in the shade, his head on his paws, his mournfully wrinkled face entirely hidden by his long ears, and dozed away. I envied him.

Sometimes she gets something like rest, as when she discovers a stretch of raspberry bushes that have just ripened:

As I had no sugar and couldn’t make preserves, I had to eat the berries straight away. I went to the patch every other day. It was the purest joy; I was bathed in sweetness. The sun warmed the ripe berries, and a wild aroma of sun and maturing fruits enveloped and intoxicated me.

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The edition of The Wall that I read comes with a blurb from Doris Lessing. It’s better than your average praise:

It is not often that you can say only a woman could have written this book, but women in particular will understand the heroine’s loving devotion to the details of making and keeping life, every day felt as a victory against everything that would like to undermine and destroy. It is as absorbing as Robinson Crusoe.

(I confess I have never read the Defoe, but I take it to be governed by a tendency to document and report, and The Wall has some of that, in its careful descriptions of how to chop wood and cut grass and never touch the seed potatoes, no matter how hungry you are.) Lessing is an important writer for me; I take her praise seriously. Indeed, reading it I was reminded of her near-contemporaneous Summer before the Dark (1973). Perhaps even closer in spirit to The Wall is a book even dearer to my heart, Marian Engel’s Bear (1976), a story about a woman sent to catalog a library in a fabulous house on a remote island in northern Ontario who finds a bear can make for good company.

Lessing and Engel’s books are stories of idylls. Is this one too? “A woman and her animals, alone at last.” Maybe. But if so, it’s a frightening idyll, one filled with hard work, and cold and hunger, the threat of death, and at the end of it all the realization that human beings might, with her, come to an end. Which isn’t to say that the narrator doesn’t experience something like positive transformation. But doing so requires that she shrug off her most human qualities. Loneliness, she writes, has led her, “in moments free of consciousness and memory, to see the brilliance of life again.” At Christmas time, depressed that in the forest it is nothing more than another snowy day, she consoles herself with the possibility of being able to forget the past: “something quite new lay waiting behind” the old ways of seeing. Imagining a real transformation means imagining something beyond herself:

One day I shall no longer exist, and no one will cut the meadow, the thickets will encroach upon it and later the forest will push as far as the wall and win back the land that man has stolen from it… The forest doesn’t want human beings to come back.

Here Haushofer reminds me of Woolf in the Time Passes section of To the Lighthouse. This passage could have come from the earlier novel:

I see the plants flourishing, green, well-fed and silent. And I hear the wind and all the noises from the dead cities; window-panes shattering on the pavement when their hinges have rusted through, the dripping of water from the burst pipes and the banging of thousands of doors in the wind. Sometimes, on stormy nights, a stone object that was once a human being tips from its chair at a desk and crashes with a boom to the parquet floor. For a while there must have been big fires as well. But they’re probably over now, and the plants are hurrying to cover up the remains. If I look at the ground behind the wall, I don’t see any ants, or beetles, not even the tiniest insects. But it won’t stay that way. With water from the streams life, tiny, simple life, will seep in and revivify the earth. I might have been quite indifferent to that, but strangely it fills me with secret satisfaction.

Given its interest in overcoming the human, it is less obvious in The Wall than in the other books I’ve referenced that the heroine’s self-discovery is a good thing. Plus—spoiler alert!—near the end something weird and terrible happens. A man comes out of nowhere and kills the bull and the dog before the narrator kills him. All of this happens so abruptly—here I was reminded of Beckett’s Molloy and its sudden, hallucinatory depictions of murder—that I’m not even sure whether it really happened. Actually, I think it does. But where this guy comes from and whether there are any more like him or if there are any repercussions or ripple-effects from this burst of violence are never explained.

That violence would seem to mitigate fully any notion of an idyll, and indeed ultimately there is no way out for the narrator. She runs out of paper, and simply ends her chronicle. Yet the book doesn’t feel hopeless. It ends on a note of what I can only call grace. Maybe today we would call it mindfulness. Over and over, the narrator is granted the peace of no longer having to think (prevented by exhaustion, by the need to keep on task, by the joy that comes from taking care of and being cared for by animals). But she doesn’t become wild. She doesn’t want to give up thought. She distinguishes herself from animals; despite the frailty of the human and the lure of its extinction, she accepts the tragedy of self-consciousness. For her, as for Leonard Cohen in his equally graceful “Famous Blue Raincoat,” that means she’s keeping some kind of record:

Over the last few days I have realized that I still hope someone will read this report. [Again, the language of documentation.] I don’t know why I wish that, it makes no difference, after all. But my heart beats faster when I imagine human eyes resting on these lines, and human hands turning the pages.

Where the book seems most feminist is in its depiction of the narrator as someone who, for whatever reason (though it is intimated that the reason is because she is a woman), needs to care for others: “There was something planted deep within me that made it impossible for me to abandon something that had been entrusted to me.” This despite the fact that care is always stymied. To love is to keep alive, but life is replaced by death, and so love is always tragic:

I often look forward to a time when there won’t be anything left to grow attached to. I’m tired of everything being taken away from me. Yet there’s no escape, for as long as there’s something for me to love in the forest, I shall love it; and if some day there is nothing, I shall stop living. If everyone had been like me, there wouldn’t have been a wall… but I understand why the others always had the upper hand. Loving and looking after another creature is a very troublesome business, and much harder than killing and destruction.

This is the most allegorical and “message-y” the book gets.

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Apparently, Haushofer took a long time to write this book. Not only did she have a household to run, even as she suffered from poor health, especially debilitating headaches, but she also wanted to make sure she got it right: that her descriptions of animals and plants were accurate and that the life she described for her heroine was plausible. I wonder if she was helped in her search for accuracy by her background: she grew up in the foothills of upper Austria, where her father was a forester. In one sense, nothing happens in this book. Yet it’s utterly compelling, partly because it has relentless forward momentum even as the telling ranges back and forth in time (only ever within the years after the incident, though—she almost never says anything about her life before the wall). The book is propelled by the changing of the seasons, of weather and climate, of life and death. It’s all very elemental, but never portentous. (Haushofer is the anti-Cormac McCarthy.)

I’m speaking a lot about feelings here. Something about this novel incites reflection on our experiencing of reading it. I felt shame, too. How could I, with a doctorate in comparative literature with particular emphasis on English and German-language 20th century literature, have never heard of Haushofer before? How could I have taken all those classes, sat through all those colloquia, and never come across this remarkable author? Maybe things would be different if I were still in graduate school today: maybe Haushofer is having a resurgence, dozens of academic teaching her works and writing assiduously about her. (I gather a film adaptation came out a few years ago; that can’t hurt.) But my shame quickly turned into something more generative. I’m thrilled with the discovery, and reassured to realize, yet again, how much literature remains to explore. Haushofer is a writer for everyone: careful, matter-of-fact, gentle, joyful—but not sweet. She’s more like the cranberries the narrator strains and jars to keep her through the winter than she is like the raspberries on which she gorges to the point of  surfeit.

I plucked The Wall from the bottom of a large stack of unread books in my study largely because I wanted to contribute to #WITMonth, the creation of Meytal Radzinski (@Biblibio), an event that has gratifyingly become a sensation in the book world. I like to think the sense of discovery that accompanied my reading of this remarkable book is in keeping with the spirit of this celebration of month-long event. Of course, now all I want to do is seek out Haushofer’s other books; every book read from the TBR pile only leads to two or three more…

 

 

On Teaching Anna Kavan’s Ice

Like all teachers, I’m always tinkering with my syllabi. Sometimes I’ll add texts I haven’t taught before. More rarely I’ll do something even more outrageous (exciting, foolish: choose your adjective): I’ll assign something I’ve never even read.

Before you get too excited (is he crazy? What a charlatan!), know that when I say I’ve never read it I’m not saying I’ve simply plucked the book off a shelf at random. It’s possible to know quite a bit about books we haven’t read—maybe we’ve glanced at them, paged through them, read snippets and summaries of. But I still couldn’t say in any meaningful sense of the term that I’ve read the book.

(Why do such a thing? Setting aside laziness or chronic over-commitment—academic summers are pretty full and it’s not easy to get to everything you mean to read—the main reason is to mimic students’ experience: it’s never a bad idea to remember what it’s like at the other side of the seminar table. (Answer: hard and stressful.) Teaching something for the first time, although always kind of a cluster, can be exciting and an excellent way to reckon with a book in a pretty intense way.)

