Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by M. F. Corwin, who tweets as @eudamonis. Corwin, a person of mystery, currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
M: How can one talk about one’s entire year of reading?
E: …and of course there’s more to reading than finishing books.
M: Yes. There are the books abandoned, and the reading done but not completed in the year.
E: There’s no shame in not reading to deadline.
M: Why would the end of the year be a deadline? The calendar’s arbitrary; reading’s continuous.
E: To a point. Anyway. What books didn’t you finish last year?
M: A lot! Two that stand out are Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds and Arsenyev’s Across the Ussuri Kray, both of which I’ve been reading slowly, because I’m not quite ready to leave them behind.
M: For the Barton, it’s the combination of the clever conceit of organizing a memoir around onomatopoeic vocabulary with the keen analysis of culture shock and the tenderness towards her younger self, towards all younger selves. For the Arsenyev, well, it just pushes a lot of buttons. It’s Siberia, so that’s inherently interesting, but there’s also the pairing of naturalist observation with early twentieth-century exploration and adventure after the Russo-Japanese War. It doesn’t hurt that it has some background for Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzalaand was translated by the guy who wrote that book on Siberian owls.
E: Did you read the owl book?
M: I tried, but the tone was too close to a Peace Corps memoir, a sort of magazine slick. Good in its way, but not what I wanted from it.
E: What other books didn’t you read last year?
M: That’s a really important question – for me at least. The books I didn’t (or don’t) read have a huge impact on the books that I choose to read and/or finish, although the relationship can be complicated.
E: What would be an example?
M: Well, I meant to reread War and Peacelast year, given that I found a collection of the Oxford World Classics hardcovers of Tolstoy while looking for butter knives. [Ed. – Like, in your house?] I was planning to read his works more or less in order, and War and Peace comes surprisingly early.
E: Just to address what is clearly a side point: Are all of your book purchases failed attempts at housekeeping?
M: … hm. Probably. But, as you say, not important. I was reading Tolstoy’s early short stories and got kind of stuck on the Sevastopol stories, which were really fascinating: keen observation, a brutal eye for military matters, and the veneer of cheap morality really showing some deliberate wear. It got me wondering about the background to War and Peace; obviously as a historical novel, it’s somewhat different, but it made me want more context. I’d already been interested in reading The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, Written by Himself, as it had been translated by Jane Ellen Harrison and Hope Mirrlees during their Russian kick (which also led to The Book of the Bear, which in turn was part of what convinced me to get around to Marian Engel’s Bear [Ed. — Oh, that sounds interesting], although they are not at all related); I had heard, perhaps erroneously, that Avvakum’s style in some ways influenced Tolstoy’s. So I read that, in a more recent translation, which I didn’t quite care for, though the introduction was very firm about its authenticity.
E: And then?
M: Well, that led me to Janet Martin’s history of medieval Russia, which is a very decent introduction and confirmed my opinion that I needed to get to know a bit more history before I could get back to Tolstoy. I picked up some books that seemed like they might be relevant (Kollman’s The Russian Empire 1450–1801and Seton-Watson’s The Russian Empire, 1801–1917), but before I got to those I felt I really needed to know a bit more about Lithuania, because it just kept cropping up in Martin’s book. So I read a history of the Polish-Lithuanian Union and it was tremendously illuminating.
E: How so?
M: It was one of those wonderful moments when one, as a reader, has the opportunity to see how perfectly ignorant one is. [Ed. — Would that more of us thought this way!] An entire vista, previously unknown, appears with all of its possibilities. Not just an unknown vista, but an entirely unimagined one, a rich field of arguments in every footnote. It’s deeply satisfying to read something that does not confirm one’s suspicions, not least because one did not know enough to have any.
E: So did you get to the Russian history books?
M: Not yet! I mean, I could go through the same sort of scenario with other books I didn’t read: Duras, whom I keep trying to work myself up to liking [Ed. – Same! Speak truth to power!] (which led to SaraMesa’s Four by Four, Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs, and the Léger trilogy published by the Dorothy Project) or Locke’s Treatise on Human Understanding(Hamann, Gadamer’s Enigma of Health, and Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary). Sometimes when I try to rev myself up to read something I get distracted – and perhaps the distraction is more interesting than the intention. Like I was working through Shakespeare’s plays last year as well, and I rather wonder if I might not have had more fun with the project, as a project, if I had allowed myself to be distracted from it, about it, more. There’s always a pleasure, though, in rereading something familiar from high school that will stand up to (and reward) attentive rereading – like putting on a mental bathrobe that one has had forever only to find it much finer than one had remembered. The same thing kind of happened in reverse while rereading Civilization and Its Discontents: I had the uncomfortable sensation of (re)discovering the forgotten source for some of my mental furniture, which was a bit embarrassing.
E: Are these distractions always just a way of sneaking up on a reading project?
M: Sadly, no. There’s a lot of the magpie, too. Someone will mention something on Twitter, or there will be a sale from Rixdorf or Open Letter or pretty much any small or university press, and, well, I am easily distracted. Or perhaps I was just ready to be distracted.
E: What was the best distraction you encountered last year?
M: Paul Valéry’s Dialogues and Idée Fixe, without a doubt – charming without being cloying. I picked them up at random on my first trip back to Powell’s since the start of the pandemic and, even though I had previously disliked the dialogue form, they led me to rethink my position.
It’s all there in the title: Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901). Impressive, then, that Thomas Mann—who wrote this book in his early 20s, which is really amazing, it does not feel like a young person’s book—keeps things as suspenseful as he does. Buddenbrooks is a page-turner, especially if you are someone whose response to growing up with the values of work, thrift, responsibility, and shame was to flee into hysteria (i.e. me).
Mann is the novelist of hysteria (see Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain for further examples). I mean hysteria in the Freudian sense, not the ordinary one of shrillness or lack of control. Freud defined hysteria as one of three kinds of neuroses (along with phobias and obsessions). Neuroses arise from the contradiction between what we unconsciously want and what we consciously know (through acculturation) we should not want. Neuroses are psychological conflicts. Every “normal” functioning person is neurotic to some extent; neuroses are not psychoses, Freud’s name for severe mental disturbances like schizophrenia in which the sense of a conscious self is gravely threatened or even absent. Neuroses aren’t for “crazy people”; they’re for us.
Neuroses make themselves felt in various symptoms. The hysteric’s symptoms are bodily, unlike those of the phobic or the obsessive; theirs, by contrast, are mental, for example, a compulsion to count to a certain number before doing something, or the need to berate one’s self after thinking something, as if thoughts were actions. The hysteric is plagued, above all, by anxieties over bodily integrity. Hysterical symptoms—to name just a few: otherwise inexplicable loss of voice, loss of feeling in limbs, phantom pains, the conviction that one is having a heart attack—are compromise formulations. They are ways of speaking that circumvent more straightforward but prohibited/dangerous speaking.
One of the aims of psychoanalysis or Freudian-inspired psychotherapy is to turn body into language. When we can tell a story to ourselves about ourselves—when we can acknowledge what previously felt shameful or unavowable—our hysterical symptoms disappear. You can say a lot of things against Freud, but you have to credit that he took hysterical symptoms seriously. Where other (mostly male) physicians said to these (mostly female) patients, “There is nothing wrong with you, snap out of it, stop malingering,” Freud said, “There is nothing wrong in the patient’s physical reality. But there is something wrong in their mental or psychic reality.” Distinguishing these two kinds of reality is perhaps the most consequential idea of psychoanalysis. Hysterical symptoms are real—a sign of great unhappiness, of desires so unavowable to the person and her society that they can only come out in damaging form.
Why am I talking about Freud so much? Mann loved his German intellectual tradition, and Freud is part of the background of his breakthrough book, though less obviously so than Schopenhauer (referenced directly), Wagner, and the Nietzsche who first adored and then repudiated Wagner. Mann’s later books would grapple with this tradition even more obviously: I think Doctor Faustus is the ultimate example, though I’ve never been brave enough to read it. (The musical sections of Buddenbrooks were quite enough for me.) Freud is the least overt of Mann’s intellectual inspirations in his debut novel, but the more intriguing for that, plus he’s the one who means the most to me.
Strikingly, the novel’s hysterics are all men (in the language of the period they would have been called neurasthenics, hysteria being then, as, alas, now, characterized as a “female malady”). Who are these men? They compose four generations of a grain merchant family in an unnamed north German city that everyone knows is Lübeck, in the years 1835 – 1877. Politics matters in Buddenbrooks, but it’s kept to the background—the failed revolution of 1848 is presented as a joke, the unification of Germany under Bismarck is important only for how it affects business and the changes it brings to state education. Instead, the novel foregrounds mental and physical health. Importantly, both are governed by rigid ideas of duty and propriety. (Buddenbrooks is the most Lutheran novel I know.) The first patriarch is Johann Jr.: that suffix denoting unbroken lineage, though the novel in fact begins with a significant change: newly wealthy, Johann and his ménage move into a home that used to belong to a powerful but now bankrupt merchant family, a scenario that will return when a more unscrupulous, energetic, and prosperous merchant eventually takes over the home from the disintegrated and dispersed Buddenbrooks. (Mann, never light with his symbolism, has the new occupant renovate the crumbling outbuildings that had once housed the Buddenbrook firm into a successful retail development. The only thing that never declines in this book is oligarchic capitalism.) Johann, Jr. of course never learns of these events: he unproblematically carries off his belief in the family’s probity and success—these being synonyms in the novel’s worldview—even cutting off his son from a first marriage because he disapproves of the young man’s way of life.
