Magical Thinking: L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between

I reckon I’ve had The Go-Between on my shelves for more than 20 years. Jacqui’s enthusiastic and thoughtful review finally spurred me to read it. (That plus I’ve taken a doubtless-brief-but-nonetheless-well-intentioned pledge to read books I already own rather than buy new ones.)

I can’t imagine matching Jacqui’s summary of the novel, so I direct you there for more details. I’ll just give a brief synopsis here. Leo Colston is a man in his middle sixties who, when the novel begins, finds a trunk full of old papers, including his diary from the year 1900.

As he remembers the dramatic events of that year—events we’re told have marked him forever, somehow left him unfit to participate in life—he tells us about his school days where he was first bullied and then later respected based on a strange incident I’ll say more about in a minute. When the school is suddenly closed for the year because of a measles outbreak, the almost-thirteen-year-old Leo is invited by his friend Marcus Maudsley to spend the summer at his family’s estate in Norfolk. The Maudsleys are richer than Leo and his widowed mother and he feels ill at ease and awkward in their home, not least because he has no proper summer clothes and the weather turns hotter than anyone can remember. Maudsley’s sister Marian (I think she’s about 19 or so) takes pity on Leo, buys him a new summer suit, and then, either as a result of a premeditated plan or, more likely, a readiness to seize the situation, for she knows Leo is ready to do anything for her, entices him into carrying secret letters to Ted Burgess, the hunky tenant farmer. Readers know long before Leo does that Marian and Ted are lovers; Leo is shocked when he finds out, not only because of the class difference, but also because she is engaged to be married to Viscount Trimingham, a fatally decent man who has been badly wounded in the Boer War.

(If the book sounds a bit melodramatic when I summarize it this way, I think I’m doing it justice.)

Anyway, Leo doesn’t want to be the lovers’ go-between anymore but Marian has ways of convincing him, ways just slightly more pleasant than those used by her rather demonic mother, the lady of the house, Mrs. Maudsley, who forces the presumably unwitting Leo to reveal the affair. Things end pretty badly, though most of the drama happens off-stage. What’s really bad, it seems, is the hold the whole situation has had on Leo, as we see in a coda in which the now elderly Leo continues to be manipulated by a very old Marian all these years later.

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I read an old Penguin 20th Century Classics edition of the book, but in the US the book is published by New York Review Classics. Their edition has an excellent introduction by the Irish novelist and critic Colm Tóibín. Tóibín offers some background on Hartley, whose solicitor father made a fortune in the brick trade, moving the family up from the middle class. Hartley seems to have felt uncomfortable in the new world in which he moved (Harrow and then Oxford). Rather than rebelling against it, Hartley sought to become more a part of the establishment, trading the Methodism of his childhood for the Church of England, for example. In this regard, he seems rather like his protagonist Leo. Although it wasn’t much of a secret that Hartley was gay, there seems to have been something of the closet about him, a desire to blend in, but more to efface than to protect his difference.

Hartley doesn’t seem to have been much liked by the literary world. In 1923 Virginia Woolf recorded meeting “a dull fat man named Hartley” while visiting the socialite and patron of the arts Ottoline Morrell. One of the Sitwells called him “Bore Hartley.” I confess these descriptions make me more not less sympathetic to him, though Tóibín reports him as becoming increasingly conservative as he aged and always quarrelsome with servants (who certainly appear in a dim light in The Go-Between). I wonder, has anyone written his biography?

Tóibín’s most interesting point is that the novel isn’t really about either the foreignness or the persistence of the past—lots of people who have never read this novel know its first line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”—but rather about Leo’s self-division. He dislikes, even condemns Marian and Ted, yet he’s helplessly drawn towards them. Hartley professed to be surprised and dismayed when readers sympathized with the lovers. If that’s true, it’s a remarkable lack of insight that proves writers aren’t always good readers of their own work. Tóibín interestingly links Hartley to writers like D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster (all these sets of initials, aren’t their real names good enough for them?), other writers of the period who extolled the value of the senses in hide-bound English society.

I’m not really buying this comparison, because I don’t think Forster and Lawrence have much in common. Hartley is like Forester, I grant, in that both are writers who are at best ambivalent about the power of sensuality. Lawrence, by contrast, had no ambivalence there. Where the Hartley – Forster comparison comes up short, in my opinion, is in their differing use of narrative voice. Forester never wrote in first person, as far as I know; he certainly wasn’t compelled to trace the modulations of a distinctive first-person narrative voice the way Hartley does here. Forster’s concern with the unreliability of perception attaches itself to skepticism about third-person omniscience.

No, the writer Hartley really reminded me of is Kazuo Ishiguro. Now that I think of it, I rarely hear critics placing Ishiguro in any kind of literary tradition or continuum. (Not that I know the Ishiguro criticism particularly well; correct me if I’m wrong.) If anything he’s discussed as part of that flowering of new English writing in the 1980s, the Granta writers, the young Turks who are now the old guard of English literature (Rushdie, Amis, Graham Swift, Jeanette Winterson, McEwan, etc). Hartley seems like an important model and precursor for Ishiguro, although I think Ishiguro is more sophisticated in his use of unreliability, more unreliably unreliable if I could put it that way, and a better writer all around. But I’ve only read one novel by Hartley, and most of Ishiguro’s, so I ought to read more of the former to be sure. Looking around my shelves, I find I’ve got six other Hartley novels lying around—he’s apparently one of those writers I’m highly invested in even though I hardly know anything about them—so I certainly could find out.

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I just want to say two other things about The Go-Between:

I couldn’t decide how clueless Leo is supposed to be. Or, rather, I couldn’t quite decide whether the events of that summer are supposed to be told by Leo at the time or by Leo in retrospect. Sometimes we are clearly dealing with a child’s voice:

She was silent and I felt for the first time that she was unhappy. This was a revelation to me. I knew that grown-up people were unhappy—when a relation died, for instance, or went bankrupt. At such times they were sure to be unhappy: they had no option: it was the rule, like mourning after a death, like a black margin around the writer paper. (My mother still used it for my father.) They were unhappy to order. But that they should be unhappy in the way that I was sometimes, because something in my private life, to which perhaps I couldn’t give a name, had gone wrong—that hadn’t occurred to me.

Here we’re in that Jamesian world of innocence ruined, though James famously set himself tougher challenges than writing about a teenager, as when he sought to narrate from a child’s perception though not in a child’s language in his novel about a five-year-old buffeted by a nasty divorce, the magisterial What Maisie Knew. Plus, the parenthetical sentence could only be narrated within the present of the narrated events.

But at other times it’s harder to pin down the voice. Here the narrator has accompanied the family and the other house guests to church:

Again Lord Trimingham was the last to leave. I thought Marian would wait for him, but she didn’t, so I did. Most of my shyness with him had worn off, and I was disposed to think that everything I did or said became me. But I did not want to broach at once the subject that was uppermost in my mind.

I was disposed to think that everything I did or said became me. By this point in the novel, Leo has had two great successes. He’s made a splendid catch in an important cricket match and then sung two songs to great success at the party afterwards. And he’s meditated a lot on how extraordinary the attention made him feel, and how uncomfortable too. But that complex and complexly phrased sentiment, of being disposed to think one’s words and actions become one, with its quality of self-deprecation and irony that undermines the ostensible meaning of the words—that seems an attitude that only the older Leo, looking back on himself, would be in a position to note. And yet the story really only works if the older Leo is kept in abeyance. If retrospection governed the narrative too completely there would be no suspense, and our sense of how children and adults can work at cross-purposes, in which ignorance tragically shades into malevolence, would be much reduced.

One way to read the end of the book is that it shows Leo never really learns anything, but that would challenge even further the sense that the older man can make sense of his younger self. Perhaps it is just this uncertainty—that the older man thinks he knows more than the younger, yet proves to be just as or maybe even more clueless—is what Hartley wants to get at in a passage like the one I’ve cited. That would be pretty sophisticated; I suppose I wasn’t convinced that novel is quite that sophisticated, but maybe I’m under-selling it. (And it’s an awfully good book, don’t get me wrong.)

So that’s one thing. The other is about the supernatural. Young Leo, we learn, is fascinated by the zodiac and by the idea that events can be determined by spells. The way he moves from being bullied to being respected at school is that he puts a curse on two boys who have been tormenting him; soon afterwards they fall off the roof during a nighttime escapade and hurt themselves badly. When word of the spell gets around—I can’t remember if Leo puts it out himself or if it’s found out in some other way—Leo’s stock rises dramatically and he is soon being asked by his classmates to create imprecations and spells to order. Towards the end of the book he again has recourse to magic and again succeeds, though less clearly than the first time.

What is this material doing in this book? My sense is that the general way this book gets talked about (hot summer, lost innocence, boy becoming man, elegy for forgotten way of life) ignores this supernatural material. But it’s pretty important to the book; we hear a lot about it, especially in the first quarter or so. These weren’t the most evocative bits of the book, by any means (that would be the languorous descriptions of the heat, and the landscape, and the rituals of English life that someone like Ishiguro would later so profitably explore as strange performances). They seemed awkward, kind of clunky, something that belonged more in a Roald Dahl story, or some minor Greene work, than in the kind of book this seemed to want to be.

This lack of fit interested me, and I wonder if anyone has any ideas about it. One thought I had was that the spells are meant ironically, a way to emphasize how little control Leo (like all children) has over the world, and even to disparage him in our eyes, since he thinks he has control when he doesn’t. But I’m unconvinced because the book rather seems to believe in the spells. In that case, their efficacy would suggest Leo knows more than he thinks, if not more than he lets on. (This would be a peculiarly unconscious certainty.) But does Leo’s magic run out when he exchanges school for the adult world? Or are we to take him as more responsible for his actions towards Marian and Ted than it at first seems? Are Leo’s spells magical thinking—or are they really magic? I’m not sure the book knows how to answer that question. And that uncertainty makes me like it all the more.

 

Friedrich Glauser & Patrick Leigh Fermor, Together at Last

Last month two short pieces of mine went live.

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In the most recent issue of The Scofield, dedicated to the Swiss writer Max Frisch, I recommend his compatriot, the wonderful crime writer Friedrich Glauser, as someone to check out once you’ve made your way through Frisch. Glauser had a pretty intense life and he wrote some terrific crime novels.

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And in last month’s Open Letters Monthly, I wrote about my favourite travel books, the trilogy Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote describing his travels across Europe on foot in the early 1930s. I’m in good company here: there are lots of great suggestions for you to consider. If you’ve got favourite travel writing, I’d love to hear about it.

The two never met, as far as I know, but I bet they’d have got alone like gangbusters.

How I Spent My Summer Holidays

Every year it’s the same. I leave for vacation in Canada with ambitious reading plans, usually involving a fat Penguin classic. I take the book with me and find myself unable to read a word once I arrive. Instead I’m helplessly drawn to books I’ve left behind at my mother’s house or books I buy, mysteries mostly. It’s as though I need weeks of nothing but light reading to allow my readerly self to recuperate for another year. (As someone who has spent almost his whole life in a classroom, the new year always starts for me in September–or, since coming to Arkansas, cruelly, August.)