This past semester I taught one book I’d never read before: Anna Kavan’s Ice, first published in 1967 and recently reissued by Penguin Classics. I assigned it in Experimental 20th Century British Fiction, a class I’ve taught many times (this was probably its sixth or seventh iteration). As I said, I don’t pull this trick of teaching something brand new too often, but whenever I do I choose something I am pretty sure I am going to like. Well, there’s a first time for everything. I did not like Ice. But my struggles teaching it taught me some things, especially about I value in a book, and, not unrelatedly, about what kind of book is easiest for me to teach.

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First a few words about the course. My idea is that in Britain in the last century, at least, the idea of experimental literature is best understood in terms of Freud’s definition of the uncanny. Writing in the wake of his experience with shell-socked soldiers in WWI and on the cusp of the dramatic revision of his thinking that was first developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the essay “The Uncanny” (1919) is part of Freud’s increasing fascination with unpleasant and traumatic experiences. In that sense it fits in with the trajectory of his thinking. In another respect, though, it is quite unusual: it is Freud’s most sustained act of literary criticism.

Reading E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Romantic/Gothic story “The Sandman” (1817), Freud comes to understand the uncanny—in German, das Unheimliche—as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” The inextricable relationship between comfort and discomfort inheres in the very etymology of the word: unheimlich contains within it Heimlich, which, Freud notes, means both cozy/comforting and secret/stealthy. Only that which we think we know can truly disturb us. What most has the power to terrify us—to freak us out, even, as in the case of the Hoffmann story, to drive us insane—is the revelation that something or someone close to us is not what we take them to be. The strangest things don’t, at first glance, look that strange. But when we look at them more closely we see how strange they are. And that is unsettling.

I think this idea of strangeness helps us understand 20th Century British literature, which, especially in its post-war manifestations, is often taken to be conventional, formally unadventurous and pedestrian in its subject matter. (The exciting, experimental stuff is thought to be happening elsewhere: France, America, anywhere but at home.) But this is a misreading. After all, the “experimental” only makes sense in relation to the “conventional.” The strangest textual effects, the riskiest narrative strategies, the most disquieting subject matter—these indicators of the experimental might be all the more pronounced when they appear in seemingly straightforward guise.

Having taught the course many times, I have a few fixed points on the itinerary. I start with D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920) and end with J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973). (Yes, mine is a short century—I’ve added more recent texts into the mix before, but this arc seems to work best.) I always teach Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. And Beckett’s Molloy (I know, not British). And either Henry Green’s Loving or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. (It was Green this year, and I think I’ve really finally figured out how to teach him: went very well.) The past couple of times I’ve taught Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter and often I include Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, as I did this year. Doris Lessing is usually in there too, though this year I took a break. That’s what opened up the slot for Kavan.

I knew Ballard admired Kavan, and I thought Ice might work nicely with Crash. But I’m not sure we made much of the pairing. Both are about violence, and oblique about how they understand that violence. But the books didn’t have as much in common as I’d suspected.

Ice is set in some ill-defined apocalyptic landscape. (Some say it is modeled on New Zealand, where Kavan spent part of WWII. But it feels like nowhere.) The narrator is a former soldier and explorer. Now he is “home,” driving through an isolated landscape in an ice storm to visit the girl he had once planned to marry and her husband, a painter. In some complicated fashion that is probably metaphorical, the girl is abducted by a sinister figure known only as the Warden, with whom the narrator is also infatuated, though he professes to despise him. It is even possible that the Warden is just another aspect of himself—after all, the narrator admits on the second page, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”

The book is an extended chase scene (if you can imagine a chase in which the setting is inconclusive and the mechanisms of the chase unexplained—it is not, in other words, an exciting chase scene): the narrator searches for the girl, who doesn’t want to be found by him (until, perhaps, at the end, though the narrator’s description of their final reunion is so self-serving I’m unconvinced), and no wonder, since most of his fantasies about her involve her violation. (The Warden is equally violent towards her; more so, since his fantasies actually seem to be realized. It is hard to tell for sure.) At the same time, the planet is threatened by an encroaching ice age; the breakdown of civilization engenders further violence. Although climate change as we know it today couldn’t have been on Kavan’s radar, the way the narrator talks about the coming apocalypse mirrors some of the rhetoric you might hear today: “The ultimate achievement of mankind would be, not just self-destruction, but the destruction of all life; the transformation of the living world into a dead planet.”

*

Ice is short: straightforward prose, less than 200 pages. So I allocated only two class periods for our conversation. I was scrambling to prepare for our first meeting: it was three-quarters of the way through the semester, pressures mounting on every side, plus I was having trouble staying motivated to teach this group. Lots of smart students, but reticent, and, what’s worse, afraid. They worried a lot about saying the right thing, I could tell, and that sort of attitude is terrible in a discussion-based class. I’d tried all semester to loosen the atmosphere, but nothing had worked and by this point I’d mostly given up. Worse, their tenseness had affected me, which made me a less effective teacher. I didn’t particularly enjoy meeting with them, even though all the interactions I had with students one-on-one were absolutely fine.

So the situation was not ripe for success. And I was down to the last minute preparing for that first class. We had the first third or so of the novel to consider. I was wary of both my own uncertainty about the book and mindful that the first day on any novel is usually a bit halting. So I offered a few remarks on Kavan’s remarkable life—most of which I pilfered from this fine New Yorker profile, along with the information that her life-long heroin habit began when she was introduced to it by a tennis pro on the French Riviera, who thought it would be good for her serve!—and then passed around a handout with questions I’d prepared. I split the class into groups and assigned each a question. (I thought about including them, but decided that was overkill. Leave a comment if you want me to send them to you.)

The exercise worked okay: we got at some of the novel’s concerns, but I found it hard to get students to point to specific passages in their answers. It’s always hard to get students to do this—they’re always happier with generalities. But the problem seemed more intransigent this time. The reason, I realized, concerned the nature of the book itself. Ice doesn’t lend itself to close reading. The style is flat, with little texture, grain, weirdness. Even the narrator, so problematic, seemed less complex than I’d hoped. Certainly, he is untrustworthy, but he isn’t seductive in the way of Nabokov or Ishiguro’s narrators, for example. Class discussion felt aimless: we didn’t know what to do with this book.

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As I was preparing for the next class I realized I was bored. I resented Ice, hated having to read it. I found my attention even more fragmented than usual: my thoughts wandered away from the page; I was checking Twitter and hockey scores even more than usual. The last hundred pages were killing me. Now, it is true that sometimes I am resentful of having to re-read books for teaching because doing so takes me away from reading other things, things I’ve never read before, but I’m never bored or resentful. I leave that to the students! I like the books assign. Most of them I even love. So what was going on? And why was I the only one (outside my classroom, I mean) who seemed to feel that way?

I’d decided to assign Ice in the first place on the basis of conversations with readers I trust, all of whom were enthusiastic about the book. And as I prepared to teach, I read what Grant and Max and John Self and others had written about the book (I think Jacqui likes it too but I can’t find her review). They all loved it. But I just couldn’t see what they saw.

Finally, I had an insight that offered, I hoped, a way to think more productively about my resistance. I was reading a passage in which the narrator, who has, for reasons too obscure to go into here, joined a group of mercenaries ultimately in the pay of his nemesis the Warden, decides he needs to meet him face to face. But his immediate superior, the only person in the unit with even occasional direct dealings with the Warden, refuses, fearing that his own privilege will thereby be undermined. So the narrator comes up with a scheme:

For days we had been attacking a strongly defended building said to contain secret papers. He [the leader of the narrator’s unit] would not ask for reinforcements, determined to get the credit for taking the place unaided. By a simple trick, I enabled him to capture the building and send the documents to headquarters, for which I was highly praised.

My mind snagged on that “by a simple trick.” Quite possibly we are to take that as another sign of the narrator’s unpleasant character—look how boastful he—but in that case wouldn’t he want to tell us all about the trick so that we could see just how clever he is? It seems more likely that this is an example of everything Ice isn’t interested in. I imagined the kind of novel that would make much of that offhanded phrase. In that novel, a thriller, say, the mechanics of the trick would matter a lot. But Ice doesn’t care about plot, or plausibility, or cause and effect (its logic, if it can be said to have one, is dreamlike). It also doesn’t care about character, at least not as an expression of a complicated psychology or interiority.