Johann, Jr.’s son by his second marriage, naturally also named Johann, but known to everyone as Jean, a nod to the elder generation’s Enlightenment-inspired Francophilia, is the most conventionally successful figure in the book. Together with his wife Elizabeth, he raises four children: Thomas, Christian, Klara, and Antoinette, known as Toni. As a leader of the community, Jean soothes the brief unrest of 1848 and thrives in business. He grooms Thomas to take over the firm, ignores the niggling reality that he has no idea what to make of “feckless” Christian, vaguely approves of but mostly ignores Klara’s piety, and pushes Toni into marriage with a promising businessman she does not particularly care for by reminding her of her duty to the family. He later regrets this decision, if not the beliefs behind it: the man proves a fraud, and Jean extricates Toni from the marriage (allowing Mann to showcase the northern German states’ comparatively liberal divorce laws), though at the cost of public shame Toni will spend the rest of her life combatting. Always preoccupied with his appearance—something that matters so much in the novel: it is paramount to these characters that they look presentable and decent—Jean dies of a stroke that fells him while he completes his morning toilette.
As the novel turns its attention to the third generation, it ramps up its theory that hysteria is the primary evidence for societal decline. Christian, who cannot settle to work, and might have been an actor or artist of some kind had he lived in a different family (he is a raconteur par excellence and either a good sport or a ne’er-do-well depending on your take), suffers life-long phantom pains that he talks about at length to anyone who will listen (always concluding that they can’t be described), before ending up in a sanatorium. (He’s “like someone delirious with fever … He has a regular mania for dragging up the most insignificant things from deep within him and talking about them—things that a reasonable man doesn’t even think about, doesn’t want to know about, for the very simple reason that he is too embarrassed to share them with anyone else.”) Klara, always frail and increasingly pious, marries a preacher from Riga; their brief marriage seems happy enough, but she dies of TB before having any children (worse, from the family’s point of view, the preacher keeps the dowry). Thomas, the “good son,” leads the family firm, works nonstop, becomes a macher (the high point of which is his election to Senator), and makes a good living, though never quite to his father’s heights. He encourages Toni to remarry to a Bavarian businessman, an amiable drunk from whom Toni recoils after she, almost at once, delivers a stillborn child and discovers her husband sexually assaulting the maid, leading her to a second divorce. Thomas’s own marriage, to a Dutch schoolfriend of Toni’s—the imperturbable and musical Gerda Arnoldsen, my favourite character, surely symbolically though not actually Jewish—is meant to assert his independence from his milieu (the Buddenbrooks are resolutely unmusical), but he is too in thrall to that world to know what to do with her. She cheats on him, if not with a lieutenant she plays duets with then with music itself.
Thomas doesn’t particularly care about his wife’s literal or metaphorical infidelity: he is preoccupied—obsessed, really—with surviving his responsibilities. Mann’s descriptions of the mask Thomas puts on when he goes out into the world, and the slackness that comes over his body and mind when he can be alone, are harrowing:
How almost unrecognizable his face became when he was alone. The muscles of his mouth and cheeks, usually so disciplined and obedient to his will, relaxed and slackened; the alert, prudent, kind, energetic look, which he had preserved for so long now only with great effort, fell away like a mask and reverted to a state of anguished weariness; his dull, somber eyes would fix on some object without seeing it, would redden and begin to water—and, lacking the courage to deceive even himself, he could hold fast to only one of the many heavy, confused, restless thoughts that filled his mind.
Thomas dies after a disastrous visit to the dentist (there are some terrible scenes in this book with the incompetent Dr. Brecht, who needs to talk himself into the terrors he inflicts on people’s mouths); he his only 48, but had become an old man, increasingly an object of scorn in the community.
Toni’s daughter, Erica, comes to an unhappy end, too: her own marriage ends in shame when her husband is imprisoned for insurance fraud (it is suggested that he has only done what others do all the time but has been made an example of because he is a parvenu). Thomas and Gerda’s only child—the family line’s increasing effeteness indicated by how few children are produced by the third generation—is at the center of the book’s final chapters. Hanno is a delicate child. His teeth, in particular, are always giving him trouble, causing fevers and having, excruciatingly, to be pulled. I take the novel’s depictions of bad teeth as a symbol of the family’s increasing inability to consume, to prey, to swallow—to be businessmen, in other words. Hanno loves music, though he’s no prodigy. What he loves is wallowing in neo-Wagnerian improvisation, a further indication of effete inability. Not only is he artistically inclined—a sure sign of decline, in this novel—but he cannot master that either. There are, however, no prodigies or geniuses in the book; the only “healthy” models of artistry it offers is to treat it as a joke, like a friend of Johann, Jr, who is no poet, but rather a versifier, good for a tasteful toast to a hostess. Poor Hanno is abruptly dispatched by typhoid, an all-too physical disease that nonetheless has a psychological component, for the feverish teen is happy to give up the fight and be taken into a beyond that he has always longed for.
At its end, the novel leaves us with its women—not Gerda (she glides back to Amsterdam to play music with the only man she has really ever loved, her father), but Toni and Erika, and some cousins, and a wonderful bit character, Theresa Weichbrodt, Toni’s former teacher who has remained a family friend, a retainer of sorts, all these years. This ending makes sense, because although the novel focuses on male characters I think it is really a novel about women—the most interesting characters are female, even though they are all minor. On the one hand, the novel denigrates femaleness—the men are increasingly effeminate and hysterical, and that’s a sign of their decline. But on the other, it almost unwillingly upholds femaleness—the women are the ones left standing, and even though their roles are limited, they are the ones who actually uphold the core Buddenbrook values of decency and duty.
There is of course an irony here, since those values have killed the male characters. Of course, women have plenty of experience of living under values that confine, oppress, even kill them; no wonder, then, that they survive, if not thrive. Buddenbrooks made me think about Lauren Berlant’s idea of “cruel optimism”—what happens when something you desire harms you, gets in the way of your flourishing. (Freud made a similar argument, but emphasized the individual over society; Berlant thinks cruel optimism is characteristic of neoliberal precarity, like the internship you want so badly even though it pays you nothing.) Mann’s characters live under the sway of an ideology of probity that both gives them their meaning in life but also kills them.
Mann—or at least his narrator—relishes the irony. In “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag fulminated against the “obstreperous irony” of books like Buddenbrooks, which she described as impossible, even embarrassing to the contemporary (1960s) moment. This critique hit me hard when, as an impressionable Young Person, I fell under Sontag’s sway. I agreed, too, with her later claim that irony can lead to laughter so unbridled it leaves one gasping. Now, as a middle-aged reader, I have more time for Mann’s irony. But I’m still not sure what to do with it. It’s easy to see what Buddenbrooks is critiquing: the straightjacket of decorum; ideas of psychological, physical, and financial “health.” But what does the novel value? What is its critique for? When, at the end, the remaining characters wonder if they will be rewarded in the next life with the chance to see their lost loved ones, Theresa Weichbrodt, the former teacher, insists it will be so:
There she stood, victorious in the good fight that she had waged all her life against the onslaughts of reason. There she stood, hunchbacked and tiny, trembling with certainty—an inspired, scolding little prophet.
I can only read this as an at-best bemused dismissal of the woman—her victory against “the onslaughts of reason,” her physical smallness (hinting at fallibility or inconsequence), her similar metaphorical diminution. The “little prophet” can only scold, not thunder. But if the novel makes fun of this viewpoint, while also ending with it, what’s left? I see no Nietzschean transvaluation of values here, no indication that, since all values are contingent, we should abandon the very idea and simply see who and what succeeds. Similarly, returning to Freud, there is no position here that matches the analyst, the one whose task is to help the patient to health (the alleviation of physical suffering by getting to the psychological root of the problem) by helping them to see why they act as they do.
In short, there’s nobody to look to as an alternative point of view, no one who successfully challenges the Protestant merchant ethos. Toni’s second husband, the Bavarian, decides to quit business for a life of leisure, but his physical and emotional grotesqueness (he’s fat and ugly and a lech, if also kind, though I think the latter results more from laziness than genuine feeling) makes him hard to identify with. Toni’s first love, a working-class medical student named Morton Schwarzkopf, at first seems a viable candidate—I definitely wanted him to return and hoped for a late-in-life, gentle reconciliation with Toni—but Mann shrewdly denies this end: it would muck up his portrait of the family as locked into a way of life; there is no synthesis of classes here, no bringing in of new blood to revitalize the old. The novel leaves us at an impasse: the way of life it examines is as impossible as any alternative to it.
This is already too long, so I’ll only mention one of Mann’s most notable ways of representing that impasse lies in his use of leitmotifs, a nod to Wagner, presumably. Epithets and phrases are attached to characters—most often, used by characters themselves. There’s Morton’s phrase “I’ll just go sit back there on those stones,” his way of acknowledging he is not of Toni’s social class, but a kind of passive-aggressive way of marking his absence. There’s Toni’s term “silly goose,” which she describes herself always as having been.
I’ve a hunch these phrases are linked to another of the novel’s interests: pronunciation. Time and again, we are told how characters pronounce their words and expressions, often as indicators of social class, or provincial origin, or of modishness. Perhaps this interest is related to German unification/nationalism, as the novel is set in the decades when Germany becomes a nation and becomes a little more homogenous. But I’m really not sure what to do with this aspect of the novel. It does strike me, though, that the epithets or leitmotifs imply stasis—as if no one ever changes or learns anything. They project consistent identities. Yet this idea contradicts the theory of change, specifically decline and degeneration.