This year’s abandoned classic was Leopold Alas’s La Regenta. I read the first 60 pp on the plane and was impressed. Not easy stuff, by any means, but interesting, and often quite funny, particularly impressive since at least at first it’s all about priests. I was glad to have read Sentimental Education so recently as I could see Flaubert was an important inspiration for (the brilliantly named) Alas.

But then I got to Calgary, and the mountains beckoned and La Regenta sat on the shelf, untouched, for the next three weeks. I felt especially bad about this failure because Tom from Wuthering Expectations had organized a readalong. This is now the second time I’ve funked one of his group readings (there was that Hamsun I abandoned ¾ of the way through a few years ago) and since he is one of the bloggers I most respect I really wanted to participate. You can check out the posts, with typically interesting comments, over at the site, though I confess I’ve only skimmed them, partly to avoid spoilers and partly because I feel so badly about giving up.

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So what did I read on my vacation, you ask?

Well, a few things:

Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird (1976)

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Rohan had written about this shortly before I left and when I looked up at the shelf of books that I’ve still got to get out of my mother’s house some day, there it was. Bashert, right? I must have bought my copy in my bookselling days in the early 90s. Over 20 years it had been sitting there, just waiting for me to get to it. American literary fiction isn’t really my thing, but the 70s are long enough ago that this book almost felt like literature in translation. Rohan’s review is as smart and thoughtful as you’d expect; read it to get a better sense of the book. She liked it better than I did. Although I appreciated its astringent, unsentimental portrayal of aging, I tired of its protagonist’s jaundiced take on contemporary life. I wasn’t convinced the novel itself was distancing itself from the character’s embitterment, so the whole thing started to feel querulous and brittle. And I really wanted more about his wife, who seems much the most interesting character.

Eva Dolan, Tell No Tales (2015)

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Why doesn’t this superior police procedural about a hate crimes unit in Peterborough have a US publisher? It didn’t seem to matter that I came into the series late (this one is the second; I gather there are three so far.) And the story—about a far-right party loosely or not so loosely modeled on UKIP and featuring violence to immigrants–felt even more relevant this summer than it must have last year. Dolan’s not breaking any new ground, but this is satisfying stuff. I’ll read more but I’d rather not have to import from the UK.

Michael Frayn, The Russian Interpreter (1966)

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Years ago I read Spies and really liked it. And like all sentient human beings, I love Noises Off. So when I came across a whole series of early Frayn novels in the bookstore—recently reissued by Faber in the UK and Canada; I think some interesting small publisher has them in the US, but I can’t remember where I saw that—I grabbed the one that seemed most appealing. Given my fascination with all things Russian, and with the vicissitudes of European 20th Century history, The Russian Interpreter was the obvious choice. I liked the book for its pleasing combination of English reserve and Russian lugubriousness. Set in Moscow in the late 50s, it tells the story of an English graduate student of Russian history, Paul Manning, who gets involved with a visiting English businessman named Procter-Gould. Procter-Gould has no Russian, so Manning starts interpreting for him, not least in his love affair with Manning’s own girlfriend. No one is quite what they seem, and it all gets a little byzantine. It’s totally unfair, but I couldn’t fall in love with this book because I wanted it to be Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, another novel by an English author set in Moscow, though this time in 1913, and one of the very best English novels of the 20th century.

Frayn is no Fitzgerald, but who is? And The Russian Interpreter has a great opening:

Manning’s old friend Proctor-Gould was in Moscow and anxious to get in touch with him. Or so Manning was informed. He looked forward to the meeting. He had few friends in Moscow, none of them old friends, and no friends at all, old or new, in Moscow or anywhere else, called Proctor-Gould.

Ragnar Jónasson, Night Blind (2015) Trans. Quentin Bates (2016)

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Arnaldur Indridason needn’t worry about being deposed as King of Icelandic crime any time soon. I read Jónasson’s first book earlier this year and liked it enough to buy this sequel. The writing here is less clunky, but the plotting is weaker, and I really missed the intense evocation of bad weather that characterized the first book. I like Iceland a lot but can’t see myself continuing with this series.

Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way to Burn (2014) & Death is a Welcome Guest (2015)

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These were the discoveries of my trip. I’d read Welsh’s debut ten or fifteen years ago or whenever it was and liked it a lot. I read her next book and liked it less. And then I forgot about her. She’s written quite a lot in the meantime, it appears. These are the first two of The Plague Trilogy (the third isn’t out yet, worse luck) and I don’t know why they haven’t got more press, at least here in the US. You can read Grant’s useful review here. (Added 8/5/16: I just came across Max’s review too.)

As a hypochondriac of longstanding, I’m enthralled and terrified by stories of pandemics. So I am definitely the right person for these books, which is about an illness called the Sweats that quickly wipes out most of the world. Each book has a different protagonist; the last page of the second volume suggests they will meet up in the third. I found these books in the crime section and it’s true that each has a suspicious death at its center. But I didn’t find that stuff nearly as interesting as Welsh’s depiction of apocalypse. Rather unusually, the second volume is even better than the first—the first sometimes felt a bit like Ballard-lite, though with much less interesting prose—since it considers what kinds of communities could be built after a catastrophe and how hard it might be to do so. The best thing about these books is that they are real just-one-more-chapter-and-then-I’ll-sleep-oh-well-it’s-almost-finished-might-as-well-just-read-the-rest page-turners. Volume three, please!

Gerard Woodward, Vanishing (2014)

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Another book I found in the crime section that really doesn’t belong there. (And I say that as someone who loves crime fiction.) Woodward seems like a writer I need to pay more attention to. I really liked the first half of this (rather long: 500 pp) book. Interwar England is my meat and drink and I appreciated how adroitly Woodward taught me things, especially about the old Heathrow, the farming community in Middlesex that was requisitioned and destroyed by the British government during the war to build the military airfield that became the airport we know today. I was especially fascinated by the story of how sludge cake—basically the refuse from the sewers of London—were first used to fertillize the crops in this area. Teaching readers stuff about the world is something realist fiction does best, but it’s not easy to do without dumping information on readers in a heavy-handed way.

But before long Vanishing grew more and more complex. Too complex. It tells the story of Kenneth Brill, from his boyhood in Heathrow to his student days at the Slade School of Art to his time in a camouflage unit in Egypt in the war. The retrospective material is brought out at his trial in a military court, where he has been bought up under suspicion of treason. (He claims to have been painting the landscape of his childhood before it is destroyed; the military claims he is encoding secrets about the airfield into his paintings to pass on to the enemy.). The camouflage stuff is interesting, but I started to be reminded of a novel like Giles Foden’s Turbulence, which taught me things about weather prediction during WWII that I could have learned more concisely and compellingly in an essay. Camouflage does give Woodward a metaphor to work with as he also examines Brill’s queer sexuality and the appeal of fascism in the England of the period. But I don’t know exactly what he wants to say about all these things and in the end I didn’t quite care enough to really think it through. There’s really a whole lot going on here, I haven’t even mentioned all the subplots, and I found the story’s narrative structure, its use of unstable, unreliable first person not quite well handled enough to sustain my interest. (It’s no Ishiguro.) But Woodward is definitely a talent and I mean to try some of his other books when I’ve time. For more check out this interestingly ambivalent review by John Self at Asylum.

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So I didn’t get on with my classic, but I read some good things (and more importantly went on a lot of great hikes). Now I’m back in Arkansas, sweltering in the heat, and trying to stay on top of a lot of deadlines before the new semester begins in just three weeks…

What about you? What did you read on your summer holidays?

 

“Something about Eline”: Louis Couperus’s Eline Vere

Eline Vere (1889) is the best book I’ve read this year, would undoubtedly be one of the best books in almost any year. It’s the first novel by Dutch novelist Louis Couperus (1863-1923). I fancy myself pretty well read in European literature since 1800, I mean, nothing like some people, but more than many. But I had never heard of this book, though I gather it is a great classic of Dutch literature, until I read about it on this terrific list. (As it happens I have those books by Prus, Eça de Queirós, and Der Nister in hand and somehow need to make time for them.) If you like sweeping books about a richly appointed bourgeois world, with a generous but unobtrusive narrator, and just enough asperity to balance a tendency to effusiveness, you’re going to love this book.

It captivated me over a long weekend at one of my very favourite reading places of all, my in-laws’ farm in rural Missouri, where there is a really excellent porch swing and all manner of birds and animals to look at when you’re tired and need to raise your eyes from the page.

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The scene is The Hague in the late-nineteenth century. The characters belong to the interrelated wealthy families who run the place, or who have enough money that they don’t need to work. They’re not that rich, though, the possibility that the money is going to run out is a worry for many of them, as is the sense, as befits this buttoned-down Protestant milieu, that the men, at least, ought to work regardless of financial need, out of a moral duty to lead society.

The book’s question, then, is: what makes a meaningful life? And in the great 19th century realist tradition, that question is much more difficult and fascinating for women. What do they live for, if not work? Marriage and family are two obvious answers, satisfying for some of the female characters. But not for all, certainly not for the protagonist, Eline.

Eline Vere gets compared to Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Effi Briest. The reason is obvious: all are novels centered on eponymous heroines who are drawn to men who aren’t their husbands as a way to overcome their boredom and uncertain place in society. I’ve not read Effi Briest—I can already hear Tom telling me I have to rectify that oversight, and I mean to—but I didn’t find Eline Vere as much like those books as blurb writers would have us believe.

For Eline’s dissatisfaction doesn’t find a sexual outlet. She’s not even married, so adultery doesn’t even come into it. In some sense, the book is a long search for the right man for Eline. It seems, halfway through, that she’s found him, an eminently suitable, kind, dutiful, all-around stand-up guy named Otto van Erlevoort. They get engaged, despite his family’s initial reservations—Eline somehow seems so different from them. Otto’s sister never overcomes these reservations: “I know she’s beautiful and charming, but there’s something about her that, well, that I find unsympathetic… She doesn’t have a heart, all she has is egotism, stone-cold egotism.” Later, the sister’s sister-in-law adds similar misgivings: “There’s something about Eline that makes me think she might not fit in very well with the rest of the family. She adapts herself, certainly, but I’m not sure she does so with all her heart.” Note the motif of the heart, or, rather, heartlessness. Having a heart seems here to mean caring for others. But it also seems to mean playing a part, going along with appearances, fitting in with others. The heart is a sign of both authenticity and falsity. Small wonder, then, that the book opens at a party in which the youngsters of the Dutch beau monde organize extravagant dramatic tableau. Eline, who at age 23 is or could be part of that set, is notably absent. (It’s a classic dramatic set-up: as various characters ask each other where Eline is, we get more and more intrigued about her.)