So what does it care about?

I still don’t know the answer to that, which is why my attempt to teach it failed. Pressed, though, I would say it cares about the repetition and re-arrangement of certain images and motifs. But if so, its interest in repetition is totally different than Lawrence’s. We’d spent a long time at the beginning of the semester looking at how Lawrence repeats himself—the most noticeable, and, to his critics, most annoying aspect of his style. But in Lawrence, repetition always leads to difference. When he repeats himself, he seldom uses exactly the same word; he offers slight variations (adjectives become adverbs, for example). When repetition leads to difference, the prose becomes propulsive, befitting his fascination with change. Kavan’s repetition didn’t inhere in her style (she doesn’t repeat the same words); it inheres in her structure (the girl is trapped in one way, then another, then still another).

Thinking about that difference helped me—if not my students—clarify my own values. I care way more about experiments at the sentence-level rather than at the book-level. The flatness of Kavan’s prose offered me no handholds. If, to return to the passage that snagged my attention, the prose could be likened to a strongly defended building, it is one whose slippery surfaces repel me. I cannot grapple with them. The prose offers me no traction, nothing to grab hold of by resisting. At the sentence level, it’s just not weird enough. The book’s weird as hell, don’t get me wrong, but at any given moment it feels so ordinary. In this sense, Ice is the opposite of the books we’d been reading all semester, perhaps exemplified by Loving and The Vet’s Daughter, books that seem straightforward at first glance, but get stranger and stranger the more we look at them, specifically because of their deceptive style. With these texts, we think we know what we are getting (“ordinary” realism—keeping in mind that realism actually ordinary at all, that’s just the straw position it’s held for many 20th century writers and readers) but once we get into them we find ourselves in a stranger place than we’d expected.

Having had us look at that phrase “by a simple trick,” and having broached the question of what Kavan’s novel values, I asked the class: Is this novel boring? The students were reluctant to answer, sensing some kind of trap, but I wasn’t having them on. I told them I found it very boring. But what was boring about it? Was boredom a flaw or a tactic?

One way to recuperate this boredom, I suggested, might be to read Ice as a novel about the violence men perpetrate on women. Such violence is boring. Not unimportant. Nor excusable. Something that ought to be combated (though I don’t think the book has any ideas about how to do so, or if it even can be). It is boring because, no matter how many forms violence takes, no matter what lurid and dismal fantasies give rise to it, it is always the same. In other words, in boring us the book is performing the boredom of misogyny and patriarchy.

Does this reading work? I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that the novel refuses to glamourize violence. On the contrary, it shows that part of violence’s power comes from its resolutely static nature.

In this regard, Ice is quite different from Crash, a novel which also presents violence in an affectless manner but which is also thrilled by it. (It is also so much richer in its prose). Ballard’s world-view—though also quite mad—is less stultifying than Kavan’s, because in Crash violence is equal opportunity (it’s not only men who enact it), and, more importantly, not the point. The point is that violence combined with sex begets fantasies that are transformative and therefore generative, even if in ways that make us uncomfortable. (It’s a book about people who get off on car crashes; it’s about people fascinated by the way bodies can be transfigured through violent collisions with machines. It’s insane, but you should read it.)

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On the course feedback form I asked students whether they thought I should teach Ice again. I’ll be curious to see their answers. My guess is they’ll say no, because none of them chose to write about it for their final papers. And I’m pretty much ready never to read it again. And yet it’s almost always rough the first time one teaches anything. I bet I’d do a better job next time. But I don’t think I’m interested enough to try. Teaching Ice turned out to be a failed experiment. Of course, those are the ones you learn the most from.

Six Emails about L. P. Hartley’s The Boat

Earlier this summer, based on some conversations we’d had about my post on The Go-Between, my friend Nat and I decided to read another of L. P. Hartley’s novels. We settled on The Boat (1949). Here’s what the publisher says about it on the back of my edition:

Timothy Casson, a bachelor and a writer, is forced to return from his contented life in Venice to an English village.

Taking a house by the river where he can pursue his passion for rowing, he has to do battle with the locals to overcome his isolation and feelings of incompleteness. This most complex of Hartley’s novels examines the multiple layers of Casson’s relationships with servants, local society and friends.

Over a week or so, Nat and I emailed back and forth about the book. Here’s what we had to say. Warning: spoilers ahead (such as they are).

Peter-Doig-100-Years-Ago-2001-via-peterdoig.mbam_.qc-ca1-865x577

Mon 8/21 10:50 PM

Nat,

After enjoying The Go-Between so much last year I was really excited to read more of Hartley’s work. And I was even more excited to read him along with you. But I confess I wouldn’t have finished this book if I’d been reading it on my own. It’s long. Really long. 450 pp in now-I-am-getting-old-and-irritated-with-small-print long. I’m trying to be charitable to the book, but I can’t immediately see why it has to be so long, other than that maybe the end is that much more exciting because we’ve had such a slow build up. The narrative dam bursts, like the river in spate that Timothy finally rides (to disastrous results). But honestly I think I’m being kind here. A lot of this book is just boring.

What I want to know is: how savvy is Hartley about this? It’s pretty clear that he’s set up his protagonist to be dull, a bit muddled, though basically decent. So is the novel’s dullness strategic? Does he want to tell us something about it? I guess the thing that interests me most about the book is that it’s written in 1949 and set in 1940-41 and hardly mentions the war at all. The war is happening, of course (even if at first it’s the “Phony War”) but way off-stage. This seems like a deliberate and almost wilfully anachronistic choice. (After all, this is a time when writers like Green and Bowen and Panter-Downes are writing novels that try to make sense of the war and its aftermath.)

Hartley in fact alludes to his possibly unusual subject matter late in the book (p 397 in my edition), when he ruminates on the war within the war–his war with the local grandees who have blocked the river from “the people” (or, at least, him), which his friends Tyro and Esther are sure to disparage in comparison to the actual war. Where do you think the book’s sympathies are here? Is Timothy right to insist on the importance of his fight? Is it a fight the book believes in? Does Timothy actually believe in it? Or is he just doing it in a last-ditch effort to hold Vera’s attention? In a similar vein, how do you read Timothy’s sleep at the end? A well-deserved rest after many trials and slights? Or a sign of his quiescence/cluelessness?

I think the book likes Timothy–his lack of certainty is better than Magda and definitely Tyro’s blunt convictions (see p 445). He’s a bit of an E. M. Forster muddled liberal type, which I’m not sure the book disapproves of. And often I don’t either. But I’m a bit put off by him too. He doesn’t have the saving qualities of innocence of Leo in The Go-Between.

On another note, is it crazy to think of The Boat as a version of The Mill on the Floss? Actually, I think it is crazy. But the whole boat/flood thing made me wonder. It’s only been a few years since I read MF but I’m embarrassingly hazy on details. Do you know it?

Ok, going to stop now but will flag two things I want to think more about: children, and third person instead of first.

Let me know what you think about what I’ve had to say.

d

25c43810c457a9796098b6e9e0e3a491--alex-colville-alex-katz

Wed 8/23 10:42 AM

Dorian,

I have to agree that this book was a bit of a grind; I was very enthusiastic about your suggestion to read a Hartley novel together, and I thought The Boat sounded like the most interesting option. Coming chronologically between the novels I knew (after the Eustace and Hilda trilogy of the earlier ’40s and before The Go-Between and The Hireling in the ’50s), I was intrigued to see where this novel fit. But it really wasn’t what I was expecting; some Hartley trademarks are there, such as his incisive psychological portraits of character, his exploration of class distinctions, and his occasionally epigrammatic wit (my favourite: “to do a thing badly is an affirmation of independence, whereas to do it well is to confess oneself a slave to other people’s standards”) (181). But there is also a heavy dose of politics, philosophizing, and digressing into the details of English country life. And you’re right; the book is too long by far. Never have I more strongly willed a fictional character to do something than I willed Timothy to get in that boat, which takes him a full 3/4 of the book to do (I imagine that Hartley’s alternative titles for the novel must have been Waiting for the Boat and Much Ado about Boating). The bottom line is that if we do this again (and I hope we do!), I’m letting you choose the book.

