“As Long as We Both Should Live”: Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (Review)

This year I read three novels by Daphne Du Maurier. They’re all terrific. The Scapegoat, which I wrote briefly about, is the best of the lot—a completely satisfying book likely to feature in my year-end list. I also enjoyed her final novel, Rule Britannia (1972), a strange and compelling little book that I suspect was greeted with bemusement or even hostility at the time but that is uncannily prescient now: England has left the EEC and is on the brink of financial ruin (sound familiar?) and is taken over by the US. A once-famous actress features prominently; she turns out to have one more great role in her. Rule Britannia is a late work, with more than a touch of The Tempest in it. A bit ramshackle, no question, no one’s going to say it’s her best, but it’s absolutely worth reading.

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Anyway, I recently spent a few pleasant evenings reading My Cousin Rachel, an earlier novel (1951) that is often reckoned as one of her best. The narrator is Philip Ashley, who at the beginning of the novel lives alone on the Cornish coast on the estate of his guardian Ambrose. Some twenty years earlier, Ambrose had taken the orphaned Philip in and raised him in his idiosyncratic fashion. But now he has left the young man, who is recently down from Oxford, to his own devices, in order to travel in Italy in search of relief from his rheumatism.

In Florence Ambrose meets a cousin of theirs, a young widow. Some months later he writes Philip to say they have married and have no plans to return to England. But the idyll doesn’t last: Ambrose’s increasingly scarce letters are filled with complaints of poor health and grievances with the Italy he had previously extolled. Eventually Philip is alarmed enough to travel to Italy himself, but he finds only a grave: Ambrose has died, his wife has closed up their villa and gone away, and no one seems to want to tell him anything. An otherwise unsatisfactory meeting with her lawyer reveals that Ambrose never changed his will: Philip remains heir to the estate.

Shortly after returning to England, Philip learns that Rachel has arrived in Cornwall for a visit, and here the novel really begins. An intricate dance between the two follows. Philip, who has learned that Ambrose believed he was being poisoned, is initially suspicious and hostile to Rachel. But Rachel is charming and his attitude to her changes so much that he eventually decides to sign over the estate to her, even to marry her. A lot happens in the last third of the book, as Du Maurier forces us to wonder whether Rachel is a murderer who has insinuated herself into an inheritance that should never have been hers or a victim of two generations of the Ashley family’s misogyny and paranoia.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I read the novel, and I’m trying to keep these posts shorter, so I encourage you to read Rohan’s review; she articulates many of my feelings about the novel clearly and elegantly.

Like her, I was ensnared by Du Maurier’s clever narration: not until late in the novel did I realize how adroitly she had controlled my responses, from my initial disparagement of Rachel, through rising frustration at what I took to be the novel’s misogyny, to my final realization that I had taken aligned myself much too closely with Philip’s perspective. For even as I struggled with the novel’s portrayal of Rachel—it seemed so vindictive towards her—I was still assuming that she was in fact up to no good, a real femme fatale. I was, in other words, far too beholden to Philip’s point of view. At the end we are left unsure less about who did what to whom but about our own complacency as readers. Philip is no obviously untrustworthy narrator—he’s no Humbert Humbert, no Stevens—but he ends up being more disturbing for that.

Every time we think we’re ahead of the book we’re made to learn the error of our thinking. Apparent deficiencies reveal themselves to be carefully constructed traps. For example, if we find ourselves frustrated by the lengthy scenes in which Philip falls for Rachel without realizing it—why is it taking him so long to figure out what’s happening to him?—we are only thinking what the novel wants us to think. We have to feel superior to the narrator so that our later realization that we’ve been blind to his delusion and violence is that much more painful and powerful.

So we get a passage like this one, typical of the novel’s play with tone:

I went indoors and up to my room, and dragging a chair beside the open window sat down in it, and looked towards the sea. My mind was empty, without thought. My body calm and still. No problems came swimming to the surface, no anxieties itched their way through from the hidden depths to ruffle the blessed peace. It was as though everything in life was now resolved, and the way before me plain. The years behind me counted for nothing. The years to come were no more than a continuation of all I now knew and held, possessing; it would be so, forever and ever, like the amen to a litany. In the future only this: Rachel and I. A man and his wife living within themselves, the house containing us, the world outside our doors passing unheeded. Day after day, night after night, as long as we both should live. That much I remembered from the prayer-book.