So sure was I that Eline’s travails had to play out in a love affair that I spent the first half of the book wondering who she would fall in love with, and in what way that love would be inappropriate or scandalous. The first candidate is an opera singer who takes The Hague by storm and who Eline is obsessed with for a while, secretly buying pictures of him and stalking him in the park where he takes a walk most days. But she never even speaks to him and before long throws over the infatuation as silly. Then I thought the trouble might be with her brother-in-law, Henk, who obviously adores her and who she seems to like a lot too. (After the death of her mother, Eline lives with her sister, the much more pragmatic Betsy, and Henk and their children.) But Henk is like the faithful Newfoundland dog he’s compared to early on and really only wants everyone he knows, especially his wife and her sister, to get along, so that he can be left in peace to go riding and shooting. He’s a tenderly imagined version of Charles Bovary, though rather more competent. Then Otto comes along and Eline gets engaged to him and it all seems so promising.

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There’s an absolutely wonderful set piece—Couperus is almost as good as Tolstoy when it comes to set pieces—at the Van Erlevoorts’ summer home, De Horze, complete with lovely meals and long days with seemingly endlessly lengthening shadows on the evening lawn and children rushing around underfoot and inventing games. I’m absolutely a sucker for this stuff, and Couperus lays it on thick. But he does so only to insist that idyll can’t last. At almost the exact halfway point of the book, at the end of the De Horze chapter, at the end of the summer, we find this meditation on self-sabotage and the loss of happiness:

[Eline] opened the window and looked outside. The rain had stopped and the air was fragrant with moist foliage. The sky was clear, wiped clean of leaden clouds but for some lingering streaks, from which rose a brilliant crescent moon. The far-flung fields lay muffled in silence; a lone windmill held aloft a dark motionless sail, starkly defined against the pale sheen of the evening sky. The ditches glittered like strips of metal, and a scented freshness emanated like a gentle sigh from the slumbering landscape. Eline leant out of the window, hugging her bare arms. She felt as if that soft sigh of freshness had sweetened all her thoughts with the fragrance of wild flowers, banishing the stale, sickly smell of her former state of mind. It was like inhaling the heady perfume of musk and opopanax, and she felt very young, younger than she had ever felt before, and oh!—of this she was certain—never had she been in love as she was now, never! Her Otto! Thinking of him she felt no need whatsoever to conjure up some idealised image of him; she thought of him as he was, manly and strong in his good-natured simplicity, with one single thought governing his mind: the thought of her. His love was so rich, so full, so all-encompassing. And hers was growing by the day, she believed … no it couldn’t grow any further, that would be impossible! No further wishes, no concerns about the future; it would unfold of its own accord, a perspective tinged with a golden glow! Nothing but the stillness of that lake into which her soul had glided, nothing but the peace and love of that blue ecstasy! Nothing but that … She could not imagine what more a human being could wish for.

Only, there was one tiny blemish in all that clear expanse of blue, an inkling of fear that change might yet come! It was so very long since she had prayed, and she was unsure how to go about it, whether she should say the words aloud or just think them. Indeed, she no longer knew whether she believed in God, she no longer knew what she believed, but now, at this moment, she dearly wished to pray that it might remain as it was now, that nothing would ever change—oh, for that gentle happiness, that tranquility of mind, that blue to remain with her for ever!

“Never again as it was, please God; make everything stay the same as it is now! I’ll die if anything changes!” she whispered under her breath, and as she folded her hands in prayer, a teardrop quivered on her lashes. But it was a tear of joy, and in her joy that tiny fear drowned like a drop in the ocean.

But of course it doesn’t. The fear grows to unmanageable proportions. You can see from this passage that Couperus stays close to Eline perspective, and so that the conventionality or melodramatic extravagance of some of the prose (“nothing but the peace and love of that blue ecstasy”) is the character’s. (He also moves us from character to character—we aren’t constrained to Eline’s perspective, which allows us to see, for example, how frustrating Eline can be at times, especially in the only strand of the story that includes characters from a different social strata, a young couple and their children named the Ferelijns, who have settled in Java and only returned to Holland temporarily due to the husband’s ill health. Eline, who went to school with the wife, veers between sensitivity and obliviousness about their quite precarious financial situation.)

Eline’s life unravels because she can’t imagine herself to be happy, because part of her doesn’t want to be happy, and because she can’t wholeheartedly accept what the rest of the characters call happiness. Eline is a confusing but compelling mixture of fatalism, congenital, even hereditary dissatisfaction, and self-awareness. The hereditary part—Couperus is like a less-militant Zola at times—comes to the fore when Eline and Betsy’s cousin, Vincent—decadent, a bit louche, a debtor (the worst thing you can be in this social world), a dabbler in Nietzsche—comes to visit.

Betsy hates him; Eline adores him; she almost falls in love with him, but their relationship is weirder than that, and besides the genuinely egotistical and probably gay Vincent doesn’t care about her. (Vincent is saved by a rich American friend, a man named St Clare, an enigmatic figure who has wandered in from a James novel. To make things even more complicated he almost has a thing with Eline.) Something about Vincent makes Eline unable to love Otto, or, rather, confirms for her that a life with Otto isn’t possible. Betsy exults when she can finally kick Vincent out of the house; Eline publicly berates her for her unkindness. This rupture leads to an extraordinary scene–another one of those set pieces–in which Eline leaves Betsy’s home in the middle of the night, in the midst of an enormous and terrifying storm. It’s cheesy in my telling but absolutely riveting in Couperus’s.

The book Eline Vere did remind me of is Buddenbrooks, though I haven’t read it in about 25 years, so I may be overstating the similarities. They share a Northern European, Protestant, bourgeois setting and a belief in hereditary decline. What Mann’s novel has that Couperus’s doesn’t is a belief in art as a kind of safety valve. Yes, the generations become more effete as they move away from business, but at least they gain in sensitivity and artistic refinement.

Eline too is drawn to art. She is a passable pianist and her voice is quite good, but she never keeps up with her lessons, and besides as her health gets worse her doctors forbid her from practicing. First love fails Eline, then art. Without those things, what can a woman of this time turn to?

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Eline did for a time love Otto; I don’t think we’re supposed to believe otherwise. But as the book goes on it seems that Eline doesn’t really love anyone—not because she’s as selfish as others think she is, but because she doesn’t want to, or, at least, know how to. She increasingly finds herself unworthy, and she has an extraordinary way of evading or upending any situation that others create to make her happy, often by making herself so unpleasant that she drives people away. The end offers one of the more subtle portraits of madness in 19th century literature (and that’s saying something, there’s madness all over the place there).

We see Eline unable to sleep, increasingly delirious, and we follow the restless zigzag of her thoughts: first desperately trying to hold on a love she can no longer feel, then despairing over her inability to force herself to keep loving Otto, and finally raging over her situation, “because she was being assailed by thoughts she did not wish to think at all, and because she felt herself too weak to turn around and fight those invisible forces.”

Couperus doesn’t judge his characters—he’s no Flaubert—valuing this closely-knit society with its demonic fascination with duty even as he shows it to be narrow and conventional and totally unable to know what to do with Eline. But he makes Eline off-putting enough that we can’t totally sympathize with her, even though we ultimately must pity what today we might call the manic-depressive demons that surge through her.

I’m not sure how well I’ve conveyed this book to you. What I most want you to know is that it’s stranger than it seems. Its gilded, cozy, and upright surfaces—if you’re at all susceptible to gemütlichkeit you’ll love this book—contain unsettling depths. But the depths aren’t appealing enough to allow us to dismiss the surfaces as mere conventionality. Above all, I hope I’ve made this book intriguing enough that you’ll want to read it and talk about it with me.

 *

Thanks must go to Archipelago Books for their lovely edition, with its generous margins, thick paper, clear font, the whole pleasing heft and size of the book itself. No doubt I would have appreciated some parts of the story even more had the book come with notes or introduction. Definitely a list of characters or family tree would have been helpful. But in the end I enjoyed the book all the more because I just had to plunge in and make my own way through it. (Actually, there’s an afterword by someone named Paul Binding and as I recall it’s quite good, more appreciative than academic.) Yes, sometimes I had a hard time keeping the characters straight, but Eline Vere gave me what I too seldom get when reading these days and what I long for more than anything else: a deep sense of immersion, a wish to be alone with the book and to keep the pages turning. The novel’s 500 pages, but twice as long would have been just fine with me. Ina Rilke’s translation seems excellent. I mean it as a tribute to her when I say that I often found myself thinking, Well, I can read German, surely Dutch isn’t that different, I bet I could read this book in the original! Rilke’s supple English—neither fussy nor anachronistic, neither old-fashioned nor contemporary—made me believe in such a fantasy. I’m keen to read more of her translations from the Dutch. And I’m even keener to read more Couperus. A few of his books are available but as best I can tell his masterpiece Old People and Things That Pass (1918) is not. Archipelago, or other brave publishers, I beg you: please, please, please, more Couperus.

The Best Days of Our Life: Sentimental Education

I’ve written before about how my wife and a friend of ours from the days when we were all starting out as academics and in our first, temporary jobs after graduate school decided to read Proust together. We tackled one volume each summer for seven years, switching between his city and ours once our careers and life-paths took us in different directions.

We finished Proust and decided to stay with French literature: two years ago we read Madame Bovary. Last year we didn’t read anything; instead we went to our friend’s wedding. But we were back at it last week. Our book this year was Flaubert’s other well-known book, Sentimental Education (1869). We had a hard time with it and although our friend thinks we should try Bouvard and Pecuchet next year I think he’s going to be outvoted. I’m plumping for Stendahl but neither of the others seems much interested. We’ll probably end up with either Balzac or Zola. Vote your choice in the comments!

I don’t think I would have made it though Sentimental Education without the reading group. Certainly I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much on my own. Each of us experienced the same phenomenon: we didn’t much like reading the book, but we sure enjoyed talking about it. Nonetheless, I’ve concluded that Flaubert is a writer I admire but do not like. He’s like Joyce for me. They’re both so, I don’t know, airless. I need my books a little shaggier. That’s why I wrote a dissertation on Lawrence, I guess.

A Steamer and Shallow Waters in the Seine, Normandy c.1832 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

A Steamer and Shallow Waters in the Seine, Normandy c.1832 Joseph Mallord William Turner

Anyway, here are some observations on the novel, taken from the notes I scribbled during our conversations:

We did understand, by the way, that not liking the book was pretty much the point. It’s a book about having high expectations for life and one’s self and being disappointed in them. But the trick is that those expectations aren’t foiled because of bad luck or history or poverty or illness. Rather they’re foiled from inability—including the inability to recognize one’s lack of ability. Sentimental Education is about being mediocre. The narrator readily lets us see how mediocre the characters are, which makes the novel Olympian and rather disdainful.

The hero, if you can put it that way, is Frédéric Moreau, a young man from the provinces who flunks out of law school but is able to live in relatively grand style anyway because he inherits a lot of money from an uncle. In fact, at the beginning of the book he’s returning from a trip to visit the uncle, his mother having sent him there in hopes of currying the man’s favour. Frédéric returns from Le Havre to Nogent-sur-Seine via Paris, where he switches to a steam ship because he’s sulky about having to go home for the summer and it will take him longer to get there by boat than by any other route. So he begins taking a petty revenge against his mother. This is a fine introduction to a novel filled with mean-spirited and selfish actions.