This may be just another way of phrasing some of your questions, but I wonder what you make of the central symbol of the boat itself? It’s clear that Timothy has an almost quasi-religious reverence for it, and that it represents freedom and peace for him, but does it mean the same thing to us? Or is Hartley ironically presenting Timothy’s love for boating as a foolish obsession, no different from the fishermen who object to his boat? At the end, Tyro interprets Timothy’s desire as escapism and a death wish; how much credence do we give to that opinion?

I’m tempted to play the Hartley apologist here a little bit; despite many things that I would objectively call flaws in the book (an excessive reliance on letter writing, a significant lack of action, as the main antagonists in the novel hardly ever meet, and when there is action, it is often highly melodramatic and implausible), I still found it strangely compelling. Maybe it’s just what I want to believe, but I do tend to think that Hartley is a bit more savvy than this novel appears to be. He mixes his dull protagonist with characters who belong in a range of different genres; there are the stereotypical servants who actually run the house, the upright but a bit clueless village policeman, and the femme fatale, Vera Cross, who is self-reflexively positioned in this role through the bad noir fiction that Edgell Purbright convinces Timothy to read. I feel like we are supposed to hope that Timothy can find his place in his adoptive village amongst this assortment of figures, but that Hartley is perhaps suggesting the generic and political confusion of a heteroglot England. His hero can’t find a place in this world because it doesn’t quite make sense in itself.

I’m not sure that this playing with genres ever fully works, though; take, for example, the melodramatic scene in which Timothy accidentally stumbles across the secret of Desiree Lampard’s birth and has to decide whether to use this information to prevent her upcoming wedding. Here, Timothy plays a highly conventional role, and one rather expects Hartley to return to this with some kind of twist, but instead, these characters simply fade from view.

Similarly, it seems as if the reader is supposed to be intrigued (and titillated?) by the fact that Vera Cross seems to take a romantic interest in Timothy (who is twice her age) but the explanation of this as being politically motivated is both underwhelming and implausible (she spends over a year cultivating this relationship just to try to get him to do something that would annoy the village elites?). On another note, what is with impossibly idealized women being called Miss Cross? Thinking of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, of course. On that note, I wonder what you think of Hartley’s treatment of his female characters in general? There is the painfully obvious angel/temptress opposition at work between Mrs. Purbright and Miss Cross, but is Hartley challenging this with his self-aware treatment of these types?

Your question about the war really gets at what I thought was most interesting about the book, but again, not quite interesting in a thoroughly satisfying way. I don’t know nearly enough about post-war British fiction to compare it to the other authors you mention, but on a personal level, having had a grandfather in the RAF and a grandmother who was evacuated from London during the blitz, I had always had a very homogenous idea of Britain being a united nation during the war. Hartley provides a vision of an England still very much divided along class lines, with highly politicized factions at work. It certainly wasn’t what I expected (a communist plot in little Upton?) although maybe my lack of familiarity with the period is showing here. Are there other books you can think of that deal with the role of communism/political dissent in England at this time?

As for the war itself, I thought myself pretty clever for tracing the outlines of an allegorical relationship between the larger events of the war referred to throughout the novel, and Timothy’s personal struggle. But then, Hartley has Timothy (on page 361) pretty much declare the allegorical significance of his actions. So much for being subtle. Again, I’m not sure how well the allegory holds together, but at the very least, we see Timothy moving from a Chamberlain-like stance of appeasement in which he believes that if he plays the game and ingratiates himself with the ruling elite, he will be allowed to use his boat, towards a more militaristic Churchill-like position in which he openly defies them and gives a revolutionary speech to the gathered masses. On the one hand, then, Timothy is England, learning that he can only get the freedom he desires if he stands up for himself. On the other hand, though, there are many ways in which he does not embody Englishness in this context; he is the outsider, invading the space of the landed elites (all ex-military officers) and the driving force behind his boat trip is Vera, who is using Timothy to antagonize these elites.

One can’t help but feel that Hartley is expressing sympathy for Timothy’s revolutionary action (after so much failure, taking the boat out on the water and giving a rousing speech seem like great successes) but if that’s the case, what do we make of the fact that he is, in the end, seduced by the elites and eventually flees? His near-death experience seems to change his attitude towards life in general, but is it really a change for the better, or is he simply allowing himself to be deceived by their promises yet again?

The elites are depicted as dinosaurs who need to be replaced, but Timothy doesn’t want to do this; he just wants to be able to use his boat. I agree that the novel likes Timothy, but the ending seems like yet another in a series of anti-climaxes; he leaves town and falls asleep, flanked by his two very different friends. Is this an image of a new England in which the old order (Esther) and a new modern cynicism (Tyro) unite to save Timothy, the sort of English everyman? That might be the most positive reading I can muster. On the other hand, Timothy is still blaming himself for what has happened to Vera and Mrs. Purbright when he conveniently falls asleep; is this another form of escapism?

I hadn’t thought about the connections to The Mill on the Floss, but it could certainly be said that Maggie Tulliver and Timothy Casson are both figures who repress their strong desires out of consideration for others, and both endure a flood that overpowers the arbitrary limitations of social convention with the force of nature (and, perhaps, a Freudian return of the repressed). I’m not sure how far I would go with the parallel, though, given the gender differences that inform this repression (Maggie is a young girl, relatively powerless with respect to Victorian gender norms, while Timothy is an old man in a relatively privileged position who often creates his own obstacles). Also, the flood in The Mill on the Floss has a redemptive quality to it, which is perhaps more ambiguous in The Boat; does the near-death experience really change anything for Timothy?

Your final questions put me in mind of what I really like about Hartley. For one thing, he is very good at depicting the minds of children. This is what makes The Go-Between and The Shrimp and the Anemone so fantastic. We get glimpses of that in The Boat, with the two evacuee boys who are interestingly doubled at the end by the two boys who join Timothy in the boat, but these figures are never really developed very far. The one moment that stands out for me is when Billy drops his teacup in the drawing room, which instead of being a disaster, causes all the social restraints in the room to be dropped; children are in this sense aligned with a natural rather than social way of life. In this respect, we might also want to talk about Felix the dog, who seems to play a similar role?

Finally, and most tentatively, what I really like about Hartley is his ability to explore the relationship between self and other, how the self can find a place in a world that it necessarily experiences as foreign and other. It seems to me that this almost requires the use of third person, an “other” outside the self-other relationship who is able to witness, describe and analyze it. In The Go-Between, first person works because the narrator is already “other” to himself through the passage of time. I don’t think anything else I’ve read by Hartley has used first person. But that’s just a theory; feel free to explode it.

Sorry, that was long, but you asked so many very good questions. I guess the big question that I’m left with is whether Hartley is sympathizing with the revolutionary politics that is implicit (and often explicit) within the narrative trajectory of the novel, or whether he, like Timothy, would prefer to hold an aesthetic view of the world and simply leave the politics behind?

Nat

Homer-Rowing_Home

Sat 8/26 4:40 PM

Nat,

Great question: does Hartley sympathize with the revolutionary politics referred to both implicitly and explicitly in the novel?

I would have to say, No. There’s just too much bathos for me at least to think he wants us to take it seriously. After all, isn’t Vera a bad character? She gets Mrs. Purbright killed. She leads Timothy on, and is really quite cruel to him. We’re clearly supposed to dislike her. So how can we take her crusade seriously? And what the hell kind of crusade is it anyway? Opening up the river to boating just seems extraordinary small potatoes–not even worthy as a symbol. Now, I suppose a lot does depend on whether you think she did indeed seduce Timothy only to insist he imagined it, or whether he has in fact imagined it. Where are you on that? I think it’s the former. But if it is the latter, then we would have to see Vera in at least a somewhat different light. It would have the benefit of making Timothy even more ambivalent–pathetic at best, sinister at worst. I guess looking back on it I’m really confused about Vera’s motives. She’s like a super-low-rent Mephistopheles: just doing something bad/unpleasant (not sure it quite rises to evil) just because she can.

I like what you’re saying about the third person (or a retrospective first person) as a requirement for the self-other investigation you prize in Hartley. But in that case, why attach the third person so closely to a single character? Wouldn’t a more roving, omniscient-minded narrative voice be able to do that work more fully? If we got insider other people’s heads, we might get a better overview of English society–in other words, the political element of the novel would be strengthened, or at least that’s the way I see it.