Maybe this contradiction fits a novel poised between realism, even naturalism, and modernism, which might be the kind of novel I like best. Reading Buddenbrooks I thought a few times of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a book published about ten years later. The description of Thomas and Toni’s mother—lingering, horrifying—reminded me of Gertrude Morel’s. As engaged as I was in Buddenbrooks, though, I think it’s a lesser novel that Sons and Lovers. Lawrence’s breakthrough is messier, no question, and its focus is narrower (in some ways, The Rainbow might be a more apt comparison). But it is consistently more interesting at the level of the sentence. (No slight against the translator, John E. Woods; he’s done fine work, except in turning Bavarian dialect into southern American English, that didn’t work for me.) Mann is more about the big picture, about ideas.
It was that philosophical sweep that captivated me the first time I read the book (in the Lowe-Porter translation). I was only 19 or 20; it was one of the longest, most serious books I’d ever read. I remember loving it, but other than the scene of Thomas’s death I remembered almost nothing about it. Thinking back on it now, though, I believe I was in thrall to the novel’s theories—sensitivity is a sign of degeneration; the failure to work hard and thriftily is a sign of moral failure; such failure will first appear through the body; a weak body is the sign of a weak soul. These beliefs were my family’s, too. Thirty years later, I’m still drawn to these claims, but better able to see what is so damaging about them.
Does the novel see it, though? Even after having spent some happy weeks with it, I can’t tell.
Sightlines is the second collection by the Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie I’ve read recently. Jamie would be an essayist even if she didn’t write essays—she has the temperament. She approvingly cites a friend, an addiction specialist, who tells her his job “isn’t to provide answers, only more questions.” In Sightlines Jamie’s fundamental question, arising again and again in different guises, is, “What is that we’re just not seeing?”
(This particular formulation comes from a fascinating description of what she learns after spending time with pathologists, who share with her the terrible beauty of the tiny pathogens that unwittingly enact such mighty change.)
Asking herself what she might not be seeing allows Jamie to undo some longstanding oppositions. Chief among these are the distinctions between what’s remote and what’s central, and what’s wild and what’s cultivated. Jamie visits St. Kilda, Rona, and various other Shetland and Hebridean specks on the map: like so many others she is drawn to their isolation, but she soon begins to wonder why we don’t think of, say, Central London as isolated and remote. (I’ve often felt that way, coming down from the mountains to Banff, Canmore, and finally Calgary: not returning to civilization but rather leaving something vital behind.) Meditating on the corpse of a storm petrel and the metal birding-ring adorning its leg (the glint of which first caught her eye), Jamie argues that only a naïve belief in “a pristine natural world” would find it intrusive to catch a bird and make it wear such a ring. Instead, the man-made object only illuminates the bird’s startling life:
When I got the chart out, traced the route, measured the distance, and understood that yes, of course, on a southwest bearing, you could swoop via certain channels from the North Sea through to the Atlantic, on small dark wings, it was because this one ringed bird had extended my imagination. The ring showed only that it was wedded to the sea and, if anything, the scale of its journeyings made it seem even wilder than before.
This moment exemplifies the conclusions Jamie comes to on the basis of her attentiveness to detail. In this regard, a sentence from the opening essay is emblematic of Jamie’s method:
Once everyone is settled, the guide makes a suggestion: why don’t we keep silent, just for a few minutes, sit still and keep quiet, just listen?
The guide here has taken a group of travelers onshore in Greenland, but it could refer to Jamie herself. Perhaps what it means to be a guide at all is to be in a position to offer to gift of attention. Jamie differs from the tour guide only in that her preferred mode of paying attention is seeing, not listening. After I finished the collection I started to wonder about its title. What exactly is a sightline? An imaginary line from a person’s eye to an object, apparently, especially from the eye of a theatre spectator to the edge of the stage. But also the line representing the horizon in a perspective drawing. In both definitions seeing is connected to representing, to depicting the given, phenomenal world, to imitating it. I was reminded of an aperçu from an essay on observing a lunar eclipse:
Isn’t that what great paintings tell us? That to take the form of flesh, the form of a body, is difficult, vulnerable, and yet—partly because of that—sweetly enviable.
Notice again the importance of having a sightline, a point of view. How do we learn that being embodied is at once risky and desirable? By turning to art. Not because art is greater than nature, but because both partake of the same essence, which, paradoxically, is changeableness. The moon herself is described as “undergoing some Ovidian metamorphosis,” as if “she were one of those gods who want to stop looking down on us all, and instead participate, at least for a while; who want to taste the mutability of earthly existence.”
Mutability—and its accompanying fragility—is again evident in an amazing little essay called “Magpie Moth,” in which Jamie comes across a moth pinned down by the surface tension of the water of a lochan. Jamie decides to intervene, with mixed results, at least for the moth, but with the reminder, for herself, that even on a barren moor millions of tiny creatures are on about their business: “It’s all happening out there, and all you have to do, girl, is get your foot out of your eye.” “Magpie Moth” is Jamie’s contribution to that small but vital genre, the moth essay. In her decision to free the moth, she alludes to but counters the decisions made by Virginia Woolf and, later, Annie Dillard in essays each titled “The Death of the Moth.” Like these predecessors, Jamie begins from an encounter with this evanescent life form (moths seem, in Woolf’s work in particular, to stand in for the idea of the minimal—the basic threshold of intelligibility). And like them she moves from particular observation to abstract comment. Yet she pulls up short—“get your foot out of your eye”—never taking herself too seriously. I’m tempted to think of this down-to-earth quality as particularly Scottish, but I’ve no idea really.
Yet lightness is important to Jamie. It means more than self-deprecation or modesty or piss-taking. In “La Cueva,” an essay on a visit to a complex of caves in Spain filled with Paleolithic and Neolithic drawings, Jamie is led to think about fundamental human tendencies, as expressed in the way we talk about the cave art: “When we distinguish and segregate, we are serious-minded. When we make connections, when we say look, this is like a dress, like an owl, I am like you—then we laugh.”
(This could be John Berger, though, happily, less solemn.)
To make a connection is to acknowledge transience. In an essay on that topic, written in 1915, Freud, spurred by a memory of a walking excursion with the poet Rilke, broods on how constitutionally unable we are to recognize our mortality. Yet unconsciously we are aware of it, for otherwise we would not take such otherwise perverse pleasure in times of death and suffering. We would not find ourselves so stimulated by circumstances that remind us of our finitude. (Freud wrote the essay as the Great War lurched into its first full year.)
As noted in the essay on the eclipse, mutability is Jamie’s great theme. The landscapes we admire didn’t always look the way they do now: nor will they persist. Even whalebone—the subject of two wonderful essays—is mutable, no matter how carefully preserved. A naturalist friend debunks the idea of natural harmony—catastrophes happen, people, places, species get wiped out. It is fitting that a book most consistently set along windswept coastlines ends by finding consistency in only two things, themselves of course emblematic of ceaseless change: “The wind and the sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone.”
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.
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?
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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
There is nothing more horrible than this: a world elucidated and all that is seen, understood.
So concludes the narrator of Jessie Greengrass’s marvelous novel Sight (2018). Although I’m reluctant to think of novels as having keys—it suggests they’re problems to be solved, secrets to be transgressed—this sentence gets to the heart of the book. I almost wrote, “to the heart of Greengrass’s argument.” For Sight at times masquerades as an essay. At others it’s a compelling example of what people are calling autofiction (at least, I think so: I’m not actually sure what that means). Whatever it is, it’s wonderful. Maybe not to everyone’s taste. (If you want a lot of plot you will not love this book.) But definitely to mine. Reading it, in fact, I often had the rare, even uncanny feeling that the book was written just for me, which made me both eager to plough through it and reluctant to finish. Greengrass’s sentences are often long and always, as the example above suggests, complex. I don’t think it was just because I was squeezing the book into the ends of my mid-semester days that I often found myself going back and re-reading.
Sometimes when reading something I sense I’m the target audience for I get restive and grumpy, frustrated at having been pigeonholed, no matter how accurately. But with Sight I felt the difference between a book written for someone like me and a book actually written for me. Which of course is crazy. But I’m totally taken with the book’s central question: can there be seeing without knowing? The way I usually phrase it is: can there be experience without interpretation? Like Greengrass and the narrator with whom she seems to share so much, I always answer no. But I’m obsessed with what it might mean to answer yes. What is the cost of interpretation, of knowing? We can see what we gain when seeing turns into understanding. (Our very language, which offers seeing as a synonym for understanding, underlies this connection.) But can we see what we lose in that process?
Here I think of the paradox central to the Freudian enterprise. If the unconscious can be made conscious, much of its damaging power might be undone. But when the unconscious becomes conscious it dissipates, and even Freud was clear that we lose something—some energy, some power, some part of us that is larger than us but deeply part of us—in that evanescence. The goal of analysis, for Freud at least, was never just normativity. After all, symptoms aren’t just problems. (Symptom, for Freud, are compromise expressions: versions of unconscious desires that have been distorted enough to be acceptable to the censor of conscience and thus see the light of day: symptoms are things like dreams or slips of the tongue or obsessive behavior or bodily symptoms that have no physiological origin.) Symptoms are also who we are. We need to recognize them as valuable parts of ourselves, even as we work to mitigate their most harmful qualities.All this talk of Freud is relevant to Sight. The narrator, who spends many of her days idly paging through books in the library at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London, weaves scenes from her own life (the death of her mother, childhood vacations with her psychoanalyst grandmother, vacillations over whether to have a child) with scenes from medical history: Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of x-rays; Freud’s analysis of the child of an associate, a four-year-old patient he named Little Hans; and the eighteenth century surgeon John Hunter and his sometime colleague the medical illustrator Jan van Rymsdyk’s fascination with the anatomy of pregnant bodies.