The boat trip results in more than a small-minded psychological victory, though. Onboard Frédéric meets Jacques Arnoux, an art dealer and impresario and eventual porcelain manufacturer with whom he will be intertwined for the rest of the book. More importantly, he meets Arnoux’s wife, with whom he is immediately besotted. Much of the novel is about the relationship they never quite consummate.

But it’s not really a love story. Yes, Frédéric falls immediately for Madame Arnoux, swooning for her, to the point that he ignores her lack of interest and regularly misrepresents her words and deeds as coded expressions of her own desire for him (though eventually they do become something like lovers). But Sentimental Education is no Anna Karenina. It’s not even Madame Bovary. For one thing, Madame Arnoux isn’t the only woman in Frédéric’s life. There’s Rosanette, one of Arnoux’s mistresses, with whom Frédéric takes up; the two even have a child together. There’s Louise, the daughter of the Frédéric’s neighbour in Nogent-sur-Seine. And finally there’s Madame Dambreuse, the wife and eventual widow of a banker, who Frédéric meets through Louise’s father, who is Dambreuse’s business manager. Got all that? Sentimental Education is a book obsessed with crowds, but it doesn’t have that many characters. In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, there are a number of young men Frédéric knows from his time as a student, including his schoolboy friend Deslauriers, who is a lot poorer than Frédéric. The two treat each other fairly badly, considering they’re such good friends.

Anyway, I was saying it’s not really a love story. Flaubert defined it as the only kind of love story suitable for his generation: “It’s a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays—that is to say, inactive.”

This idea of passivity or inactivity—remember, the big event in Frédéric’s life is his inheriting a small fortune from his uncle—affects more than just romance. Sentimental Education is famously also a novel about politics, even about revolution. The last part of the book is set against the Revolution of 1848, when the Orleans monarchy was overthrown in favour of the short-lived Second Republic. Many of the book’s characters are active in these turbulent political events, though Frédéric mostly avoids them (he literally leaves town during the most dramatic and violent weeks). And with the exception of one character, a shopkeeper called Dussardier who Frédéric and his circle befriend on a lark, and who is a committed Republican, so committed that he dies for the cause, no one partakes of these events out of a sense of duty or obligation or passion. According to the introduction to the new Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated by Helen Constantine, Flaubert did not know Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) in which he famously said that history repeats itself, once as tragedy and once as farce, but Sentimental Education could have been written with that dictum in mind.

The reason the 1848 revolution was a pale imitation of 1789, at least on the evidence in this novel, is that it was self-interested. Self-interest matters a lot in this novel; if it’s about anything, it’s about how people use each other. Characters regularly claim to care for things—movements, causes, other people—but prove not to. This isn’t just a function of their fickleness or moral laxity: it’s a function of the world they live in. No one feels secure enough in their place in society that they don’t feel the need to use others to get ahead. Even Madame Arnoux, who in general is gentle and definitely put upon by her rakish/obnoxious husband, isn’t above using Frédéric’s infatuation with her to help her family out financially. (Again, Dussardier, the shopkeeper, is the only exception, but he’s such a minor character and he meets such a sad end that we can’t make an example of him.)

Flaubert could have made much of this cutthroat world in which everyone is out to get everyone else, or, in which a lot of cynical people are out to get each other and whatever innocents are around—but then he’d have been Henry James, and Flaubert is after something more dispiriting than the actually quite lurid and melodramatic James. (Madame Dambreuse is the most Jamesian character—there’s a great moment when she and Frédéric attend an auction of the Arnoux’s personal effects—they’ve fallen into financial ruin—and when she sees how distressed Frédéric is by the sale of so many objects he had become so familiar with, having attached them to his love for Madame Arnoux, not least a small jewellery box, she insists on outbidding everyone for it and giving it to him, just to show him who’s boss.)

The dispiriting part isn’t just that everyone uses everyone else. It’s also that they’re not always that good at it. Frédéric in particular is a hard character to get a handle on, because he’s so narcissistic, always preening in mirrors and admiring his outfits, always ready to do whatever it takes to keep up his image, yet at the same time he’s regularly taken advantage of. He’s not very clever, but he’s also not naïve. His self-reflections, when they occur, never lead anywhere. They don’t make him act any differently. We’re in the odd position of neither liking him much nor of feeling bad for him when he’s been fleeced. Who could like a guy who, walking through a crowded street, thinks things like:

He felt sick at the sight of their vulgar faces, the idiotic remarks, the foolish satisfaction on their sweaty foreheads! However, the knowledge that he was worth more than these people lessened the fatigue he felt contemplating them.

Here as elsewhere, Flaubert uses free indirect discourse—the description of a character’s thoughts in apparently omniscient voice—to devastating effect. The more we know Frédéric the less we like him. The mingling of narratorial and character’s voice is often so subtle it takes us a while to figure out who is being judged. Early on in the novel, when Frédéric is still poor and convinced he’ll stay that way, he convinces himself that poverty could work to his advantage:

A soul like Madame Arnoux’s would surely be moved by that sight [of the poverty that would no doubt bring out his genius] and she would take pity on him. So this catastrophe was a stroke of luck after all. Like the earthquakes in which treasures are uncovered, it had revealed to him the secret riches of his character.

Flaubert uses metaphor so sparingly that when we get one we are apt to hold onto it gratefully. At last, a poetic moment! But when we think about what’s being said here we see something more disheartening than high-flown, beautiful rhetoric. Who thinks of an earthquake as something that reveals buried treasure? Who ignores its destructiveness? Maybe someone who doesn’t in fact have any secret riches or rich interior life.

Flaubert loves bathos: any time he verges on the lyrical, he’s sure to follow it with a prosaic detail. A long description of arriving in Paris at dusk works itself up to an unusually delicate effusiveness—“the entire greeny stretch of the Seine tore itself into silvery shards of silk against the pillars of the bridge”—only to be immediately followed by: “He went to have dinner for forty-three sous in a restaurant in the Rue de la Harpe.” Or consider this momentary idyll amidst the bustle of the city:

Leaning on the plush windowsill, [Frédéric and Deslauriers] smoked cheroots. The sun was shining, the air was mild, swarms of birds flew down into the garden; statues of bronze and marble washed by the rain glistened. Aproned maids sat chatting on chairs. And you could hear children laughing, along with the continuous murmur of the fountain.

Nice, right? I love Paris in the springtime. But how does Frédéric respond?

Under the influence of the wine circulating in his veins, half asleep, bemused and with the light full in his face, he felt nothing but an immense sense of well-being, a dull voluptuousness, like a plant saturated in warmth and wet.

He responds stupidly, complacently, dully, like a plant. Notwithstanding some lyric pages in the countryside near Fontainbleu late in the novel, this isn’t a book that loves the country. Flaubert was not a writer who knew the name of every flower or tree. In this world-view, it’s not a good thing to be like a plant saturated in warmth and wet. (That’s about as much sex as Frédéric gets, by the way.)

After all, plants don’t do much. One of the most fascinating things about Sentimental Education for me was watching Flaubert try to escape from his own trap. Hardly anything happens in this novel. It’s not dramatic. In fact, it’s against the very idea that life is dramatic, structured like a story with obstacles to be overcome and climaxes to be attained. It ironizes the story of the young man on the make who comes to the capital form the provinces and takes the town by storm. It ironizes Balzac, in other words. There aren’t any set pieces in this novel. A scene at the horse races could have been highly dramatic. It could have shown Frédéric as a hero, or advanced one of his affairs. It could have been the horse race from Anna Karenina. But it’s not.

The second race was not very entertaining, nor the third, apart from a man being carried off on a stretcher [good joke there: all of J. G. Ballard in a nutshell]. The fourth, in which eight horses battle it out for the Prix de la Ville, was more engaging.

A paragraph about this race follows. It’s interesting enough, I guess. But then this:

A dispute held up the last race. The crowd, bored, broke up. Groups of men were chatting below the stands. The talk was rather loose. Some society ladies left, shocked by the proximity of the kept women.

And that’s it. Except traffic. What follows is a pretty lengthy description of how long it took everyone to get home, since all the carriages were leaving at once. Always, always, Flaubert ironizes and debunks. But what is he left with? What kind of a novel repudiates all the things that make up novels? That’s the corner Flaubert paints himself into, the aridity I complained about at the beginning.

Very rarely does Flaubert indulge in pathos. One such moment comes near the end of the book. Frédéric and Rosanette’s child falls seriously ill. Frédéric, who hasn’t had much to do with it, tries to downplay the illness; Rosanette is frightened. The child falls unresponsive; Rosanette calls Frédéric to her side. But it’s too late:

The child was dead. She took him up, shook him, hugged him, calling him the sweetest names, covered him in kisses and sobs, walked round and round, distraught, tore out her hair, uttered little cries; and collapsed on the couch where she remained open-mouthed [in Madame Bovary the motif of open mouths signals imbecility and vacuity], with floods of tears issuing from her staring eyes. Then she was overcome with lethargy and all became calm in the apartment. The furniture was turned upside down. Two or three napkins lay around. Six o’clock struck. The night light went out.

I find those napkins heartbreaking, a forlorn symbol of the aftermath of sudden, terrible emotion. But my reading partners thought this made me a chump (they’re more Flaubertian than I am, I guess), noting, perhaps rightly, that the emotion (all Rosanette’s) peters out rather quickly—that phrase “all became calm” suggests the event might not in fact matter so much. It doesn’t to Frédéric, who thinks only of himself: “It seemed to him that this death was but a beginning, and that an even greater misfortune was about to befall him.” (It doesn’t). Even Rosanette is hard to sympathize with: she wants them to embalm the child, a wish both grandiose and ignorant. As the narrator says with typical acerbity, “There were many reasons against it, the most cogent of which was that it was not feasible in the case of such a young child.” What I’m saying is, if you want pathos in your literature, as I’ve come to realize I do, then Flaubert is not your guy.

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I’ll end the way the novel does. Years pass. Frédéric gets older, but not wiser. France gets another monarch. Frédéric reconciles with Deslauriers: the latter had tried to revenge himself on his richer friend because of the lousy way Frédéric had always treated him—he marries Louise, who Frédéric had been on the point of deciding was the girl he should have loved, but (no surprise) the joke cuts more than one way: Louise quickly leaves Deslaurier for another man, so that even speaking of the falling out between the two as a breach that has to be reconciled is actually putting events too strongly. Anyway, the two friends, or whatever the hell they are, they’re not even really frenemies, meet up again and reminisce about an adventure from their school days. One Sunday in the summer of 1837 they slipped off to the local brothel. On the way they picked enormous bouquets of flowers from Madame Moreau’s garden, in the hopes of impressing the prostitutes. But when they arrive at the house things don’t go according to plan:

Frédéric presented his [bouquet], like a lover to his betrothed. But the heat, the fear of the unknown, a kind of remorse, and even the pleasure of seeing at a glance so many women at his disposal, affected him so powerfully that he went deathly pale and stood still, tongue-tied. They all laughed, delighted at his embarrassment. Thinking they were making fun of him, he fled. And as it was Frédéric who had the money, Deslauriers was obliged to follow him.