It’s a great question as to whether there are other books about the role of communist/political dissent in the period. There must be but I can’t think of anything. Bowen’s Heat of the Day (a masterpiece) is certainly about dissent–but of a fascist rather than communist sort. Bits of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook are critical of English communism, but that’s in reference to the 50s–the debates over Stalinism etc. Maybe others can help us out here. But I think we are agreed that the most interesting thing about the book is the way it addresses the class ambivalences of war-time England (thereby contesting the “we’re all in it together” myth).

You’ve helped me see that The Mill on the Floss comparison isn’t very fruitful. Eliot is a lot more progressive than Hartley. And she cares about women, which, based on the two novels I’ve read, I can’t say Hartley does. At least the women in The Go-Between have the fascination of monstrousness about them. Vera never quite rises to that level.

I’m starting to think of the book as more and more conservative. Perhaps Hartley belongs with other English writers who despaired of what they saw as the spiritual impoverishment of postwar life (often because the privileges of their own classes were being taxed away): Evelyn Waugh, late Henry Green (certainly true in his letters and such; in his early work, in particular, he is much more nuanced about such matters). I should read some more Hartley to find out, but for the time being I need to take a bit of a break from him…

Totally agree with your points about the children–I wanted more of both sets of them. And the dog’s maybe the best character in the book. Who was it said never to act with children and animals? Timothy should have known better…

What other things do we need to talk about?

d

cezanne_barque_baigneurs

Mon 8/29 12:39 PM

Dorian,

Yes, I absolutely agree that we are supposed to dislike Vera and that the revelation of her motives is just about the weakest part of the book. I like your characterization of her as a “super low-rent Mephistopheles” but even more than that the disparity between her rather minimal objective and the amount of effort she puts into achieving it (cultivating a relationship with Timothy, whom she is revealed not to like very much, over the course of something like two years) just seems laughably implausible. As for whether Timothy has imagined his seduction by Vera, it’s a tempting theory, but Hartley doesn’t really seem to have done anything to get us to doubt Timothy’s reliability (which would have actually made things a lot more interesting, I think). In fact, when I was about 2/3 of the way through the book, and it didn’t seem to me that Hartley could possibly end things in a satisfactory way, I actually found myself hoping that Vera would turn out not to exist at all, but be some kind of psychological projection of Timothy’s. No such luck, but even that would have made more sense than what we got.

But if we don’t like Vera, surely we don’t much like the representatives of the established order either? Aren’t we hugely disappointed at the end when Timothy goes to Colonel Harbord’s party and is seduced by the beauty of his lawn? Would it be possible to make the case that Hartley is advocating for some kind of liberal “middle way” between the uptight old order and the flaky young revolutionaries? Timothy fails to find such a way, being pulled back and forth between the two camps, but perhaps this is what Hartley wants his readers to strive for? Interesting that you conclude that he is being ultimately conservative, and I can certainly see that argument, but is it simply for the lack of any reasonable alternative? Is he, to invoke the Arnoldian cliché, caught “between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born”?

Good point about Hartley’s narrative being so chained to Timothy’s consciousness that it’s not all that different from a first-person narrative. The exception that proves the rule is that the sequence of chapters that is probably the most effective in the novel is (I think) the only time where the narrative strays from Timothy’s side for any length of time. Just as we are anxious to learn whether Timothy’s project of taking the boat out is to be accomplished, Chapter 28 takes us to the Rector’s house, where Mrs. Purbright makes the decision to try to warn Timothy about the high water, then Chapter 29 reveals how Vera came to arrive at just the same spot on the riverbank as Mrs. Purbright. This helps to build suspense about what is going to happen to Timothy, and then that chapter ends with uncertainty about what has happened to Vera and Mrs. Purbright, which builds more suspense as we return to Timothy and the boat in the following chapter. Hartley is at his best in this sequence, and the rest of the novel really does suffer from being so confined to Timothy’s point of view. On the other hand, part of Hartley’s point is that Timothy doesn’t really know how the other Uptonians feel about him, and perhaps if the reader did know, it would take away from the incessant anxiety he feels about how is being perceived by others. I suspect the feeling of unease that Timothy feels would be difficult to sustain with a more free-flowing omniscient narrator. (But still, your point about needing other perspectives is spot on.)

And yes, the dog probably is the best character in the book and Hartley’s genius can be seen in how he captures the essence of dogs in one sentence: “He seemed to know at once where he wanted to go and to think it did not matter what happened to his body, provided his head got there.” Also, probably the best comic sequence in the novel is the servants’ efforts to convince Timothy that he needs a dog. After deciding that he needs a companion who can speak a foreign language, Wimbush in his roundabout way tells Timothy, “A dog, now, he speaks what you might almost call a foreign language.” I found it funny, but such sequences also add to the generic inconsistency of the novel; what exactly is it trying to be?

I think we may have just about exhausted the novel, but one last thing I was thinking about was the role of Italy. Timothy comes back to England after years of living in Venice, which establishes his “foreignness” in Upton, but does this code him as somehow suspicious (he seems to prefer many Italian values and customs to English ones) or refreshingly cosmopolitan and worldly? Esther expresses the quintessential Anglo-centric world view in an early letter: “I don’t see how another country can really disagree with England, for England is every country’s other self” but on the whole, it always seems that Timothy would rather be in Italy. Is he an escapist who has been forced by the war to confront his own country? And is the bottom line that he lacks the ability to deal with living in England? And if so, is that more of a reflection on him or on the country itself?

Nat

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Tues 8:29 9:43 PM

Nat,

Was I ever disappointed in Timothy for falling in love with that lawn! The middle-way theory makes so much sense, but what does it mean that the novel can’t seem to imagine it? A similar throwing up of the hands might be at work in the novel’s portrayal of Italy. I’m glad you brought that up, as I was thinking about it too. His love of Italy makes Timothy a bit more worldly, less parochial. (and it’s another way he was reminding me of Forster.) But he’s unwilling to cut Italy too much slack–rightly decrying its turn to fascism. (Does it make a difference, I wonder, that he is the only character with any direct experience of fascism? Unlike his much more political friends.) Mostly Italy seems to function as a lost paradise–it’s like a synonym for the youth and vigour he no longer has. So in the end I don’t know that it much matters that it is Italy, just that it’s a place he felt himself to have been more free in than his current circumstances. Do you think that’s right?

I agree I think we’ve done about all we can for this novel. If anybody is inclined to pick it up after our exchange (which frankly I doubt!) I sure would like to hear what they had to say.

Let’s time we’ll go for something different. Or maybe we should push on with Hartley to see whether The Boat is an aberration.

Thanks for talking about it with me–totally enjoyed it!

xo

d

Wed 8/30 12:49 PM

Dorian,

Yes, I think you’re right about Italy. Not only is it his lost paradise, but it was his job as a writer to send back romanticized portraits of Italy to England. That falls apart with the outbreak of war, and Timothy’s attempts to romanticize England in a similar way also fall apart rather quickly. This also adds to the sense of Timothy as an escapist who lacks the tools (or desire) to deal with his real social situation.

I really enjoyed our conversation as well, and only wish we had both enjoyed the book a bit more. Probably best to give Hartley a break for the time being (although I did get my hands on a copy of Facial Justice) but I do look forward to reading something with you again. Perhaps you should choose next time; your judgment in these things is clearly better than mine!

Best,

Nat

 

A Pattern of Magical Balances: Doris Lessing’s In Pursuit of the English

I just read In Pursuit of the English, a wonderful memoir-of-sorts by Doris Lessing. I think I liked it more than almost any of her books (and I’ve read quite a few, though by no means all, even most). I wonder why it’s not better known.

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It’s about Lessing’s first year or so in England, where she arrived in 1950 with her little boy Peter from her home in Rhodesia. The English, we soon learn, are a fantasy or mirage that differs depending on one’s perspective. The English in Africa are one thing entirely—a unified presence with mores that puzzle Lessing even before she arrives—but the English in England are something else altogether. Especially since Lessing arrives in London, and Londoners, she learns, at least the East End Londoners she lives among, don’t consider themselves English.