When I compare Greengrass’s use of historical material to that of, say, Pat Barker or Giles Foden (I’m thinking of Toby’s Room and Turbulence), I can’t help but think that there is no point to the latter novels, despite their charms. These historical fictions are ruled by the principle of the info dump, no matter how skillfully applied. Why not, Greengrass’s novel made me wonder, be more honest and use that material the way a good essay might? Why not use the strategies of juxtaposition and reflection to come to a new way of seeing? Greengrass doesn’t try to naturalize her use of the medical material—despite her narrator’s days in the library she’s not trying to write a book about Röntgen, Freud, or Hunter. Instead, she asks us to think about the (oblique) connections between this material and the narrator’s life. For me, these connections center on the role of the unseen and the unspoken in the narrator’s life, her sense of living precariously amidst an incompletely understood past and an unknowable future.Let me close with a couple of examples of the book’s prose. They’re concerned with time as the medium of experience, time as a way to see what—like the bones in the hand made evident by the x-ray, the phobia exposed by the analyst’s question, or the fetus revealed by the scalpel—would otherwise be hidden. A loss of mystery accompanies that endeavor: the hidden alters itself in some fundamental way the very moment it becomes the known. The consolation for that loss, like the song of Orpheus meant to compensate for the loss of Eurydice in the original instance of the treachery of sight, might be Greengrass’s beautiful sentences.
Here’s the narrator remembering the room she would stay in when she visited her grandmother in Hampstead every summer:
Before I was born [the room] had been my mother’s, and the white-painted bookshelf which leaned fifteen degrees west of true was still filled with books which had once been hers. Sometimes, opening them, I would disturb loose sheets of paper that fluttered downwards, drifting to the floor to settle gently amongst the swirling patterns of the rugs, disjointed lists of words, phone numbers or addresses or single pages cut from longer letters, descriptions of nameless places, congratulations on achievements since forgotten. I would pick them up and hold them and, trying to connect their recipient with my mother, so uncompromisingly grown up, so firm and sure, I would catch from the corner of my eye the outline of my own inescapable adulthood flicker against the yellowed walls, a long shadow cast by a low sun.
And here she is, reflecting on Röntgen and his rivals, men who discovered the same phenomenon yet who for reasons of chance have not gone down in history, and resisting the lure of the counter-factual:
To say that something other might have been is not to diminish the value of what was, the marvel of it or its solidity, besides which it is not the fact of Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery which fascinates but rather it is those days and nights through which he worked alone, bringing to this mystery’s unravelling all of his slow, systematic persistence until he possessed not just the sight of something but that extra thing that knowledge, understanding is—not the mere serendipity of discovery but the moment of its tipping into insight which draws our lonely curiosity. We are unsatisfied. Revelation is by definition isolate., it can neither be communicated nor transferred, and trying to comprehend it we feel only the chill of our exclusion.
What a ride that passage takes us on! A brilliant description of creating and discovering, which matters, it seems, only when it becomes something more than itself, something called knowing, is followed by a reversal, in which the narrator, even as she argues for the need to turn seeing into understanding, intimates (in part via that “chill”) how difficult, even unlikely that process is—and, moreover, that it might entail loss as much as gain.
If these passages excite you as much as they do me, you need to read this book. They’re examples of the things I love about Sight: its intelligence, its beautiful language, its seamless blend of essayistic and novelistic. (This might have been the kind of thing Barthes had in mind when he imagined “the novelistic without the novel.”) And, truth be told, the fact that no one seems to know about this book. And yet here I am, giving up another secret. But in this case, the cost of making the unseen seen feels unequivocally worth it.
Several weeks ago now, flush from the success of reading Belly of Paris, Keith and I read the first volume in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), in Brian Nelson’s recent translation. I promised Keith I would write something about the novel, which he could respond to if he wanted. And ever since I’ve been avoiding doing it.
I didn’t dislike Fortune, but I didn’t love it either. Books that leave me ambivalent are the hardest to write about. In fact, the only thing I loved unreservedly about the first novel of Zola’s vast cycle was the family tree at the beginning of the excellent Oxford World’s Classics edition. I appreciated it as a practical feature (an invaluable guide to the novel’s many characters). But I loved it as a spur to daydreaming about future reading. All of those names had at least one, sometimes more novels attached to them! How amazing was that?
Dreaming of the future was, as it so often is, easier than responding to the present. Fortune left me stymied. No part of it grabbed hold of me the way those incredible descriptions of Les Halles did in Belly (or of the department store in Au Bonheur des Dames, which I read many years ago, but still think about regularly, and look forward to revisiting). Worse, the more I procrastinated, the less I remembered about the book. (Its plot is complicated, requiring readers to know something about the origins of the Second Empire with the coup of Louis-Napoléon in 1851. This is an excellent plot summary.) To write this post came to seem ever more daunting.
Then I read one of those interesting pieces at Five Books, this one about the political novel, as chosen by the novelist Joshua Cohen. (His selections are interesting and unexpected.) Cohen makes a helpful distinction:
What I am interested in, when it comes to the politics of the novel, is the revival of that old debate, realism v. naturalism, which I always took to mean the distinction between writing about the-ways-in-which-a-character-experiences-something and writing about the-ways-in-which-a-character-has-been-conditioned-to-experience-something. I find the tension between those two approaches enlivening.
That certainly spoke to the way that I’d been taught to think about naturalism (though I’d never seen its difference from realism explained so clearly before). More to the point, it made me wonder about Fortune. Is it even naturalist? Crazy question, right? After all, Zola introduces not just the novel but also the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle with these now famous paragraphs:
My aim is the explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.
By solving the dual problem of temperament and environment, I shall attempt to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another. When I am in possession of every thread, and hold in my hands an entire social group, I shall describe the behaviour of this group as it plays its part in an historical period; I shall show it in action, with all its varied energies; and I shall analyse the aims and ambitions of its individual members along with the general tendency of the whole.
(An aside: the confidence, not to say bald ambition, of late 19th century writers is breathtaking and in its way quite appealing. Zola’s unabashed statement of the writer-thinker as scientist reminds me of certain tendencies in Freud.)
The Rougon-Macquardts descend from a woman named Adélaide Fouque. Eve, not Adam, or perhaps more accurately Sara, not Abraham, is the progenitor of this people. (Unclear that this makes the family a matriarchy, though.) Adélaide married a man named Rougon; they had a son named Pierre. But suddenly Rougon died. And not long after that, to the scandal of everyone in Plassans (a fictional town in the Var department of Provence, but apparently modeled on the Aix-en-Provence of Zola’s own upbringing), Adélaide took a lover, one Macquart, a poacher, smuggler, alcoholic, and general ne’er-do-well. With Macquart, Adélaide had two more children, Ursule and Antoine.
This family history takes up much of the first third of the novel. By the time of its present-day events—that is, the coup of 1851—Ursule has died. One of her sons, Silvère, is taken in by Adélaide. Silvère, an idealistic young man, spurred to Reublicanism by some half-digested readings of Rousseau, plays an important part in the novel, but in the end he is less important than his uncles, who are engaged in a power struggle between legitimate and illegitimate sons. Pierre Rougon, incensed at the idea of having to share his patrimony with his half-sibling, schemes to deny Antoine not just his share of the inheritance but also any material success from the societal upheaval brought about by the coup.
This scheming is rather convoluted and pretty ironic, inasmuch as much of it works out only by accident, and the parts that come about by design are the brainchild of Pierre’s formidable wife, Félicité. (It’s fascinating to see how this character, introduced as petty and grasping, develops into a formidable and ruthless figure. I wanted more of her.) But regardless of where it comes from and how effective it is, the scheming is still scheming. That is, it’s the result of characters conspiring to do things. And in that sense, it seems contrary to the conditioning vaunted by naturalism.
Because Plassans is so far from Paris, it takes a long time for people to know what’s happening to the government, and to shape their responses accordingly. History, if only in the farcical version proposed by Marx in his famous depiction of Louis-Napoléon’s coup, might be the ultimate driver of events, but Zola never shows us those events directly. We only get rumours and reports, especially from the Rougon’s eldest son, Eugène, who, having trained as a lawyer, lit out for the capital years before and, long having seemed to his family almost totally unaccomplished, now reveals himself as a key mover and shaker in the plot to bring Bonaparte to power. Although we don’t ever see any of that orchestration directly, his reports to his parents about when and how they should act in order to get on the Bonapartist bandwagon early enough to set themselves up for the plum political appointment that is all they want out of life present Eugène as a shadowy mastermind, and his parents, especially his mother, as the initially suspicious but ultimately shocked and grateful beneficiaries of that knowledge.