The last line is typical Flaubert, an extra little sting of bathetic deflation. It also summarizes Frédéric and Deslauriers’s relationship, in which money always gets in the way. (It’s like every other relationship in the book.) The scene is also emblematic of Frédéric’s inability to act: here he is, on the threshold of his desire, and he can’t pull the trigger. Worst of all, perhaps, we see how his narcissism and self-regard cause him to misread the situation. He thinks he’s being laughed at when in fact they’re laughing with him, or they would be if he let them.

Sentimental Education is about the hash we make of our lives when we’re so absorbed in ourselves that we miss the opportunity for community or fellow feeling with others. Think how differently things would have gone if he’d laughed along with them. But Flaubert isn’t writing a morality tale. Things can’t be other than the way they are. That’s what makes the whole enterprise so dispiriting. Telling the story to each other, Deslaurier and Frédéric conclude: “Those were the best days of our lives!” And you know what, they probably were. Isn’t that depressing. Almost as depressing as the complacency that besets so many of us—Flaubert would say, all of us—when we look back on our lives and think that regardless of all the vicissitudes life has thrown our way things have worked out for the best.

Any story we tell of our own lives—the very idea that our lives have a story—is bound to be narcissistic. Flaubert brilliantly arraigns the navel gazing of the Bildungsroman. But maybe a little narcissism isn’t so bad. Better than an irony that scorches everything in its path, anyway.

 

“No Aspirations”: Jezebel’s Daughter

I’m always berating myself for writing such long posts: just one of many ways I can second-guess myself. But I may have hit on a solution: all I need to do is write about something I read so long ago I can hardly remember it.

The book in question is Jezebel’s Daughter (1880), a rather creaky but pleasurable enough novel from Wilkie Collins’s last decade. Longtime readers will know I’m a Collins fan. I read the famous ones pre-blog, but wrote about two of his less well-known books last year. This one kept me amused on a longish flight earlier this year.

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Jezebel’s Daughter is narrated by the now-elderly David Glenney, who reflects on some sensational events from his youth in the 1820s, some sixty years before the time of his telling. In this sense, it is much more conventional than the works of Collins’s prime, Woman in White, say, or the brilliant, underappreciated No Name.

Glenney works in the firm of Wagner, Keller, and Engelman. No idea what this firm does—maybe we’re told and I’ve forgotten, but I actually think Collins can’t be bothered to tell us. I’ve a vague idea they’re a bank. At any rate, they’ve offices in London and Frankfurt. The book begins with the death of Wagner; in his will he has appointed his widow, David’s aunt, as his sole successor. Mrs. Wagner has a shrewd head for business, but her real distinguishing characteristic is her love of socially progressive causes. She immediately hires women to work in the office—and demands the same happen in the much more conservative Frankfurt office. And she rescues a foundling, named Nicholas Grimm but called Jack Straw by the other characters, from a madhouse that she and her late husband had worked hard to reform. Straw becomes a kind of pet or devoted servant to her and affirms his benefactor’s conviction that all anyone needs is to feel useful and loved.

Glenney is sent from London to Frankfurt on a kind of exchange program. Keller, one of the German partners, has sent his son, Fritz, to London to get him away from a girl. Minna is sweet but insipid, of no real interest to anyone in this novel. The editor of this edition puts matters in the best possible light when he says that unlike in many of Collins’s earlier books, where spirited young women are at the center of the action, Jezebel’s Daughter concentrates on two mature women. That means the title is a misnomer: what matters in this book isn’t the daughter, but the mother, the Jezebel of the title, one Madame Fontaine, whose husband, an experimental chemist, bequeathed several vials of deadly and recherché poisons along with their antidotes to his not especially grieving widow.

But it’s not that Madame Fontaine is looking for a man for herself. All her attention is directed toward her daughter. She’s so desperate to marry her daughter into the Keller family that she insinuates herself into the firm by charming—and eventually humiliating—the good-natured bachelor partner, Engelman. Having gained access to Keller’s household, Madame Fontaine poisons him with one of her late husband’s concoctions, carefully measuring the dosage so that he hovers on the brink of death. Then she nurses him back to health (using the antidote), eventually becoming his housekeeper. Keller, grateful to the woman who in fact almost killed him, consents to the marriage between Fritz and Minna. The wedding date falls just before a large debt owed by Madame Fontaine falls due, which is important because Keller abhors debt and would stop the marriage if he found anything so disreputable in his future daughter-in-law’s family.

At the last minute, though, the wedding has to be postponed. The debt comes due; Madame Fontaine is desperate and she steals the money from Mrs. Wagner, who at some point in all this has arrived in Frankfurt—for the wedding, I think, but also because she is determined to force Keller to hire women in the office. The supposedly mad Jack Straw—who has suffered greatly at the hands of the Fontaine family, in a complicated and fairly preposterous back story I won’t go into here—discovers the theft and when Mrs. Wagner confronts Madame Fontaine she does the only thing a woman in her terrible position would do: she poisons the other woman. This all leads to the climactic scene in the Frankfurt mortuary, the Dead House, in which Mrs. Wagner is revived from the dead and replaced by Madame Fontaine who accidentally poisons herself.

Cue the happy ending. Minna is blonde and sweet enough that no one really minds that her mother is an attempted murderer. The wedding goes on as planned, Jack Straw remains devoted to his benefactor, and has the satisfaction of having proved himself more competent than most of the so-called sane characters, and Mrs. Wagner recovers enough to push through her egalitarian vision of the workplace.

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Yes, I gave a few things away here, but unusually for Collins the book isn’t that suspenseful. And that’s a pity, because suspense is what Collins does best. It’s pretty clear what Madame Fontaine is up to. A different novel would have kept us unsure about whether she had actually poisoned Keller. So why should anyone read this book? Its interest is in the pairing of the two widows, both of them smart and determined, and more interesting than any of the men in the book. Because Mrs. Wagner’s drive is channeled in socially productive ways, we’re meant to sympathize with her rather than with her continental (read louche, untrustworthy) opposite number. But Mrs. Wagner is a bit too decent to hold too much of our interest (though she’s never saccharine, I will give Collins that—quite unlike any of the good female characters in Dickens, say.) At the same time, Madame Fontaine isn’t quite compelling enough to be a study in glamorous evil, the lurid reference to Jezebel in the title notwithstanding. Indeed, at its best the novel suggests she’s simply a mother who will do anything to see her daughter made happy. It seems as though Collins is suggesting that in the absence of the reforms desired by Mrs. Wagner a woman could be forced to the excesses of Madame Fontaine. Unlike someone like The Woman in White’s Count Fosco, who does evil for the hell of it, Madame Fontaine does evil for her daughter. She’s as exhausted as I expect today’s Tiger Moms are.

In the end, the only really engaging and sympathetic character is Engelman, the old bachelor. Here’s how Glenney introduces him:

Mr. Engelman, short and fat, devoted to the office during the hours of business, had never read a book in his life, and had no aspirations beyond the limits of his garden and his pipes. “In my leisure moments,” he used to say, “give me my flowers, my pipe, and my peace of mind—and I ask no more.”

The redundancy of the last sentence—it pretty much repeats the previous one—gives you a sense of Glenney’s prose. (He’s just prosy and complaisant enough that I’m willing to believe Collins is aiming for dullness here, rather than just being dull.) Sadly, Engelman’s peace of mind is ruined when Madame Fontaine ensnares him. The kindhearted Engelman is ready to throw over his tidy, careful, indolent bachelor life for the captivating widow but when he realizes she is only using him as part of a greater plan he withdraws to his hometown and dies of apoplexy aka shame. He’s a more tragic version of Joseph Buschmann from The Dead Secret. At least he had the wisdom not to fall in love. Does love ever work out in Collins? It’s enough to make me wonder if there isn’t something ominous (rather than, say, sickly sweet) in the tears which, filling Glenney’s eyes at the end of the book, oblige him to break off in his description of Minna and Fritz’s wedding. Wishful thinking on my part, no doubt, but even in a minor work Collins always leaves us a little uncertain.

Minor Collins, no doubt, but props to Oxford to putting this out in a decent, affordable, well-edited edition.

“A Long Continuity”: Eleanor Perényi’s More Was Lost

In 1937, the nineteen-year-old Eleanor Stone, daughter of a career naval officer and a novelist, was invited to a dinner party at the American legation in Budapest. There she met an Oxford-educated, communist-sympathizing Hungarian nobleman, Baron Zsigmon (Zsiga) Perényi. He called on her the next day and they spent the rest of her week in Budapest together. On her last evening, they went out to dinner. Here’s how the now Eleanor Perényi would describe it a decade later in her wonderful memoir More Was Lost:

We sat and drank Tokay for a long time. I felt surprisingly miserable.

At last he said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”

I looked into my wineglass.

“Yes, we could,”

There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”

“I think I could decidedly.”

So we were engaged.

This could come from a Lubitsch movie, and indeed both Eleanor and Zsiga have qualities recognizable from the pictures of that time—her pluck, his debonair decency (he always introduces bad news, and there’s quite a lot of it in this book, by saying, “Fancy, darling…”).

But even if this passage reads like a more reticent version of the “meet cute” scenes so beloved of 1930s Hollywood, there’s nothing cute about this book. Zsiga gives up his job in Budapest so that the two of them can return to and manage his ancestral home of Szöllös. Sounds romantic, but there are several problems with this idea. Eleanor especially has no idea how to run an estate. They don’t have any money. And worst of all the estate isn’t even in Hungary anymore. It was part of the territory given to the Czechs after WWI: Zsiga needs a passport and permission from the authorities to be there at all.

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The young couple isn’t dissuaded by these difficulties—but they don’t ignore them either. Eleanor in particular sees things for what they are. She is hardly the stereotypical naïve American abroad. It might seem as though she has fallen into a fairytale, but she’s a careful, thoroughly unsentimental observer of her situation. Consider for example her description of the estate at Szöllös:

The property was at the exact geographical end of the Danubian plane, and at the beginning of the Carpathians. Our farm was on the plain, and on a mountain that was the first spur of the Carpathians we had a large forest, and a vineyard. The farm was managed by a tenant. He paid us an outrageously low rent, but the forest and the vineyard brought in some money too. An old tutor managed them. He did what he could, but it was a thankless job, and he was tired of it. The place was not in good condition.