Most of the book is about the boarding house she finds a room in. Which isn’t an easy to do in bombed-out London—even some of the floors in the place she ends up in are closed off and filled with rubble. Lessing becomes involved with the people who live in the house, especially the couple who own it. Although the welcome is for the most part warm, she finds she has to learn what the English novelist Henry Green once called “the half-tones of class.” As a colonial subject, she doesn’t quite know how to navigate in this new world

Throughout I kept thinking about the Maison Vauquer from Balzac’s Le Pere Goriot. Especially because perhaps even more than in Balzac the physical qualities of the building itself are important to Lessing—almost as much as the people who live in it.

All of which made me think about what kind of a book this is. For the most part it’s written in a realist mode, almost ethnographic. Calling it a memoir doesn’t really seem right, since Lessing is so reticent about herself. But at times it slips into a different mode, something more fantastic or magical. Here’s a passage that really struck me. Lessing has taken a cramped room in the attic—only later does she realize it’s really a garret—and she has her eye on a much better room three floors below. She enters into a tense war of nerves with the landlady. In the midst of these negotiations comes this surprising and beautiful description:

Under the roof it was like sitting on top of an anthill, a tall sharp peak of baked earth that seems abandoned, but which sounds, when one puts one’s ear to it, with a continuous vibrant humming. Even with the door shut, it was not long before the silence grew into an orchestra of sound. Beneath my floor a tap dripped softly all day, in a blithe duet with the dripping of the tap on the landing. Two floors down, there the Skeffingtons lived, was a radio. Sometimes she forgot it when she went to work, and, as the hours passed, the wavelength slipped, so that melodies and voices flowed upwards, blurring and mingling. This sound had for accompaniment the splashing water, like conversation heard through music and dripping rain. In the darkening afternoons I was taken back to a time when I lay alone at night and listened to people talking through several walls, while the rain streamed from the eaves. Sometimes it was as if the walls had dissolved, and I was left sitting under a tree, listening to birds talking from branch to branch, while the last fat drops of a shower spattered on the leaves, and a ploughman yelled encouragement to his beasts in the field over the hill. Sometimes I put my ear to the wall and heard how, as the trains went past and the buses rocked their weight along the street, shock after shock came up through brick and plaster, so that the solid wall had the fluidity of dancing atoms, and I felt the house, the street, the pavement, and all the miles and miles of houses and streets as a pattern of magical balances, a weight-less structure, as if this city hung on water, or on sound. Being alone in that little box of ceiling board and laths frightened me.

I love the way this passage slips between dream and reality, between present and past, between Africa and London, between gentleness and fear. Sometimes Lessing is a gruff writer, so matter of fact that her prose can be boring. But she’s so smart and sometimes that acuity is transferred to her prose. Everybody in London at this time knew only too well how solid building could dissolve, become as fluid as dancing atoms. The sociological despair of a very slowly rebuilding London is here transmuted into a psychological or private fear. I don’t know if that’s progress, but I like the way Lessing keeps things unsettled in this book. Houses, places to live in, are important in many of works, now that I think about it: The Fifth Child, The Good Terrorist, even her wonderful first novel, The Grass is Singing.

Alfred & Emily–Doris Lessing (2008)

I came to Doris Lessing’s final book, the genre-defying Alfred & Emily, through Roberta Rubenstein’s consideration of it in her recent book Literary Half-Lives. Rubenstein rightly praises the generosity of its depiction of Lessing’s parents, who, in their different ways, made so much trouble for her in life. Alfred & Emily (shelved in the biography section of my local library) includes a novella-length treatment of what her parents’ lives might have been like had WWI not happened, and had they not married, as well as a series of little essays, vignettes really, about different aspects of Lessing’s childhood. There are also pages of intriguing family photos to pore over. But the vignettes and photos are ancillary to the novella or whatever it is—counterfactual biography, perhaps? Its power stems from the blow it deals to its author’s narcissism. To write about one’s parents as they might have been but were not is to imagine a world in which one couldn’t have appeared. Perhaps only someone at end of a long, productive life—Lessing was 89 when the book was published—could have the equanimity needed to efface herself so thoroughly.

It helps, perhaps, that Lessing has documented her life extensively elsewhere. She wrote two volumes of autobiography and miscellaneous bits of autobiographical writings (Going Home (1957) is particularly interesting). In the five-volume Children of Violence series Lessing worked through her relationship to her parents, especially her mother. The facts, briefly, are these: her father, Alfred Tayler, was badly wounded just before the battle of Passchendaele and met her mother, Emily McVeigh, in hospital in England where she nursed him after his leg had to be amputated. After the war the young couple moved to Persia, where Lessing was born, and then in 1925 to Rhodesia, where her father pursued his life-long dream of becoming a farmer, with very middling results, and her mother wilted and hardened in the absence of the cultured, convivial surroundings she considered her due.

Twice in Alfred & Emily, Lessing presents the Great War as the great trauma in her life, even though it happened before she was born. The first time, the war is a malevolent, threatening blot:

That war, the Great War, the war that would end all war, squatted over my childhood. The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I am, still trying to get out from under that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.

The tone here is angry, the irony bitter, the spirit fighting—these are the notes we hear over and over again in Lessing’s remarkable oeuvre. (And the qualities that connect her to the writer that was most important to her as a child, D. H. Lawrence.)

The second time, the war is just as inescapable, but Lessing’s response to it is more embittered:

I think my father’s rage at the Trenches took me over, when I was very young, and has never left me. Do children feel their parents’ emotions? Yes, we do, and it is a legacy I could have done without. What is the use of it? It is as if that old war is in my memory, my own consciousness.

What touches me most in this passage is not the unnatural burden of a child taking on her father’s pain, but that little shift to first person plural in the third sentence. (Here, as so often, grammar creates pathos.) Lessing asks, Do children feel their parents’ emotions? I expect the answer to be: Yes, they do. No matter how many times I read it, that we catches me off guard. It makes the rather abstract claim about what the psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok call trans-generational haunting as visceral as a sob in the throat. It makes us feel that Lessing still is that child.

None of us ever escapes the child we once were. But if we are lucky we learn what our adult self can do to make the child inside feel safe enough that it no longer need act out its anxieties and insecurities. That makes our lives easier on our loved ones and ourselves. In Alfred & Emily Lessing is done fighting with her parents through herself. She has realized that their problems were not hers. In the process she releases herself, and, posthumously, them too. She gives them the gift of imagined, happier lives. At the end of a short introduction, she writes: “I hope they would approve the lives I have given them.” Surely they would, not least because of the surprising twists their lives, and the world they live in, take in Lessing’s telling.

The fictional Alfred and Emily are connected not through marriage but through a shared maternal figure, Mrs. Lane. Emily is a friend of Mrs. Lane’s daughter Daisy. Emily and Daisy leave their village in Sussex to train as nurses at the Royal Free hospital in London. The decision is particularly consequential for Emily: her distant father disinherits her because he believes nursing is beneath her. In the years to come, Emily will return to Mrs. Lane, and her cozy home, whenever she feels overwhelmed. Alfred is a kind of adopted son to Mrs. Lane; she has taken him under her wing as compensation for his own mother’s obvious lack of interest in him. Alfred apprentices to a local farming family, the Redways; he is a friend of their son Bert, a moody, difficult young man with a tendency to drink.

The world of these Edwardian years (we can’t say pre-war, since war never comes, at least not the Great War) is the world of Lawrence’s early fiction, The White Peacock, Sons and Lovers, even bits of The Rainbow. It’s a world in which town and country are not readily separated, a world in which communal agricultural labour is important even to those who don’t dedicate their lives to it, a world in which young people thing nothing of walking or cycling five miles to a dance. (I’m fascinated by how much walking people used to do. It’s nothing for Paul Morel, in Sons and Lovers, to walk several miles to the Leivers’s farm nightly. Lawrence’s letters are filled with invitations to friends to visit him and Frieda in whatever isolated place they happened to be living, always with cheery instructions about how he will meet them at the station to walk the four miles home for tea.)

At one point it seems as though Alfred might settle down with Daisy. But then he meets Betsy, an outgoing and nurturing woman even more like Mrs. Lane than Daisy is. Alfred, helped by Betsy, tends to Bert, who manages a shaky recovery from the alcoholism he has begun to slide into; throughout Alfred continues to manage the Redways farm which everyone assumes Alfred will inherit on the sickly Bert’s death.