Why am I going on about this? Because even if Eugène is telling them what to do, Pierre and Félicité still make a lot of decisions, admittedly often in response to events beyond their control. This sort of political action doesn’t seem like the “heredity is destiny” stuff Zola is on about in his preface. To be sure, the novel has its share of such material. The girl Miette, who together with her lover Silvère dies for the failed Republican cause, feels herself to be “living under a curse” because of the actions of her father, a murderer. Similarly, the original Macquart is described as the product of his lifestyle: he has “the furtive, melancholic look of a man of tramp-like instincts, gone to the bad because of wine and the life of an outcast.” Eugène, the Parisian politician, is said to look just like his father but to have the temperament of his mother: “By one of those alleged quirks of nature, of which science is now beginning to discover the laws, if Eugène’s physical resemblance to Pierre was total, Félicité seemed to have provided him with his brains.” But such moments are asserted by the narrator rather than expressed through the text. Most of the novel is instead made up of what Cohen calls realism: ways in which the characters experience something.
There’s nothing wrong with the novel’s surprising realist tendencies, and besides I doubt it’s possible definitely to separate realism from naturalism. But I was a little disappointed by how little the novel emphasized determinism. On reflection, I think that’s not because I think determinism explains the world but because what I like most in Zola is when the naturalist stuff—the ways in which characters are conditioned to experience things—comes out indirectly in the text rather than being baldly asserted by it, as if they were mere instructions for an experiment set by the writer.
Mostly what I missed here in comparison to other Zola novels I’ve read is the weird, fantastical stuff, like those extended descriptions of fruits and vegetables in Belly that seem to wriggle free from their creator’s intentions.
Happily, there are a few such moments here. In his admirable introduction, the translator Nelson gives one: an almost Gothic little scene suggesting Pierre and Félicité will never escape the bloodthirstiness of their actions, no matter how rich it’s made them. Here they are, having consoled each other before bed that their troubles will soon be over and fallen into the sleep of the sanctimonious, watched over only by the reflection of the night lamp:
They kissed each other again and fell asleep. The patch of light on the ceiling now seemed to be assuming the shape of a terrified eye, staring unblinking at the pale slumbering couple, who now reeked of crime under their sheets, and were dreaming that they could see blood raining down in big drops and turning into gold coins as they landed on the floor.
Only the narrator sees the “terrified” eye; the couple sees only the perverse transubstantiation of bloody deeds into filthy lucre. It tells you everything you need to know about them that this vision comes to them in dreams rather than nightmares.
A less sanguinary, more coolly ironic detail is the mirror in the city hall, which is shot to pieces by accident but becomes a synecdoche for the blood-thirstiness of the revolutionaries that the good burghers of Plassans must put down at all costs.
Or how about this description of a creep named Vuillet, a bookseller and newspaper publisher, who for purely pigheaded reasons takes the opposing line to Rougon (but is eventually brought to heel by Félicité). In the tumult of the hour, when it is unclear whether the Republicans will take the town, Vuillet sneaks into the post office and gorges himself on secrets:
Never had Vuillet felt so happy. Since he had been able to slip his little fingers into the mailbag he had tasted the most exquisite pleasures, the pleasures of a prurient priest about to relish the confessions of his penitents. [He’s like someone logging on to Facebook.] All the sly indiscretions, all the vague chatter of sacristies resounded in his ears. He poked his long, pale nose into the letters, gazed amorously at the addresses with his suspicious eyes, felt the envelopes just as young abbes feel the souls of young virgins. He experienced endless enjoyment, he was titillated by endless temptations. The thousand secrets of Plassans lay there. … Vuillet was one of those terribly bitter, cold-blooded gossips who know everything, worm out everything, but never repeat what they know except to deal somebody a mortal blow. He had often longed to plunge his arms into the public letter-box. Since the previous evening the little postmaster’s office had become a big confessional full of shadows and religious mystery, in which he nearly fainted in rapture as he sniffed the letters which exhaled vague longings and trembling confessions.
You can see from the description of Vuillet as molester and the Rougons as murderous profiteers that Zola has no affection for the counter-revolutionaries. But he’s ambivalent about the Republicans, too. Here he is describing their naivety at thinking the rest of the country shares in their ideals:
Intoxicated by their belief in the general insurrection of which they had dreamed, they fancied that France was following their example; they imagined that, on the other side of the Viorne, in that vast ocean of diffuse light, there were endless columns of men rushing like themselves to the defense of the Republic. In their naivety and self-delusion, so characteristic of crowds, their simple minds imagined that victory would be easy.
The only people Zola seems to have any affection for are the young lovers Miette and Silvère; when he makes fun of them it is in a teasing, affectionate, kind-hearted way. Here he is describing their nightly parting in a walled-off patch of waste ground called the Aire Saint-Mittre:
Of all the sounds that reached them only one made them feel uneasy, that of the clocks striking slowly in the darkness. At times, when the hour struck they pretended not to hear, at other moments they stopped short as if in protest. But they could not go on forever giving themselves ten minutes grace, and so the time came when they were at last obliged to say goodnight. They would have played and chattered away until dawn, arm in arm, in order to enjoy that strange feeling of breathless excitement that never failed to surprise them. Then Miette reluctantly climbed up on the wall again. But that was not the end, for they would linger over their leave-taking for a good quarter of an hour. When the girl had climbed up on the wall she remained there with her elbows on the coping and her feet supported by the branches of the mulberry tree which she used as a ladder. Silvère, standing on the tombstone, was able to take her hands again, and continue their whispered conversation. They repeated “See you tomorrow!” a dozen times, and yet still found something more to say.
No matter how sweet this young love, it seems ominous that the site of these assignations—so interestingly described in the first chapter (the best in the book)—is a former graveyard. (There’s a ghoulish description of the way, thirty years before, the bodies were dug up and transported, slowly and in full view of the townspeople, with “fragments of bone and handfuls of black soil” scattered at every jolt of the carts to their resting place in the new cemetery.) At such moments, the novel makes us feel the taint or curse that elsewhere it simply asserts.
Maybe the reason the novel is ultimately always more critical than affectionate is that to be otherwise would get in the way of the attitude it values most of all: dispassionate diagnosis. Pierre and Félicité’s second son, after Eugène, is Pascal, who becomes a doctor. During the insurrection, Pascal treats the wounded, no matter what side they are on. In the aftermath of the fray he runs into his cousin Silvère, whipped up into revolutionary fever:
Pascal listened with a smile, and watched the youth’s features and vigorous facial expressions with great interest, as if he were studying a patient or analyzing a passion, to ascertain what might lie behind this fever of excitement.
The climax of this dispassionateness comes when Pascal observes his dying and now mad grandmother, the family matriarch/progenitor, though here reduced, in his observations, to something like an insect or plant or tree, something to be studied, at any rate:
Pascal looked intently at the madwoman, then at his father and uncle; his professional instincts were getting the better of him; he studied the mother and the sons, with the fascination of a naturalist observing the metamorphosis of an insect. He pondered over the growth of the family, with its different branches springing from one parent stock, whose sap carried the same seeds to the furthest twigs, which bent in different directions according to the ambient sunshine or shade. For a moment he thought he could see, in a flash, the future of the Rougon-Macquart family, a pack of wild, satiated appetites in the midst of a blaze of gold and blood.
Here character merges with author (this passage could have come from Zola’s preface). Zola is less contemptuous than his near-contemporary Flaubert, but I wouldn’t call him warm. I’m curious to read the book about Pascal, to see whether Zola will eventually deign to admire someone unreservedly, and what such admiration would look like, but I gather that’s the last one of the series, so it looks like I’ll be waiting a while.
In sum: If you’re new to Zola, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book. Maybe I should have waited even longer to read it, got a few more of the series under my belt, but I can already tell there’s no perfect place to start with the Rougon-Macquart cycle. You just have to plunge into it, with the understanding that you’ll miss some things at first but knowing that you’ll be able to revisit bits of it in the light of the discoveries to come. Next stop: The Kill.
A quick update to this earlier post about Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second. The other day I read his new book, The Interview. It’s a strange work, not quite as good as the earlier one, perhaps, but still worth reading. Like its predecessor, it’s gorgeously drawn and illustrated, although the strong yet somewhat sickly palette of the previous book is replaced her by a brown-tinted black-and-white (it looks almost sepia, which makes sense inasmuch as the events we are reading about, although set in our future, are in fact in the past of the time of the book’s telling). As befits its title The Interview contains more dialogue than 5,000 but it also has long, striking wordless sections.
The Interview is set in 2048 in a devolved Italy (the specific location is Udine and environs) after some never-explained dramatic political events. Raniero is a psychologist with a failing marriage, a cantankerous and mostly unlikeable friend who despairs about the new world they’re all living in (Fior is very good at unpleasant male characters), and a penchant for old-fashioned gasoline-engine cars. (Pretty much no one drives them anymore and he can only get the gas for them on the black market.) The car is important because the book begins with an accident: driving home late one night, Raniero sees strange triangular flashing lights in the sky and is so compelled by them that he drives into a ditch. But instead of being traumatized by the accident, he’s filled with a strange hilarity.
He’s also concussed, which opens up the possibility that everything that comes after is some kind of hallucination, but the point really seems to be that alternative or deranged mental states are worth paying attention to. Shortly thereafter he begins treating a new patient, Dora, whose parents—like the parents of the Dora in Freud’s pioneering case study—have brought her in for treatment, in this case because of hallucinations. Fior’s Dora claims to have seen aliens and to be able to communicate with them. Dora and Raniero eventually become involved—a terrible ethical violation, as his friend Walter reminds him—which was a state only implied as a fantasy (explicitly on Dora’s part, according to Freud, but surely on his as well) in Freud’s text. But as in Freud’s text, this Dora ends up being the one in control. Although she does not abandon the therapy, peremptorily giving the doctor two weeks notice, like any common servant, the way Freud woundedly realizes his patient has done, this Dora goes on to become the central figure of the book.