Hardly rosy. And here she is meditating on the new circumstances of her life:

 A young couple are supposed to be lucky if they can build their own home. It may be so. For me, the theory did not work that way. My favorite idea as a child was what happened in French fairy stories. You were lost in a forest, and suddenly you came on a castle, which in some way had been left for you to wander in. Sometimes, of course, there were sleeping princes, but in one special one there were cats dressed like Louis XIV, who waited on you. Sometimes it was empty, but it always belonged to you without any effort on your part. Maybe it’s incorrigible laziness, but I like things to be ready-made. And when I went into my new home, I had just the feeling of the child’s story. It was all there waiting for me. This house was the result of the imaginations of other people. If a chair stood in a certain corner it was because of reasons in the life of someone who had liked it that way. I would change it, of course, but what I added would only be part of a long continuity, and so it would have both a particular and a general value. If we had built it, it would certainly have been more comfortable, and perhaps even more beautiful, but I doubt it, and I should have missed this pleasure of stepping into a complete world. And there would have been no thrill of discovery. As it was, I ran from room to room, examining everything. I liked it all.

I admire how Perényi moves so assuredly from analysis into narration in that last sentence. I appreciate the self-assurance that’s gone into that off-handed but firm remark about putting her stamp on the place, “I would change it, of course.” And I love that she has the largeness of spirit to feel enriched rather than threatened by that sense of “long continuity.” She’s also a bit strange: is that bit about the cats dressed as Louis XIV a reference to a real tale? Either way, it’s wonderful that what she wants isn’t a prince but someone (or something) to wait on her. But what could make a worse servant than a cat? Even Perényi’s fantasies are unusual. That’s fitting though, for the period she’s living through, when dreams most often turned to nightmares. More Was Lost presents itself as slight, even whimsical, but as this passage clearly reveals, it’s anything but.

Perényi can be tart (the Czech trains, she tells us, were always dirty, “but I know enough not to associate clean trains with political freedom”). She can be reticent, which might seem counter intuitive in a memoir but which only makes us feel more strongly how personal this story is (writing of the restaurant in a rural train station, she says, “I had a special reason for liking this restaurant. We had been there often, and once, sitting at a corner table drinking coffee between trains, Zsiga had said the nicest thing he ever said to me. It doesn’t matter what it was.”) But mostly she can appreciate things, for in this world of continuity paradoxically nothing lasts. Everything has been overturned by the last war—Szöllös was looted three times—and will be overturned still further by the next.

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In the first half of the book Eleanor and Zsiga bring the estate back to life. Perényi was a wonderful gardener—much later in life she wrote a book about gardening that I gather is considered to be her masterpiece, though I can’t imagine how it could better this book—and we hear a lot about how she took the 10 acres of jardin anglais in hand. More pertinently, the gardener’s need to take the long view, her sense of time passing according to seasons rather than days or months, structures the first half of the book. Perényi referrs to passing seasons, uses phrases like “over time” and “eventually,” and generally marks time quite vaguely: “Once we had a sudden influx of visitors”; “In the summer the ripe eating grapes were packed outside the winehouse in the vineyard.” In this way, the narrative of the young American who learns to be a Baroness is continually eclipsed by a bigger story, which isn’t really a story at all, but rather a scenario or situation, about a house and the way of life supported by it. As much as I loved this section, I was kept off-balance—I kept wondering what year it was—and I fretted over the war that my knowledge of history and Perényi’s gentle foreshadowing told me was coming.

The war comes, of course. But first we follow Perényi as she gets the house into shape, learns passable Hungarian, navigates the Church, manages servants, pays calls on the local families, and, most charmingly, is invited for opulent house parties at the much more expansive estate of Zsiga’s cousin across the border in Hungary. (Count Laci is one of those larger than life characters it’s so delightful to delight in.) You can just imagine the terrible movie to be made from this book: plucky American gal becomes a Baroness, overcomes obstacles, wins the hearts of the locals, and lives happily ever after.

But More Was Lost never falls prey to cliché. Nor, alas, does it have a happy ending. The second half of the book is narrated more straightforwardly: story swallows up situation. Events begin with Britain and France’s refusal to support the Czechs when Hitler demands the Sudetenland. In the ensuing shakeup, Hungary gained back most of its lost territory, but not the land around Szöllös. That became part of a new and short-lived Ruthenian separatist state called Carpatho-Ukrainia which was quickly defeated by the Hungarians. (After the war, Szöllös became part of the Ukranian province of the Soviet Union—the estate was turned first into a museum and then into a school administration office, its furnishings and moldings stripped.) Hungary was an initially tacit and eventually (after 1940) official ally of the Germans. When Zsiga got his call up notice in 1939 he already knew it was likely he would have to fight in support of the Germans. For an avowed anti-fascist, this was intolerable. But Hungary was his country, and he loved it. What to do? In the midst of everything, Eleanor gets pregnant. Life continues somewhat normally for a few more months, and Eleanor enjoys one more spring on the estate. But when Germany invades Belgium in May 1940, it becomes clear that Sziga would have to fight. He urges her to return to America while she still can, and after some anguished uncertainty she does.

Perényi is convinced the absence will be relatively short and that she and Zsiga and the baby will be reunited after the war, but that’s not the way things turn out:

 When you leave a place you are never going to see again, you are supposed to have some sort of premonition. I have been mildly clairvoyant in my life, but not this time. I left as if I expected to be back the following week, straightening one of the little cherubs on each side of the clock, reminding Laci to throw out last month’s New Yorkers on the table by the porcelain stove, leaving the lid of the rosewood piano open… a hasty glance around the garden over which I had worked so hard… I didn’t pay any farewell calls. I didn’t go to take a last look at my trees in the orchard. I walked out with only one bag, got into the carriage to be driven to the station by Sandor as usual, and never looked back.

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I’m a sucker for stories of decaying, tragic Mitteleuropa; I’m really the ideal audience for this book. I could read about lavish hunting parties all day long, and I was fascinated by Perényi’s sympathetic portrayal of the local Jewish population. (Already in the 30s when Hungary introduced a looser version of the Nuremberg Laws, Eleanor and Zsiga helped a neighbouring Jewish landowner keep his property; later in the war Zsiga hid Jews on the estate and smuggled seed grain to help feed others in a nearby ghetto; some quick internet research tells me that it’s only about 40 miles from the estate to Sighet, the town from which a young Elie Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz.)

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But what I really love about this book, what sticks with me most, is Perényi herself. You can see again, in that passage of leavetaking, her matter of factness, her unwillingness to sentimentalize even this moment of great loss. And that’s only fitting because however much she loved Szöllös she loved Zsiga more, and—spoiler alert!—she loses him too, even though he survived the war. When he finally writes to her in the summer of 1945 she hasn’t heard from him in three and a half years. In that time of silence she worries less over whether he’s alive than what he might have been up to during the war. “He had always had a pessimism born of privation and failure,” she writes. Would he have supported the fascism he so detested because he felt the need to fight for Hungary? Would he have joined the Communist resistance even though his father detested Communism? She concludes, rather remarkably, I think:

I didn’t altogether trust him. I said to myself that he would never willingly have collaborated with the Germans, but on the other hand he might simply have failed to take any stand at all. Yes, I decided that that was probably what he had done. And I said too that I didn’t blame him for it, because the choice he faced was almost an impossible one to make…. But my motives were not all so high-minded, fair, or explainable. It was also true that by assuming he had chosen the safer curse, or no course at all, I spared myself the pan of worrying about him.

We already saw in the passage about fairy stories that Perényi is never as artless as we might expect her to be. I have to stop myself from calling this book “charming.” It’s almost charming—it’s almost a fairy story—but the sentiments in this passage aren’t charming. They’re heart-rending, not least because they’re a little cold, much harder on Perényi herself than on her husband or anyone else.

In the introduction to this reissue we learn what we don’t in the book itself: a year after its publication in 1946, Zsiga came to New York and lived with Perényi and their child for several months. But it didn’t work out. They couldn’t overcome the past, the differences in their lives. He didn’t want to live in the US and she didn’t want to go back to Europe. He died in 1965, shortly after his second wife. Heartbreakingly, it is said he always kept his copy of the book with him. Perényi herself never talked about what happened between them. She kept his name, though. But maybe that’s just what people did then. Amazingly, everyone in the book survives the war. But they don’t live happily ever after, at least not the way they thought they would.

More Was Lost is another example of what New York Review Books does best: bring you books you didn’t know how much you needed. How lovely that More Was Lost is lost no more.

“Teeming with Life”: Jean Giono’s Hill

Scott from Seraillon & I have organized a group reading of Hill. I’ll update this post with links as I learn of them. You can read what Grant from 1streading’s Blog, Teresa from Shelf Life, Frances from Nonsuch Books, and Dolce Belezza have to say about it.

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When I sat down to write about Jean Giono’s Hill (1929), I did what I usually do: I re-read the opening pages to get my head back into it. Then I did something I almost never do: I kept on reading until I’d read the whole book again. It helps that Hill, in this lovely new edition from New York Review Books, is only 112-pages long. But I bet if it had been three times as long I would have kept turning the pages, as hypnotized as the characters are by the story one of them tells to explain the events they’ve suffered through:

They were listening, with their eyes wide open, their jaws slack, their lips drooping, their pupils dilated, their hands frozen, overwhelmed by the vision of the avenging spirits of the vegetal world.

The “they” in this passage are the men of a tiny hamlet called the Bastides, halfway up the side of the Mount Lure in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Too tiny to even be called a village, the Bastides is a remnant, a leftover, an almost-abandoned former market town in which only four houses are still inhabited. Twelve people live here, plus an unlucky thirteenth, a gentle stranger, a simpleton the others call Gagou, after the only syllables he is able to make. There’s Gondran le Mérédic, who married Marguerite Ricard and farms the land that belonged to her father, Janet. There’s Aphois Arbaud and his wife, Babette, who have two small children. There’s César Maurras, who lives with his mother and a servant. And there’s Alexandre Jaume, whose wife committed suicide a few years back. He lives with his grown daughter, Ulalie.

Only on my second reading did I begin to get a handle on these characters. That’s telling: Hill isn’t a novel of character. In fact, it’s hardly a novel of human beings. Instead it’s a novel about the relationship between humans and the non-human world. As its title suggests, Hill is about the earth; in its world-view, geological formations are as alive as non-human animals or plants.

With that thought in mind, let’s return to that passage I quoted above. The men are “overwhelmed by the vision of the avenging spirits of the vegetal world.” They’ve been listening to Jaume as he tries to explain a series of frightening things they’ve experienced. But even though Jaume has a privileged place in the village—he reads, he’s the one the others turn to when they need their world explained to them—he isn’t held in the same esteem by the novel as a whole. We shouldn’t confuse Jaume’s explanation with the truth. No doubt the vegetal world of this book is animated. And no doubt the villagers have been right to be afraid of what’s happened to them. But whether the world is out to get them is less clear.

So what’s gone wrong for the people of Bastides? In his excellent introduction to this edition, the philosopher David Abram suggests it all starts when Gondran, working in his olive orchard, sees a lizard. He’s filled with a spasm of irritation. The text adds—and its narration is interestingly hard to get a handle on: often in present tense, sometimes in past, often in third person, but sometimes referencing a first person narrator, often omniscient but sometimes attached to a character’s perspective—“Man wants to be the master-beast, the one who kills.” Gondran smashes the lizard with his shovel. He’s first ashamed and then uneasy. A sound fills the air:

The wind comes rushing.