Emily, meanwhile, rises through the nursing ranks to become Head Sister. She marries a doctor, the respected but desiccated and thoroughly conventional William Martin-White. (In real life, Lessing’s mother’s first, great love had been a doctor who drowned at sea.) She is saved from the life of glittering society woman that she helplessly pours herself into, since she can no longer work once she is married, by her husband’s sudden death. Thanks to the efforts of a sympathetic nephew, a lawyer, Emily sets up and manages a charitable trust that runs schools for poor children. She meets a Scotsman whom she nurses when he falls ill with cancer, realizing only after his death how much he loved her. A controversy over a pregnant unmarried teacher at one of her schools, in Alfred’s village, leads her to set up refuges for unmarried mothers. Alfred and Emily occasionally run into each other; they respect each other. But they are not important to each other. A postscript tells us that Alfred Tayler lived to a great age while Emily McVeah died at age 73 when some boys she remonstrated for tormenting a dog attacked her.

It’s a funny little book. A bit rough and ready, a bit abrupt. But it stays with you. I’ve mentioned Lawrence as a literary influence. But another influence is more important, especially in the second half: Virginia Woolf, especially the Woolf of Three Guineas (1938). That intricate work, perhaps Woolf’s most interesting, attacks, among other things, militarism, patriarchy, and exclusionary models of education. It criticizes the fascism it sees ascendant not just in Italy and Germany but at home in England too. But its criticism of violence and aggression is accompanied by its clear-eyed recognition of the persistence, perhaps even inevitability, of those instincts.

Thus, although England never goes to war in Lessing’s alternate history, war is never far away. There is a longstanding conflict between Turkey and Serbia that young people in England take violent sides in. (Allegiances are displayed through differences in hair styles and clothing; supporters of one side frequently attack those of the other.) With the entry of women into the workforce, many young men find themselves without an obvious place in society. Many travel abroad to fight as mercenaries, including Alfred’s two eldest sons. Those who have been spared a war claim to miss it. As Alfred puts it,

“‘This is a silly, pettifogging little country, and we’re so pleased with ourselves because we’ve kept out of a war. But if you ask me I think a war would do us all the good in the world. Were soft and rotten, like a pear that’s gone past it’s best.’”

Given Lessing’s description of how the Great War ruined her father, this is an ironic speech to say the least. But Lessing doesn’t condescend to her father. She pays discrete homage to the man who spent much of his life obsessed with the war, partly in rage at how callously his generation was destroyed, but partly in the certainty that nothing so exciting would ever happen to him again. Like Woolf, Lessing hates war, especially the way its dehumanization snakes across society. But also like Woolf she respects the power of the aggression that fuels war. By recognizing the power of war, violence, and aggression, Lessing gives us something more than a mere fantasy of reparation, in which everything that was bad in real life is made good. (I’m struck by how Jo Walton uses war in a similar way in her recent novel about counterfactual lives and world histories, My Real Children.) After all, no matter how difficult her childhood was—and it was pretty difficult, with a sick, disaffected father and a disillusioned, spiteful mother—it’s still the only one she ever had, and there had to have been value in it, too. Another way to say what I mean is that although Lessing no longer needs to settle any scores with her parents her literary preoccupations haven’t changed. She is still fascinated by the double-edged qualities of violence and power, the way they break things (especially women’s lives) but also the way they make things (especially women’s lives). Her books are remarkable studies of this ambivalence; The Good Terrorist (1985) is maybe the best.

I’m glad to have read this strange, generous, and wise little book. But I’m also glad that even though it was Lessing’s last, it’s not mine. There are still lots of her books for me to enjoy.

The Summer Before the Dark–Doris Lessing (1973)

I first tried this book a couple of years ago (apparently on a trip to Chicago—the boarding pass was tucked after p 46). For whatever reason, it didn’t take. But I returned to it much more successfully last week because I’d an inkling it could be interestingly compared to one of my favourite novels, Marian Engel’s Bear (1976), in a way that would fit a call for papers for a session at next year’s MLA. (Here’s hoping the organizers agree.) I’ll leave the comparison itself aside for now, and instead take it on its own merits. Although I’ve only read a fraction of Lessing’s vast corpus, I rank Summer as one of my favourites, alongside The Grass is Singing (1950) and the puzzlingly underrated The Good Terrorist (1985). It gives us so much to think about that it really deserves to be better known.

I love Lessing because she is one of those writers who so easily wrong-foot me. I don’t find reading Lessing an easy or always pleasant experience. (Pleasure is a great virtue in reading, but some things are great because they refuse us pleasures we might unthinking expect.) I’m always tense, reading Lessing, because she’s always on the verge of being clumsy and obvious, but actually rarely is. (In this she is like my absolute favourite writer, D. H. Lawrence. Lessing has written about his influence on her.) (That this should make me tense is odd, isn’t it?) Lessing is often taken to be strident and humourless, a reputation based, I would say, on ill-informed ideas about feminism (ideas she rightly rejected) and plain-old misogyny. (The outspoken female writer is a harridan; the outspoken male writer is a visionary.) As I’ve written in a different context, one of the things I most admire in Lessing is her uncanny play with realist literary conventions, which she never quite abandons in the literary thought experiments that make up her work.

The experiment in Summer is to explore what happens to a person who has the chance to stop serving others, even living for them, after a lifetime of doing so. As its title suggests, the novel is set over the course of a single summer. (Like Engel’s, incidentally. And if you haven’t read that book, I suggest you do so right away.) That quasi-Aristotelian constriction only adds urgency to the events of the plot, which comprise a voyage of discovery that can only end, as the title also suggests, in obscurity.

The novel’s protagonist is Kate Brown. (Various references to her as “Mrs. Brown” remind us of Virginia Woolf’s great essay “Character in Fiction” (1924), in which Woolf imagines a character that literature has had no time for, one Mrs. Brown, based on a woman Woolf once saw on a train, a character that she urges modern novelists to pursue at all costs.) Kate is the middle-aged wife of an eminent neurologist and the mother of several almost grown children. The title thus also refers to the period in Kate’s life, with the coming darkness being old age, even late middle age, and, more pertinently, the time when women stop being meaningful to contemporary society, the time when they literally become invisible. In some justly famous scenes near the end of the book, Kate experiments with her appearance and its effects on others: when she does not fix her hair and makeup or dress a certain way, she becomes invisible. Walking past a construction site, she realizes that the workers have taken no notice of her:

The fact that they didn’t suddenly made her angry. She walked away out of sight, and there, took off her jacket…showing her fitting dark dress. [The comma after “there” brings me up short. There’s a kind of stutter in the prose, like the larger existential stutter Kate experiences in the book.] She tied her hair dramatically with a scarf. Then she strolled back in front of the workmen, hips conscious of themselves. A storm of whistles, calls, invitations. Out of sight the other way, she made her small transformation and walked back again: the men glanced at her, did not see her.

More interesting than Kate’s sociological experiment is her reaction to it: her anger. The passage I’ve quoted continues: “She was trembling with rage: it was a rage, it seemed to her, that she had been suppressing for a lifetime.”  How best to express rage is one of the central questions of the book, how hard it is to express it at all one of its central observations.

The build-up to this expression of rage begins when Kate is given an opportunity. Her husband is about to leave for several months’ work in America. The children are about to scatter across the globe on various expeditions. A friend of her husband, an American come to London to attend a conference on global food production, particularly coffee, asks her to help the conference organizers. They need simultaneous translators from Portuguese, which Kate speaks fluently; her father was an English-naturalized Portuguese. (A handful of beautifully sketched out scenes describe Kate’s year in Lorenco Marques—now Maputo, Mozambique—with her grandfather in 1948.)  Kate agrees, with some reluctance. The house is hastily shut up and let until the end of September, when the children will return from their various pilgrimages. Kate settles quickly into her new job, enjoying the anonymity, the relative ease of the work, and what she thinks of as the preposterously large salary. But the break from family life isn’t suitable to introspection. And she will soon have even less time for herself—greater responsibilities await. The organizational flair she has developed running her busy, graceful household over the years translates neatly into a larger role with Global Food. She becomes the chief factotum, seeing to, even anticipating, the needs of the ministers, secretaries and other dignitaries. She arranges hair appointments, knows where to buy the best British woolens, ensures that refreshments and supplies are always ready to hand. She is a nurse, a nanny, in short, a mother once more.