Fior’s Dora is a member of the New Convention, a group professing liberation of all sorts, especially sexual, loosely modeled, presumably, on various 60s and 70s counter-cultural movements. (There may be more specific Italian antecedents I’m missing here.) The book gets stranger when it becomes clear that what Dora says is true—there really are aliens, and Raniero can see them too. In fact, before long, everyone can see them. Interestingly, the aliens have nothing to say to humanity: they are meaningless or, perhaps more accurately, beyond our ideas of meaning. Indeed, their function in the book is to precipitate a new world order, in which telepathy amongst people becomes regular and routine. The book never explains how this happens, instead skipping forward in its final pages many years, where we finally get the interview of the title. (Though of course we have seen the initial intake interview between Dora and Raniero earlier on.) Dora, now 130 years old, is interviewed at a university or institute of some kind where she tries to explain to the students states of being that no longer exist, especially the state of being in love. Being in love was a function, she explains, of a world without telepathy, a world in which it was difficult, basically impossible, for one person to understand another, even though people spent their lives trying to do so. The compensation, if that is the right word, for that isolation was love, a mixture of joy and pain that Dora cannot explain to the students.
In the end, The Interview reminds me of 5,000 km per Second in that both are about missed or failed encounters, except that what’s missed here isn’t just an individual relationship, as in the previous book, but of the ability of different generations to understand each other. Although the book implies that humanity is suddenly transformed for the better by the recognition that it isn’t alone in the universe, the ending suggests that the new world that arises after that moment is just as full of incomprehensibility as earlier times. Dora’s experiences as a young person, no matter how radical she felt herself to have been, are as incomprehensible to the youth of the 22nd century as she was to her elders in 2048. I can’t decide what Fior wants us to make of this fact. Should we be consoled that things never change, and yet that we bumble on just the same? Should we despair that the same problems keep coming up?
The Interview is a puzzling, stimulating, moving, and visually beautiful book of interest even to those readers who don’t think comics or science fiction are their thing. Jamie Richards translated it, a fact I am glad to see the publishers have acknowledged a bit more prominently than last time. Maybe next time on the cover?
My (very slow) journey through the complete works of Wilkie Collins continued this weekend with The Dead Secret (1857). This was Collins’s fourth published novel, the one right before he hit the big time with The Woman in White. It’s really quite good, absolutely enjoyable if a bit soppy at times and a little baggy. But there are a number of wonderful characters and some genuinely creepy and atmospheric scenes.
In his preface to the one-volume edition of 1861, Collins describes the phrase of his title as if it were a familiar idiom (he mentions it couldn’t be translated into French). I’d never heard the phrase “a dead secret” before, but apparently it means an “absolute secret, not to be revealed under any circumstances.” In this sense, Collins’s title is ironic, since the secret the story revolves around is supposed to be revealed in the first chapter—and it sort of is, though not conclusively enough for readers, or at least this one, to be sure what it is—but the person who is supposed to reveal it chooses not to.
As I observed recently in regards to The Law and the Lady, Collins here too anticipates Freud’s belief that “no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips.” Collins is fascinated by the idea that whatever is buried will eventually come to light. The Dead Secret begins with the maid Sarah Leeson attending the deathbed of her mistress, Mrs. Treverton, in a remote and falling down Cornish mansion called Porthgenna. Mrs. Treverton writes a letter to husband revealing a secret only she and her maid have known about until now, and just before she breathes her last she is on the point of making Sarah swear that she will pass the letter to Captain Treverton. Instead Sarah—whose hair is shockingly gray even though she is still a young woman, a sign of some terrible thing in her past—hides the letter in a locked room in the disused wing of the house and runs away from the Captain and his five-year-old daughter.
We pick up events fifteen years later when that little girl, Rosamond Treverton, marries a young man, Leonard Frankland. Frankland is blind, blindness being a motif, I gather, that reappears in later works, and of course fittingly literalizes the figurative state of most of Collins’s characters. Collins uses Leonard’s blindness as a way to mediate the telling of the story even in the midst of the action. In this sense it seems an even more sophisticated version of his preference for shifts from third or first person narration to epistolary, or amongst various narrators or between various interpolated texts. These shifts emphasize the telling of the story over the events that are told. So for example Rosamond must describe everything she is doing to Leonard, especially once they find themselves caught up in trying to find the mysterious letter in a place Leonard has never been. This has the effect of slowing down the action while also ratcheting up the suspense, even in instances where there shouldn’t be any. We know where the letter is hidden, after all.
Although the mystery—which concerns them more than anyone—couldn’t be solved without them, Rosamond and Leonard are the book’s least interesting characters. The most interesting is Sarah—certainly she gets the most extraordinary scenes. She’s not really the heroine—the book’s attention is too diffuse, too decentralized among so many characters to have a heroine, and besides it’s unclear for the longest time whether or not we’re even supposed to like her: she’s continually rubbing other characters the wrong way—but she is at the heart of its enigma. Collins loves disguises, and in the scenes that most stuck with me Sarah hides her identity without actually lying about who she is. In the first, under the name Mrs. Jazeph, she becomes the nurse to Rosamond when the latter’s journey back to Cornwall is interrupted by the early arrival of her first child. The nurse, who has been nervous and flighty all evening, keeping herself at an unnatural distance which makes her charge increasingly uneasy, finally approaches Rosamond—but now she comes too close:
[T]he nurse was stopping midway between the part of the room from which she had advanced , and the bedside. There was nothing wild or angry in her look. The agitation which her face expressed, was the agitation of perplexity and alarm. She stood rapidly clasping an unclasping her hands, the image of bewilderment and distress—stood so for nearly a minute—then came forward a few steps more, and said inquiringly, in a whisper: —
‘Not asleep? Not quite asleep, yet?’
Rosamond tried to speak in answer, but the quick beating of her heart seemed to rise up to her very lips, and to stifle the words on them.
The nurse came on, still with the same perplexity and distress in her face, to within a foot of the bedside—knelt down by the pillow, and looked earnestly at Rosamond—shuddered a little, and glanced all around her, as if to make sure the room was empty—bent forward—hesitated—bent nearer, and whispered into her ear these words: —
‘When you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room!’
The hot breath of the woman, as she spoke, beat on Rosamond’s cheek, and seemed to fly in one fever-throb through every vein of her body.
The creepiest part of this passage is the qualifying clause “as she spoke,” which seems initially redundant—did we think the breath came from anywhere else?—but which in the end focuses our attention on the almost animalistic quality of Sarah. Similarly disquieting is the ambiguous pronoun at the end, which makes it hard to distinguish Sarah from Rosamond. (Shrewd readers will guess already that this suggestion of symbiosis is fitting.)
The scene could easily have been risible—and depending on your appetite for sensation fiction maybe it is—if it weren’t so true to the proto-Freudian theory of the unconscious (later Sarah will marvel that she said the last thing she wanted to say, or at least the last thing she thought she wanted to say) and so well executed.
Similarly dramatic is the second scene with Sarah that impressed itself on me. Sarah and her uncle Joseph (more about him in a second) rush to Porthgenna in advance of Rosamond and Leonard and brazen their way into the house, but Sarah is unable to retrieve the secret letter because she is overwhelmed on the threshold of the nfamous Myrtle Room by guilt and anxiety and maybe a genuine ghost. I’m too pressed for time to cite the passage: suffice it to say Sarah confuses the flapping of loose wallpaper with the admonitions of her late mistress and collapses in a dead swoon. Collins shows his genius in making us feel anxious and upset even though we know the (ostensible) cause of the disturbing noises. You can see Collins figuring out how to unsettle readers, and two years later he’ll write a masterpiece in which the kind of scenes I’m talking about here, which here are scattered across the book, will be much more prominent.
But The Dead Secret isn’t just apprentice work. I was disappointed by Ira Nadel’s introduction to the Oxford edition (unusual for that estimable line). Nadel meanders through the novel’s motifs, content simply to point out similar instances in other books by Collins. He never tries to interpret this book on its own merits. I was especially let down because the blurb tells me Nadel is the author of a book called Joyce and the Jews. And my pet theory about this book is that Sarah’s uncle, Joseph Buschmann, is in fact Jewish. Collins never says so, and he never resorts to the typology of this and other periods (hooked nose, swarthy, lecherous, usurious, etc) that would telegraph to readers, even unconsciously, a character’s Jewishness. We do know that Joseph is German, though he proudly asserts that he is also a citizen of England. We know he loves music—his prized possession is a music box given to his elder brother by Mozart himself: this automaton is just part and parcel of the book’s fascination with the uncanny, the Gothic, etc. We know he’s not quite five feet tall. He’s endearing in his insistent guilelessness, and kind and loving to Sarah despite all her troubles. Basically he’s a total mensch and I really wanted him to be Jewish not just because he was my favourite but because he is so determinedly not characterized by negative stereotypes. But being musical and short and kind and a little schmaltzy isn’t enough to make someone Jewish—though it’s a pretty good start.
Can anyone who’s read this book help me out here, and support this fancy of mine?
Either way, The Dead Secret doesn’t deserve to be one. A great book for your vacation reading.