The trees confer in low voices.

(Giono likes one-sentence paragraphs.) Gondran gets back to his work, but as he does

 it occurs to him for the first time that there’s a kind of blood rising inside bark, just like his own blood; that a fierce will to live makes the tree branches twist and propels these sprays of grasses into the sky.

Here’s an example of what I said before: the book believes in something we might call a generalized sentience, a life force that manifests itself through everything on earth, not least the earth itself. A passage like this one seems to support Jaume’s later suggestion that the earth is taking revenge for the things people have done to it. Shortly after that day in the field, the villagers suffer a series of inexplicable events. First the village’s spring runs dry, forcing the villagers to carry water from an abandoned village far away. They set up a rotation but the effort irritates them and sets them against each other. Then one of Arbaud’s children get sick and no one in the village, not even Jaume with his medical book, can make her better. The fever that rocks the little girl’s body is echoed in the final catastrophe: a terrible forest fire sweeps across the region and threatens to destroy the village.

The villagers certainly think of these events as connected, and the novel doesn’t give us any reason to doubt that. But as to why they’re happening, well, that’s harder to say. Maybe it wasn’t the murder of a lizard. Maybe it all started when old Janet, Gondran’s father-in-law, is incapacitated by something like a stroke, leaving him bed-ridden in his daughter’s kitchen, able to do nothing other than swallow, move his fingers, and talk, talk, talk. Or maybe it started with the return of a black cat to the village, a cat the others are convinced is tied to unlucky events in the past. Or maybe it has to do with the connection between the old man and the cat. Janet, who seems to have some kind of supernatural power (as a younger man he was famous for dowsing), or the very least who sees in ways the others cannot, sometimes seems the know the source of the trouble, maybe even to have brought it on himself. Right after his stroke he says something to Gondran that could apply to any of the villagers: “When you come right down to it, you’re incapable of looking at a tree and seeing anything but a tree.” It sounds like a curse.

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You’ll notice I’m using a lot of qualifiers in describing these events. That’s because the book refuses to explain them. In fact it doesn’t even know exactly how to define them. Fittingly, Giono’s preferred pronoun is “it”, his favourite noun is some version of “thing”: “Then all at once, it started”; “It all took shape—a whole world being born out of his words”; “Whatever it is, it’s brought a cold sweat to their brows”; “There’s still this thing lingering in Jaume’s brain”; “This kind of thing, it always starts with someone who sees farther than the rest”; “It runs out of him in a stream and it’s not so funny.” Those are just a few examples.

But even though the characters are the ones who either directly (in speech) or indirectly (through the narrative voice) use these inherently vague terms, they aren’t satisfied with vagueness. And neither are readers. Needing an explanation, the villagers convince themselves that Janet must be the source of their trouble. They decide to kill him, sure that this is the only way they can get back to the good relationship they had with the hill. As their spokesman Jaume puts it:

“It’s Janet who made this happen, with his head full of ideas.

“Things were going well before all of this. It had never said or done anything to harm us. It was a good hill. It knew pleasant songs. It hummed like a big wasp. It let us have our way with it. We never dug too deep. One or two blows of a spade, what harm could that do? We walked across it without fear. When it spoke to us, it was like a spring. It spoke to us though its cool springs and its pine trees.

“He must have messed with it.”

The villagers’ scapegoating of Janet is disturbing. And yet as readers we’re complicit in the same thinking. We too want to know why the things that have happened have happened. The novel is sharply critical of this kind of knowing, which symbolizes a disposition towards the world that the philosopher Martin Heidegger, a contemporary of Giono’s, called “standing reserve.” When we see the world as a standing reserve, we see it only for our purposes, only for the ends we could put it to. We look at a river and we only see the hydroelectric power it could provide, for example.

But whereas Heidegger’s philosophy is fundamentally nostalgic—which might explain why he was seduced by fascism—Giono’s novel is harder to pin down, and all the better for that uncertainty. Once in a while it suggests an age-old peasant wisdom in which people live in harmony with the land. But it also argues that this so-called harmony is always exploitative. And yet as readers we are asked to sympathize with the people who perpetrate that exploitation. Is there any way of living on the land that isn’t living off it, in the way a parasite lives off its host?

Thus the ambivalence of the novel’s end is so fitting. At the last minute, the villagers don’t need to murder Janet because he dies, naturally as it were. And as soon as he does, the village’s spring starts running again. The fire has been beaten back. The little girl “looks like she’s doing better.” It’s a relief to have misfortune and acrimony between the villagers and their environment replaced by harmony and the hope of better things to come. This vision of plenitude is best symbolized by the newly plashing spring, which “sings a long lament that conjures up cold stones and shadows. The water trough quivers, teeming with life.”

Cold stones and shadows are lovely things, especially on hot Provencal days. But why a “long lament”? Here Giono qualifies the idyll he’s just given us. After all, there has been a scapegoat: the interloper Gagou succumbs (rather ecstatically, it must be said) to the fire. And on the book’s last page, the villagers shoot a wild boar and stretch its skin to dry on a tree. We might remember the murder of the lizard and worry what atrocities might arise from this new killing, especially when we read the novel’s last lines:

 Now it’s night. The light has just faded from the last window. A large star keeps watch over Lure.

From the skin, which turns in the night wind and drones like a drum, tears of dark blood weep in the grass.

It’s egotistical to think the nonhuman world would respond in human terms (vengeance, say) to human actions. But Hill conjures up such non-human emotional sentience on almost every page. Yet it doesn’t pit the non-human world against the human in a vision of environmental apocalypse that would only flatter human depredation (we must be special to have caused—even deserved—such harm). Nor does it aim for some consoling vision of harmony between the human and the natural.

That’s a lot of contradictions, I know. What’s amazing is how vividly Giono animates them in such a short book.

Here’s the final contradiction, one it would take a post much longer even than this one to tease out: if language is fundamentally human, something (maybe the main thing) that distinguishes the human from the non-human, would it even be possible for language to depict the non-human world in a way that wasn’t anthropomorphic or romantic? I think Giono accomplishes this feat. He’s very good at using language to represent things that seem inherently non-linguistic. In this he reminds me of another early twentieth century writer skeptical of knowledge and compelled to see a life force in all living beings, D. H. Lawrence. Both are visionary writers who value the non-human environment without apologizing for the humans who are inescapably but not necessarily harmoniously intertwined with it.

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Like many people, I’ve been preoccupied by and aghast at the fire that swept through Fort McMurray in my home province of Alberta and might burn for as long as a year. Since Fort McMurray is the center of the tar sands industry, a horrifying industrial sublime well captured by the photographer Edward Burtynsky, it’s tempting to see the fire as climatological blowback, the nightmarish effects of climate change coming back to strike one of the centers of the industry largely responsible for creating it. I’ve thought such things myself. But tell it to the people who have lost everything. It’s a lot easier to talk about karma from the safety of somewhere distant. Yet I’m also repelled by the “Alberta Strong!” chauvinism that insists “we” will return and rebuild. The Horse River fire is much more devastating than the one in Hill, but, more than anything I’ve read in the media so far, Jean Giono’s almost ninety-year-old novel helps me to think through our relationship to what we so casually call nature.

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I never know what to say about translations, especially when I haven’t compared them to the original. I know it’s bad form to ignore a book’s having been translated, but to me it’s just as unhelpful merely to assert how well it’s been done (a “sprightly new translation,” “ably translated by…” and so forth). So my apologies to translator Paul Eprile. I don’t know what to say, other than thank you. The translation seems powerful and lucid, as forceful as the original must be. I’m hoping Scott will have more to say about Eprile’s work, since I know he read both the original and the translation. All I can say is how excited I am to learn that Eprile will be bringing another Giono title into English. It can’t come soon enough.

Pulp Friction: Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming

Review of Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming (2015)

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Is this book any good? It’s not often that I have to ask myself that question.

Its author, Lavie Tidhar, seems like an interesting guy. An Israeli who grew up on a kibbutz, moved to South Africa, and now lives in London, Tidhar has written—in English, as best I can tell—quite a few books, mostly science fiction and fantasy.

Like those earlier works, A Man Lies Dreaming, much fêted in the UK on its publication last year and newly arrived in the US from Melville House, is genre fiction. I was going to call it a pastiche of hard boiled detective fiction, except that pastiche often means derivative, and this book, even though in dialogue with and indeed filching styles and phrasings from all kinds of books, is anything but derivative. And if pastiche is problematic, then calling this book hard-boiled is even more so. A Man Lies Dreaming is instead an example of a genre that seems endlessly interesting to writers—alternate histories of WWII-era Europe. In this regard, Tidhar’s book reminded me of Jo Walton’s Farthing trilogy. Walton is another writer who is nominally a fantasy writer but mostly writes books that are hard to classify.

A big difference between Tidhar’s book and Walton’s, and indeed almost every book that revisits the struggle against fascism, is that in his the Germans haven’t won the war. Indeed, there hasn’t even been a war, at least not as we know it. In his world, the National Socialists came to power only briefly before being decisively defeated by communism, an event ominously called the Fall by fascists and their opponents alike. A Man Lies Dreaming is set in England in late 1939. The fascist leader, Oswald Mosley—whose real-life attempts to bring fascism to England were scuppered in the 1930s (and who is memorably pilloried in P. G. Wodehouse’s peerless The Code of the Woosters)—is about to be democratically elected. Former high-ranking Nazis, who have made their way to England and drifted into various illegal enterprises, abet Mosley’s rise to power.

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Against this backdrop, Wolf, a down-at-heels private detective, is hired by a beautiful and rich young woman to find her sister. So far, so Hammett (or Chandler). Wolf is a bit different than Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, though. He makes us uneasy already from his first sentence: “She had the face of an intelligent Jewess.” No matter that his client, Isabella Rubenstein, is an intelligent Jewess. What disturbs is the attribution of her Jewishness to her physiognomy, and the not-so-coded anti-Semitic suggestion that her intelligence will lead to some sort of scheming or malice. Indeed, on the next page Wolf bluntly asserts that he won’t work for Jews—though his poverty and her wealth, as well as, more complicatedly, his intensely ambivalent relationship to Jews, means that he takes the case.

Our uneasiness about Wolf is soon confirmed in, well, spades. He’s none other than Adolf Hitler, reduced, if that’s the right way to put it, to pounding London’s mean streets as a gumshoe. The novel doesn’t explicitly name Wolf as Hitler until it’s almost over, but it’s not exactly keeping it a secret, either. Everything we learn about Wolf’s earlier life matches on to Hitler’s, and in a historical note at the end of the book Tidhar reminds us that Hitler “used the nom de guerre of ‘Wolf’” in the 1920s.