After organizing a second conference in Istanbul, Kate leaves the organization. She is afraid of how easily she has replicated her role as housewife, almost as afraid as she is of what she will do next. The novel brilliantly depicts how frightening it is to leave established patterns of behaviour, even dangerous or oppressive ones. Kate resists the introspection that freedom from responsibility will force upon her, even as she is moving in that direction. That resistance is one way to explain her sudden decision to travel to Spain with a younger American man that she becomes involved with in Istanbul.

At this point the book really gets good, becoming increasingly strange and compelling. Kate and the American, Jeffrey—pretty much an irredeemably tedious character—arrive at the Costa del Sol. His disgust at its tourist economy leads him to take Kate first up the coast and later inland. The journey is increasingly feverish, not least because Jeffrey is literally so; he is only to be stopped when he is delirious and nearly unconscious. Kate finds herself marooned in an impoverished, isolated village several hours inland from Alicante. Jeffrey is taken to a monastery, where the nuns look after him until the only doctor in the area returns from a call in another valley. Jeffrey’s illness is as much psychological as physiological. At 32 he is at a crossroads of his own, unable to decide how to live his life. He rejects the life of responsibility that awaits him in the US (he comes from a family of means) but no longer able to drift in the (post) hippie lifestyle that we glimpsed in the brief section set on the Spanish coast. But the book isn’t interested in his dilemma, only in Kate’s struggle to resist mothering him, cooing over him, offering advice and a comforting shoulder. We never find out what happens to him. Before long Kate herself falls ill. She takes the bus back to coast, then a fevered, dazed flight back to London. Jeffrey is abandoned, returning neither in the plot’s events nor Kate’s thoughts.

The return to London is another surprising and interesting choice on Lessing’s part. The book is highly attuned to global capital, and it never glamourizes non-Western or third world countries (rural Spain under Franco seems to count as both) as exotic repositories of authenticity and value.  Indeed, Kate is only too aware, based on her experiences in the Spanish village, where the peasant women look up from their incessant labour with expressions of hatred at and contempt for her leisure, how difficult and not to be idealized life is for women who aren’t white and middle class and sheltered. So the “voyage out” that Lessing sketches here (and she must also have in mind Woolf’s novel of that name, with its own fevered and feverish female protagonist) isn’t really a geographic one. Lessing is famous for saying that in order to break through (to something like psychic health) one has to break down (via something like madness). But Lessing’s psychological exploration is always a material one, too. She repudiated the Communist party already in the 1950s but certain insights of Marxism, based on her experiences growing up in a colonial society, Rhodesia, never left her.

Kate can’t go home when she returns to London because her house is still let. She checks herself into the only hotel available in the summer tourist season, a posh one where she is coddled by a series of excellent caretakers until she recovers, if that is the right word, from her own mysterious illness.  But this reversal of affairs (the mother now gets mothered) doesn’t suit the novel’s purposes, for the reversal doesn’t negate the central problem (are there any roles for women that don’t involve being a mother of some sort?). The literal, physical fever finally breaks, but the figurative, existential one persists.

We see this in a wonderful scene that left me squirming. Just before leaving the hotel, the Global Food money nearly spent, she attends a sold-out production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Kate finds herself talking aloud about the ridiculousness of the situation of the female characters, to the point of heckling the production. She doesn’t mean to do this, part of her doesn’t want to. Here’s how Lessing starts the scene:

A woman sat prominently in the front row of the stalls, a woman whom other people were observing. Some were looking at her as much as they did at the play. She seemed quite out of place there, an eccentric to the point of fantasy, with her pink sacklike dress tied abruptly around her by a yellow scarf, her bush of multi-hued hair, her gaunt face that was yellow, and all bones and burning angry eyes. She was muttering, ‘Oh rubbish! Russian my aunt’s fanny! Oh what nonsense!’ while she fidgeted and twisted in her seat.

The disorienting thing here is that the woman is Kate—we’ve shifted from the close “she” or “Kate” of the previous paragraph, and of most of the novel, a position closely aligned to Kate’s consciousness, to one that is distanced from her.  This split in point of view echoes the split in Kate’s self-understanding. The “eccentric” is rebuked in the best passive-aggressive English way by other audience members, every one of them a version of her former self. Kate has only contempt for their contempt:

Oh for God’s sake, though Kate—but alas, had said it, too, for a woman several seats down leaned forward to give her a contemptuous stare. The woman looked like a cat, an old pussycat that has gone fat and lazy; but enough now, stop it, she should keep her attention well away from the stage since she couldn’t behave properly—really, why was it that no one but she could see, couldn’t anyone see that what they were all watching was the behaviour of maniacs? A parody of something. Really, they all ought to be falling about, roaring with laughter, instead of feeling intelligent sympathy at these ridiculous absurd meaningless problems.

Lessing makes us feel the ambivalence of the moment: we want to side with Kate here, but it’s hard to know exactly what that means, since Kate doesn’t even side with herself, part of her is mortified by what she’s doing even as most of her could not care less. The novel is fascinated by laughter—indecorous, gut-busting, unseemly, anything-but-prissy laughter. Such laughter would be revelatory, would shake this tight-assed world with its ridiculous conventions. But this laughter is more often imagined in the book than realized. And what exactly would it achieve? The string of unpunctuated qualifiers in the passage’s last sentence makes me think the book is taking some distance from Kate. These are her thoughts, not its. To be sure, the more embarrassed and uncomfortable we feel, though, the more Lessing indicts our own bourgeois complicity, not least as readers of novels who have certain expectations of characterological decorum. But I’m unconvinced the book thinks it would be best for Kate simply to howl out her rage and disgust, and for us to follow suit. It isn’t easy to escape social life, which we could rephrase in the terms of the book by saying it isn’t easy not to be domesticated, not to be a mother. Maybe these are roles we don’t want to escape, or oughtn’t want to. The dilemma is further dramatized in the book’s last act, in which Kate takes a room in a flat owned by a young woman, Maureen, a hippie drop-out type who finds herself choosing between a series of suitors, none of whom she much likes. This is the period when Kate performs the experiment with the workingmen quoted above. She learns what it is to be an old woman, which seems to consist of a fundamental shapelessness. She visits her old street, sees her house, where she is ignored, unrecognized by her neighbours.

Like Maureen Kate sleeps a lot of the time, sometimes she wanders the streets. She resists mothering Maureen, refuses to be her confessor. We could think of this part of the book as a dramatization of Alison Bechdel’s celebrated test of a text: do two women have a conversation about anything other than a man? We could read the novel as asking: can there be a relationship, across generations no less, between women that don’t revolve around the care-giving roles established by the patriarchy? Both Kate and Maureen want to resist, but they’re scared, too, because they don’t know what would come after that resistance. What would the darkness be like, other than dark? The book never tells us. It ends at an impasse, deciding to emphasize the enormous difficulty of escaping a certain way of thinking rather than to describe a solution to that difficulty. If there is a way to live in the dark that isn’t effacement, the novel doesn’t show it. It’s significant that one of the last locales in the book is the London zoo, where the ones who are really imprisoned are the people visiting it.

I haven’t mentioned an important character, one that appears frequently but only indirectly, in Kate’s thoughts, her neighbour Mary Finchley. Kate admires her je-m’en-foutisme but cannot duplicate it. I can’t tell whether the novel thinks of that as a failure on Kate’s part. It seems to me that if Lessing wanted Mary to be the book’s ultimate heroine she would have given her a larger role. On balance it seems Lessing looks a bit askance at the almost comical absence of repression in Mary’s life. Here Lessing distances herself from any Reichian idea that we should simply ignore or liberate ourselves from oppression.

The Summer Before the Dark is mostly concerned with (middle-class) women, but the rather terrifying vicissitudes of identity that it studies will speak to anyone who is—whether through the vagaries of individual psychological makeup or, in more properly Lessing-like fashion, through the structural imbalances, especially economic, that characterize lived reality—defined by their complicated need to live for and through others. In this way it continues to be relevant, assuming that’s even something we want from books. A blurb on the cover tells me The Economist thought it her best book to date. I don’t know whether to chide myself for an evidently narrow minded sense of its values (and I say that as a subscriber) or to laugh at the fundamental misreading that could make that publication say such a thing about this book.