In A God in Ruins Kate Atkinson returns to some of the characters she wrote about in Life after Life (2013). That novel focused on Ursula Todd, who died many deaths navigating the perils of the twentieth century. I had reservations about the book, but I liked the way it valued sibling relationships over romantic ones. When I heard that Atkinson would be revisiting the Todd family, focusing this time on a younger brother, Teddy, I found myself looking forward to the book with an enthusiasm that surprised me. Recently I spent a weekend with it, engrossed happily enough, but already the book is fading for me, and I’m doubtful it will linger for me the way its successor did.
The great event in Teddy’s life, as for so many fictional characters and, who knows, maybe even real people, was WWII. He served as a bomber pilot, leading risky raids in his rickety Halifax bomber over Germany. Bombers were at constant risk—from anti-aircraft fire, from German fighter pilots, from the dangers of flying itself (taking off and landing were as dangerous as flying over Berlin). Teddy, bored stiff by his prewar job in a bank, comes alive in the air force. He loves the camaraderie, the white-knuckle combination of luck and skill needed to fly a plane, and most of all the terrible danger. Teddy is shot down twice: the first over the Channel, forcing a harrowing water landing and several terrifying days adrift in a life raft, and the second over enemy territory, which leads to his internment in a German POW camp (interestingly, the latter is only alluded to, not shown).
After the war, Teddy works at various provincial newspapers, marries his childhood sweetheart (who had at least as interesting a war as he did, as a code breaker at Bletchley Park), becomes an avid gardener, suffers the loss of his wife to brain cancer, and raises an increasingly difficult daughter with whom he is never quite reconciled but whose children he becomes close to. He has a good life, though maybe not a good death—at the end he is a centenarian who has lingered in a kind of half-life in a depressing nursing home. Atkinson never says so, but I think we’re to wonder if it hadn’t been better for him to die in the war. Teddy’s grandson overcomes a rough childhood to become a Buddhist-inspired guru of sorts. Perhaps this development is the novel’s way of insisting we must accept whatever happens to us, a New Age version of the English stiff upper lip. And yet even though the book is at pains not to glorify war, I think it can’t help but being in thrall to that time in British life.
The novel’s interest in the relationship of past to present isn’t only historical or political. It’s also narratological. The TLS review suggested that, unlike Life after Life, A God in Ruins is concerned with character rather than narrative structure. I don’t think that’s right. But I don’t think its narrative experiments are always successful. For example, the book is filled with flash-forwards that reveal almost as an aside the inevitably terrible fate of a minor character. Take the case of Julia, a peer’s daughter serving in the women’s auxiliary with whom Teddy has a brief but intense affair. Teddy arrives at their rendezvous to find only a scribbled note thanking him for everything. The narrator continues:
Not long afterwards Julia was posted to an Army ordinance base and was one of seventeen people who were killed when a bomb dump accidentally exploded. Teddy was already in the POW camp by then and didn’t find out about the incident until years later when he read about her father’s death in his own newspaper (‘Peer in sex scandal falls to death’).
Other writers have used this technique to marvelous effect, notably Proust, and, more pertinently to Atkinson’s literary lineage, Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room and Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Atkinson’s glimpses into the future are much more heavy-handed than these other writers. After the paragraph quoted above, we are returned to the present in the most obvious way possible: “But all that was in the future.” Admittedly, the narration here is attached to Teddy’s consciousness, and he’s offered to us as a bit pedantic and dutiful, though all the more loveable for that conscientiousness. Which means that leaden transition could be Teddy’s own. But on other occasions the narrative asides are more obviously the narrator’s, even when expressed by a character. Ursula has a friend in the Air Ministry whose sole function is to provide the novel with war statistics, especially about the long odds that a bomber pilot would survive the war. The joke’s on her, as we learn during one of Teddy’s sorties. His rear-gunner has just seen a spectacular sunset:
As a rear-gunner, Kenny was the least likely of all of them to live to see a sunset in peacetime. Only a one-in-four chance of staying alive until then, Ursula’s girl said. In the end, of course, it was the girl from the Air Ministry who was living without a future, killed by the Aldwych V-1 rocket in June of ’44. She had been on the roof of Adastral House, where the Air Ministry was housed, sunbathing whilst eating her lunchtime sandwiches. (What were the odds against that, Teddy wondered?)
Serves her right for daring to disparage the fortunes of the protagonists of this book! That parenthesis is clumsy—it makes no sense either logically or narratively. When is Teddy thinking this? Certainly not in the plane over the North Sea. (He doesn’t yet know she’ll die this way.) At some later time? But there’s been no acknowledgement that we’ve left that moment in the skies, except perhaps that “of course” which might be taken as an indication of retrospective tsk-tsking: the irony of that girl with her grim statistics being the one who kicked off… and in such unproductive, hedonistic fashion (sunbathing!). Keep calm and carry on, indeed.
These narrative infelicities aside, though, the scenes in the bombers are terrific: vivid and exciting, filled with enough historical and cultural details that we understand what risks those young men ran and what they were asked to accomplish. But when Atkinson gets philosophic about the results of the bombing war—specifically, the firestorms that incinerated German cities, deliberately targeting civilians—her heavy hand returns. The culmination is a scene between Teddy and Ursula at a wartime concert of Beethoven’s Ninth where she asks him how he can justify bombing those civilians. Against the obstreperous backdrop of the Ode to Joy, the siblings discuss man’s inhumanity to man:
‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder,’ Ursual said. ‘Do you think it’s possible? One day? That all men could be brothers one day? People—by which I largely mean men—have been killing each other since time began. Since Cain threw a rock at Abel’s head or whatever it was he did to him.’
‘I don’t think the Bible’s that specific,’ Teddy said.
‘We have terrifically tribal instincts,’ Ursula said. ‘We’re all primitives underneath, that’s why we had to invent God, to be the voice of our conscience, or we would be killing each other left, right and center.’
In a scene we don’t see, Ursula returns to her rooms to continue reading Freud’s Totem and Taboo… Look, D. H. Lawrence is my favourite writer—I don’t mind a philosophical debate/disquisition in the middle of a novel. But this one is so pat: it considers whether German civilians are really civilians, whether they’re not also the enemy, culpable by association; it adds that awkward parenthetical about male aggression. The implied argument of A God in Ruins is that everything in Britain went downhill after the war, that nothing afterwards could ever do justice to its excitement and moral urgency. Indeed, war is exciting. As Freud put it in “Thoughts for the Time on War and Death,” written six months after the start of WWI, nothing quickens our appreciation for life than the imminent risk that it will be taken away. My sense is that in including set-pieces like this one between the Todd siblings Atkinson wants to question or qualify her own thesis about the terrible beauty of war. But its hastiness and triteness works against that aim. The moment feels dutiful, the prose especially lax. Only when Teddy is in the air does it come to life. In the end, then, the book feels like a hymn to the Greatest Generation, as evidenced by the number of times characters wonder how the cosseted and ineffectual postwar generations would cope in extremis, as if everyday life at any time didn’t offer up all sorts of emotionally rich, vital, and meaningful situations every day.
In the end, then, I hold two things against A God in Ruins. First, its self-congratulation about the seriousness of the enterprise of documenting twentieth century history, which comes across most fully in those heavy-handed exchanges between Ursula and Teddy about the possibility of a just war, a self-congratulation that folds into a conservative narrative about Britain’s decline. Second, the flatness of Atkinson’s prose, which holds no surprises, offers no resistance to easy digestion. It’s so inoffensive, so unlike the English fiction of the period it’s fascinated by (Bowen, Green, Lehmann, Taylor, etc). I can’t tell what’s more dispiriting: the vision of Atkinson writing a novel dedicated to each of the Todd siblings (even the eldest, the insufferable prig Maurice, might eventually get redeemed), or the vision of myself despite everything reading them all.
The critical consensus is that Collins’s great period is 1860-68, when he produced the four masterpieces Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone. A couple of summers ago I devoured the first three, and loved them all, especially No Name, which I think about often. I was fortunate enough to have read the fourth in college under the expert guidance of Rohan, but I think it’s time to read it again.
At any rate, for once, the critical consensus seems to be right, at least judging from this later work. The Law and the Lady is very good but not quite top-shelf Collins. It hasn’t the seat-of-your-pants excitement of his best work, but it’s perfectly enjoyable and spry enough to keep readers guessing. Plus if you’ve any interest in Freud, you will enjoy the novel’s uncanny prefiguring of the theory of the unconscious.
The book opens with Valeria Brinton having just become Valeria Woodville—except that in a slip of the pen (paging Dr. Freud…) she signs her maiden name. The mistake isn’t just an indication of Valeria’s independent mindedness, although that will be amply demonstrated in the book’s events. It’s also an unconscious recognition that something isn’t right about the name she’s taking on.
It isn’t long before Valeria learns that her husband’s name isn’t Woodville. Her husband implores her not to look into the matter further. But that’s just what she does. Could we possibly be interested in a book about any woman who wouldn’t have? Before long she learns that her husband, whose real name is Macallan, was tried in Scotland for poisoning his wife. The Scottish part matters because Scots’ law apparently still to this today allows a verdict of Not Proven, which is somewhere between acquittal and guilt. The accused is free to go, but not free of suspicion or innuendo. Insisting that no one, not even his wife, could believe entirely in his innocence, Macallan leaves for the Continent. Yet Valeria is undaunted by this dereliction and sets out to prove Macallan wrong by proving him blameless
Valeria’s first step is to read the trial proceedings. Collins first published his works in serial form, and like other writers of the period, most notably his friend Dickens, he was a genius with suspenseful chapter endings. Here for example is Valeria launching her career as detective:
I drew down the blind, and lit the candles. In the quiet night—alone and unaided—I took my first step on the toilsome and terrible journey that lay before me. From the title-page to the end, without stopping to rest, and without missing a word, I read the Trial of my husband for the murder of his wife.