In turning Hitler from a dictator to a PI, Tidhar makes things uncomfortable for his readers. As developed by Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald and others, the hard-boiled detective was already Exhibit A in readers’ willingness to sympathize with disreputable characters. (These days we so equate Hammett’s Spade with the charisma of Humphrey Bogart that we are quick to forget the novel’s introduction of him as looking “rather pleasantly like a blonde Satan.”) Of course, those novels always gave us an out because the society in which the PI made his way was so corrupt that any uncertainty we felt about the hero paled in comparison to his singular ability to do the right thing—or maybe he could be such a moral exemplar precisely because he was beyond the phony morality espoused by everyone around him.

But what happens when the knight in dark armor is Hitler?

Tidhar uses the irony of his conceit to trouble our relationship to his central character. Hitler’s famous abstemiousness (no alcohol, no cigarettes, no meat) contrasts nicely with the usual private eye vices. And characters are forever wondering at how Wolf could have come down so far in the world—that’s partly presented as a function of his purity (unlike other Nazi leaders like Göring and Goebbels or even famously sadistic functionaries like Ilse Koch or Josef Kramer, all of whom appear in the novel, Wolf is unwilling to turn his hatred into mere criminality) and, conversely, partly as a way of reinforcing the delusory quality of Hitler’s appeal. It’s as though no one in the novel can imagine how he managed to sway as many people as he did for as long as he did.

Perversely, then, we are sometimes led to side with Wolf, even feel bad for him. After all, like any good, dogged, hard-done-by PI he pursues his case no matter what obstacles are thrown in his way. He’s even falsely accused of being the serial killer who is murdering London’s prostitutes (like most noir fiction, A Man Lies Dreaming has too many busy sub-plots).

But he’s still Hitler. He’s despicable: violent, full of hate, and convinced of his own superiority. (I haven’t even mentioned his line in violent and debasing sex.) So when terrible things happen to him we’re left cheering. At least, that’s how I sometimes felt. At others I was more relieved than triumphant. And mostly I simply didn’t know how to feel. It’s common for the hardboiled PI to suffer a lot of physical abuse. Tidhar takes that convention and runs with it, most dramatically when Isabella’s father—immensely rich and influential, yet another anti-Semitic cliché except that he is hardly the effete weakling of Nazi propaganda—ambushes Wolf in his office. After beating him to a pulp, Rubeinstein and his henchmen circumcise him.

This vivid, visceral, and totally insane moment has significant ramifications. One of the subplots involves a secret Jewish resistance group that smuggles Jews out of an increasingly anti-Semitic England and on to safety in Palestine. Wolf gets his hands on one of the resister’s identity papers and, replacing the photo with one of his own, he becomes Moshe Wolfson. Late in the novel, a devoted and misguided admirer finally goads Wolf into admitting that he is in fact Hitler. The upshot is a furious spasm of violence that eventually leads Wolf to break down—or is it break through? Kicking the boy over and over until he is nothing but pulp, Wolf screams “I’m Hitler! I’m Hitler! I’m Hitler.” That avowal doesn’t last long, and the scene concludes:

He was no one. He was nothing.

“I’m…” he said. The theatre was quiet. The seats were empty and silent with disuse. There was no one to hear him, no one to respond. No one to acknowledge him, there was no one to march to his tune.

“I’m a Jew,” he said, and laughed; but like Wolf himself, the sound meant nothing.

What are we supposed to make of that? (You can see that whatever this novel has going for it, it isn’t subtle.) On a first reading, it would seem that Wolf’s identification as Jew is presented as totally spurious (“the sound meant nothing”). But then what about the novel’s denouement, when Wolf—now Wolfson—makes his way on to a ship leading to a new life in Palestine? Are we to cheer the little boy who cheerfully tells Wolf, “You ain’t nothing mister. You ain’t worth shit”? Or are we to laugh—or cry?—at Wolf’s taking on of that most sacred of Jewish cultural traditions, the Jewish joke? Consider this entry from his ship’s journal:

In the latrines an argument over who is a Jew, some suggestion not everyone on board may be kosher. “Easy way to tell,” I said. Pissing against the wall in a row, we all had a good laugh. I looked at my Jew dick in my hand almost in affection.

Should we be enraged with Wolf’s appropriation of the people and culture his real life counterpart tried to exterminate? I mean, even here Hitler is still a dick. “Almost in affection”: ugh, what a shit. Or should we conclude that Wolf aka Hitler is really now a Jew? I can’t decide whether this perverse use of the idea that the Jew is a universal figure for suffering is only Wolf’s (and therefore something we can dismiss as delusional) or in fact the novel’s (and therefore something we’re supposed to take seriously). When even Hitler can be a Jew the term has become so metaphorical as to be meaningless.

 *

I’ve been talking about the novel as though it’s written in first person, but that’s only partly true. There are two other narrative voices in addition to the first person excerpts from Wolf’s diaries. They might help us decide what the novel wants us to think about its premise. The first of those voices continues the story that Wolf tells, but in third person rather than first. It’s unclear to me why we need both, since the third person sections don’t cast new light on the first person ones. We’re given no reason why any given piece of information is narrated in first or in third person; this arbitrary and unnecessary distinction is the weakest part of the book.

The second voice is also told in third person but it’s connected to someone else altogether, a man named Shomer who is interned in Auschwitz. Shomer is a fictionalized version of the real-life Yiddish writer Nokhem Meyer Shaykevitch, who wrote hundreds of popular novels, plays, and stories under that pseudonym. (So it’s a fictional version of a real person who in fact used a fake name to write his fictions: got that?) The real Shomer died in New York in 1905 and so was spared the Nazis’ largely successful attempt to destroy his linguistic and cultural world. Shomer became famous, or perhaps infamous, as the foremost purveyor of shund, that is, trash or lowbrow literature. As Tidhar explains, Sholem Aleichem (the leading Yiddish writer of the late 19th century and best known today for the stories that Fiddler on the Roof is based on) attacked Shomer’s work as poorly constructed and morally dubious.

Shomer is obviously Tidhar’s stand-in, though his attempt at rescuing Shomer would have been more convincing had Shomer had a larger role in the story. Having said that, though, I must acknowledge that Shomer is interned in a concentration camp and Tidhar’s point, I think, is that Shomer is no longer a human being or on the verge of no longer being one. (It’s worth noting that Tidhar’s brief descriptions of life in Auschwitz, in particular of the Sonderkommando and the Canada Men, the Jews who were forced to work the crematoria and to separate newly arrived prisoners from their families and their possessions, is more sensitively managed than usual and much less pious and lugubrious than, say, Martin Amis’s in his recent The Zone of Interest.)

That Shomer represents Tidhar becomes clear halfway through the book in a scene describing an encounter between two prisoners who discuss how anyone could ever write about what is happening to them. It will be clear to many readers—and if it’s not Tidhar makes it explicit in his note—that one of the men is Primo Levi, who argues that “the novelist must employ a language as clear and precise as possible, a language without ornament.” The other, less well known to English-speaking audiences, simply calls himself Ka-Tzetnik, that is, “inmate.” Ka-Tzetnik, who would later case a sensation at the Eichmann trial, where he fainted during his testimony, and who later wrote a serious of lurid Holocaust novels, including House of Dolls, about the camp brothels, argues with Levi:

To write of this Holocaust is to shout and scream, to tear and spit, let words fall like bloodied rain on the page; not with cold detachment but with fire and pain, in the language of shund, the language of shit and piss and puke, of pulp, a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions, of fantasy: this is an alien planet. Levi. This is Planet Auschwitz.

tzetnik

The anachronism of this speech—no one at the time and in that place would have spoken of the Holocaust—is beside the point, because this isn’t really Ka-Tzetnik speaking, it’s Tidhar. For him, pulp or popular literature is an appropriate way to talk about the Nazi extermination of European Jewry. It might even be the best way. I don’t think Tidhar is arguing that Levi is wrong, rather that his approach only tells part of the story, maybe doesn’t grapple with the utter insanity of what the victims are experiencing. (I do think Tidhar’s Levi is a caricature, though—and Levi in fact wrote about how the Lagers would have generated a new language had they existed any longer than they did—but I also think Tidhar wouldn’t take that as a criticism, since I don’t think he sees anything wrong with caricature.) Even Wolf/Hitler gets in on the act. On the boat to Palestine, he reads Conrad’s The Secret Agent, laconically concluding, “Have read better, by worse.” Of course Hitler would have no taste. But Tidhar we need to take more serious. Still for me the question remains: what can shund do that serious or traditional or highbrow literature cannot?

The answer seems to be that it lets us escape. The man of the title, the one who lies dreaming, isn’t primarily Wolf/Hitler (whose dreams are other people’s nightmares). Rather, it’s Shomer, who finds some respite from his concentration camp existence by imagining the story we are reading:

And Shomer’s mind shies from the glare, conjures up a safe haven, a world of mean streets and buxom dames and flat-footed detectives, as is, if only he could open up a secret door, he could be transported there, and be free.

 *

I read this book because I can’t get enough of the period it’s about, even when the period is an imagined version of the real one. But I also read it because I thought it might be something I could teach at the end of my course Literature after Auschwitz, which examines representations of the effects of the Holocaust on those who came after it, those who had no direct experience of it but whose experiences have nevertheless been sharply affected by it. The first time I taught the course, I ended with Ellen Ullmann’s recent novel By Blood, a book I like a lot and that fit pretty well with what I was trying to do but which was a bit too long and too interested in so many other things to be the ideal last book on the syllabus. (Sometimes books don’t teach well for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with quality.) I read A Man Lies Dreaming with one eye to its possible placement on the syllabus.

And that’s where I come back to the question I asked at the beginning. Is this book any good? But do I mean, does this book have literary merit? (Tidhar would say that could be a dubious proposition, one inclined to value certain kinds of books over others.) Do I mean, does this book treat fascism and the Holocaust in an ethically sound way? (Here everything depends on how we’re meant to take the book’s portrayal of Hitler.) Or do I mean, would this book be good to teach?

Here I am led to wonder about the relationship of prurience to critique in this book. I think there are pleasures that are regressive and pleasures that are critical. (And maybe some that are just pleasures.) Regressive pleasures are still pleasures—just because, for example, Downton Abbey is selling us a fantasy that whitewashes a restrictive class structure by pretending to overturn or undermine it doesn’t mean it’s not also satisfying to watch—but in the absence of any self-consciousness about that regression they’re dangerous.

Now A Man Lies Dreaming is nothing if not self-conscious. And it has the honesty to admit, in that passage I quoted above about Shomer’s dreams of pulp fiction, that what it is describing is a fantasy—“as if, if only he could open up a secret door, he could be transported there, and be free.” The challenge of reading A Man Lies Dreaming lies in figuring out what it thinks fantasy can do. When is fantasy mere indulgence, a hopeless, ineffectual, and even pernicious because distracting response to a horrifying reality? And when is it a powerful counter-force to that otherwise seemingly overwhelming reality? What’s so great about reality, anyway?, Tidhar seems to be asking. In the end, he lets Shomer dream himself into Wolfson’s place, so that he gets to be the one who is welcomed to Palestine. Is this escape, or is this escapism?

What do you think? Should I teach this book?