After a paragraph like that, who’s not going to turn the page/buy the next installment/watch the next episode? Indeed, Valeria’s description of her reading experience—at once breathless and assiduous—is a good description of our own. But although she might have taken her first step unaided, she gets a lot of help the rest of the way. A friend of her husband’s, Major Fitz-David, an aging ladies’ man, introduces her to some of the people who testified at the trial. Her late father’s law clerk, Mr. Benjamin, together with a Mr. Playfair, the lawyer who represented Eustace at trial, support her inquiries and eventually uncover the crucial piece of evidence. And even her new mother-in-law, who at first refuses to speak to her, begrudgingly comes to her side, even though she insists to the end that Valeria must not tell Eustace what she has found.
It is true, though, that Valeria is the force that keeps the investigation going, even when it seems to flag and even when she has to leave England to nurse Eustace back to health. He lies unconscious for weeks after having been wounded in Spain (for the life of me I can’t remember why he went there or what the fighting was about—I can’t seem to find it by flipping though the book, either). His actions exemplify his character: he’s supposed to be gallant but he’s always making a mess of things—indeed, we learn that the same ambivalent mixture of righteousness and weakness characterized his relationship with his first wife, Sarah, whom he married because he felt sorry for her. (We’re supposed to think her nasty and shrewish, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her. Collins could have done a lot more with Valeria’s feelings about her predecessor—the way Du Maurier did so successfully in Rebecca.) The vacillation and general pain-in-the-assedness of Eustace’s character is a weakness in a novel that depends on Valeria’s profound belief in him. Any time Valeria seems to question her motives—to wonder what it means that she’s undertaking all this effort and risk for someone who has treated her so badly, or to acknowledge that what really thrills her is the investigation itself more so than the eventual exoneration of her husband—she pulls back. I don’t see much evidence that Collins wants us to do anything but take her at her word.
At times, the book gets distracted from its protagonist and her husband. In those other books by Collins I admired his unusual narrative structures—his shifts in points of view or in media (from third person narration to letters, for example) all within a single book. That play with structure doesn’t work as well here. The trial, for example, is presented to us indirectly, through the report Valeria finds. But the book chooses to summarize it rather than transcribing it as a “found text”, presumably because that would be more interesting than a lengthy legal document, but the result is just the opposite: all the momentum the book had built up gets killed and it takes a while to recover. Similarly, a lot of the detective work is done by Playfair and Benjamin, but we hear about it through their letters to her instead of seeing it first hand.
But the real distraction doesn’t lie in the narration—it comes from the introduction of the character Misserimus Dexter, an old friend of Eustace’s and a house guest at the time of Sarah’s death. Dexter is supposed to be a menacing yet magnetic character of the kind that appears elsewhere in Collins—Count Fosco of The Woman in White might be the best example. But where Fosco genuinely is magnetic Dexter is more irritating. We hear a lot about his eccentricity, his genius, his mania. He lives in an isolated half-lavish, half-dilapidated mansion with a cousin who herself is a grotesque figure, a lumpen simpleton who is nonetheless devoted to him and, come to think of it, in this regard acts as a mirror for Valeria’s relation to Eustace. Dexter is a dandy, an elegant and beautiful man despite what the novel calls his “deformity”: he is a paraplegic who is mostly confined to a wheelchair except in some dramatic moments that Collins clearly relishes when he slips its chains and propels himself along by only the force of his arms. Valeria coaxes from Dexter his memory of the events around Sarah’s death—yet in doing so brings him closer and closer to madness until, having mentioned a letter written by Sarah on the day she died, a letter that promises to clear up the circumstances behind her death, he lapses completely into insanity.
The last part of the book concerns the search for this letter, which, we learn, is a suicide note from Sarah to Eustace that fully exonerates him. (That isn’t much of a spoiler, since we’re led to believe from pretty early on that Eustace didn’t do it. But this is a spoiler: Sarah kills herself by taking arsenic she had had Eustace purchase because she is convinced that in small doses it could remedy the kind of skin conditions that disfigure her—and she does so because Dexter, who had loved her before her marriage and is still furious that she rejected his proposal, shows her Eustace’s diary, in which he laments having married her and complains of her incessant wheedling and general poor character.) The letter leads us to the best part of the book: its fascination with the permanence of objects, especially those we think to be junk.
That fascination is already evident when Valeria first visits Dexter at what her mother-in-law satirically calls his palace:
We had got out of the carriage, and we were standing on a rough half-made gravel path. Right and left of me, in the dim light, I saw the half-completed foundations of new houses in their first stage of existence. Boards and bricks were scattered about us. At places, gaunt scaffolding-poles rose like the branchless trees of the brick-desert. Behind us, on the other side of the high road, stretched another plot of waste ground, as yet not built on. Over the surface of this second desert, the ghastly white figures of vagrant ducks gleamed at intervals in the mystic light. In front of us, at a distance of two hundred yards or so, as well as I could calculate, rose a black mass which gradually resolved itself, as my eyes became accustomed to the twilight, into a long, low, and ancient house, with a hedge of evergreens and a pitch-black paling in front of it. The footman led way towards the paling, through the boards and the bricks, the oyster-shells and the broken crockery, that strewed the ground.
I’m intrigued by the bathos of this would-be Gothic scene (the ancient house amidst abandoned construction sites: it’s unclear whether the new will even have the vigor needed to replace the old). It reminds me of something from Dickens, maybe Our Mutual Friend, probably because of all the waste, the oyster-shells and broken crockery (where’s that come from?). Waste is central to the resolution of the plot. Before being called to her husband’s bedside in Spain, Valeria visits his former country house, the place where Sarah died. Wandering the “wilderness of weeds” that is the garden of the shut-up house, something catches her eye:
Beyond the far end of the garden, divided from it by a low paling of wood [Collins will never say “fence” when he can say “paling”—though admittedly it has that fitting resonance of shock and suspense—turning pale, etc—though maybe I’m doing him an injustice and “fence” is just an Americanism], there stretched a piece of waste ground, sheltered on three sides by trees. In one lost corner of the ground, an object, common enough elsewhere, attracted my attention here. The object was a dust-heap. The great size of it, and the curious situation in which it was placed, roused a moment’s languid curiosity in me. I stopped, and looked at the dust and ashes, at the broken crockery and the old iron. Here, there was a torn hat; and there, some fragments of rotten old boots; and, scattered around, a small attendant litter of waste paper and frowsy rags.
Litter here of course means trash, but the word can also refer to a vehicle, and in The Law and the Lady this trash becomes the vehicle for Eustace’s exoneration and Valeria’s triumph. Biggest spoiler alert of all: the torn pieces of Sarah’s letter are exhumed from this pile and pieced together forensically. There’s nothing frowsy about this waste after all!
Here’s where the novel got spooky for me. For these descriptions of waste, on top of or beside which life goes on, and which never fully decay, reminded me uncannily of Freud’s descriptions of the unconscious. Already in “The Aetiology of Hysteria” from 1896 Freud compared the analyst to an explorer who excavates a ruined site and is able to uncover from its remains whole vanished way of life. He never wavered from the image of the unconscious as a wellspring to be excavated (lest its unhealthy manifestations—its symptoms—continue to debilitate the patient) but towards the end of his career he modified the image. In the great Civilization and its Discontents (which could be the motto for Gothic and Sensation fiction) from 1930, for example, he returns to the image of the mind as a ruined city, even the Eternal City, Rome, yet admits that the image doesn’t quite work because unlike in Rome, where the present day covers up the past, so that only hints of its past strata are apparent, in the mind nothing ever goes away. If we wanted to think of the unconscious as a city, we would need to conceive of every era of its history as coexisting so that we would, for example, need to imagine new buildings superimposed over the old ones they replaced.
In The Law and the Lady the future is only possible because the past persists. But what would that mean for a crime novel? Can we speak of solving a crime when any resolution comes from the fact that nothing is ever settled? What else from the past might surface to trouble this marriage that seems now to have been saved? Interestingly, Eustace elects not to learn what his first wife wrote in the letter, preferring only to know that it is enough to absolve him of blame. The novel’s resolution is thus appropriately qualified, and Collins gives us a powerful image of that uncertainty in the envelope containing Sarah’s letter, which Eustace elects to save for his soon-to-be-born child. That’s a potentially explosive inheritance, maybe not quite the bombshell that Pinkie leaves his progeny at the end of Greene’s Brighton Rock (which I read as a modernist Gothic/Sensation novel), but pretty strong stuff nonetheless.
It must be significant, too, that this all takes place in Scotland, one of those Gaelic Gothic dark undersides to English modernity—right after the passage I quoted in which the dust-heap makes its first appearance, Playfair ruefully says to Valeria that something like that wouldn’t be tolerated in the grounds of an English house—though of course the passage describing Dexter’s wasteland “palace” suggests he’s not entirely right.
At any rate, it’s that ending that makes me think The Law and the Lady is more than merely competent and engaging. The whole time I wanted Collins to leave us in doubt as to Eustace’s innocence, the way Du Maurier or Patricia Highsmith would have. Making Valeria protect a murderer would just be more interesting, though perhaps more sadistic. But in the end there’s enough unsettling about The Law and the Lady to make it a fitting depiction of the past’s similarly unsettling refusal to go away.