Ostensibly a moment of calm and happy anticipation, this passage in fact reveals the narrator to be deluded, and more than that, creepy in his unearned confidence. (Look at the way he equates his present state of knowing and holding with “possessing”: recall the title, My Cousin Rachel.) Instead of seeming relieved and at rest, the narrator is empty, almost vacuous. This is a passage not just about the surfaces it references but also about superficiality. I simply don’t buy the narrator’s description of “blessed peace.” His responses seem to be governed by the half-remembered phrases of the Anglican wedding service; he’s a kind of automaton, and so it’s fitting that a few pages later he finds himself putting his hands around her throat without a clear sense of how he got there. We can take him at his words, but what do those words actually mean? And how is it that we could have been so sympathetic to him for so long?

 

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It’s quite a trick Du Maurier pulls off here in forcing us to ask questions of this sort. (And I don’t mean that disparagingly: the trick’s magic, not dirty.) But even her masterful manipulation of our response isn’t the best part of that book. That would have to be the portrayal of Louise, the daughter of Philip’s godfather, a woman everyone, even sometimes she herself, seems to think is destined for Philip. Louise is unexpectedly steely and resourceful. I loved that Du Maurier didn’t feel the need to pair her with Philip at the end. She suffers at his hands, but she’s no victim. I wouldn’t have minded a novel all about her.

In the end, though, as in all Du Maurier novels, as best I can tell, the real love affair isn’t with a person but with a property. No one loves anyone in this book as much as the book itself loves the estate. (Surprisingly, it is unnamed. No Manderley here. Or maybe that’s the point: we’re supposed to think of Du Maurier’s most famous novel and lay it over this one. Could this lack of definition be connected to the novel’s refusal to tell us when it is set? It’s presumably Regency, but it would have been so easy to make clear. Why didn’t Du Maurier do so?) Philip even acknowledges the power of houses—he tells Rachel soon after he meets her, “If it’s warmth and comfort a man wants, and something beautiful to look upon, he can get all that from his own house, if he loves it well”—but where he is mocking the novel is serious: it loves the house and its demesne well indeed. No real estate porn here, though. Rather, a completely unsentimental belief—which, based on my limited sample size, is one that Du Maurier held dear—that places are better than the people who merely pass through them.

 

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“I Told You Not to Look at Me”: Comic Books by Liana Finck and Manuele Fior

Earlier this fall I read two wonderful comic books in close succession, Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York (2014) and Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second (2009, translated 2016 by Jamie Richards, though the publisher does its best to bury this credit, hiding it in tiny print on the last page).

Artistically, they’re as different as could be, but they’re both beautiful. Thematically they didn’t at first seem to have anything in common, but paging through them again I start to see connections. Both are about dislocation and uncertainty, but one is much more confident than the other that these melancholy states can be overcome.

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Finck’s book is named after a popular feature in the Yiddish newspaper Der Forverts (The Forward)—“bintel brief” means “a bunch of letters”—in which readers wrote in with their personal problems and ethical dilemmas. This early advice column became a mainstay of the paper, which began publishing from the late nineteenth century and continues today (though in much-reduced form). By the late 1920s, its daily circulation was 275,000, though its influence dwindled as Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe (shamefully) ground to a halt in the 1930s. Even without these government restrictions, however, the paper would have declined. For its task was paradoxical: the more it addressed the concerns of Jewish immigrants to America—the more it helped them work through the difficult process of assimilation in a new world—the more it prepared its own obsolescence.

Yet contrary to the story of Yiddish disappearance that’s been dominant for fifty years (leading to a contrary narrative that’s rapidly becoming just as clichéd, namely, that Yiddish isn’t dying), A Bintel Brief is an energizing, even joyful book. Which is amazing, because it’s filled with stories of despair, uncertainty, and pain.

At the beginning of the book, the narrator’s grandmother sends her a notebook, one the narrator had often noticed in her grandparents’ apartment when she visited as a kid. It’s a scrapbook of pages clipped from old newspapers. When she opens it, out steps a man (“old-fashioned,” “otherwordly”) who introduces himself as Abraham Cahan.

In real life, Cahan was a novelist and journalist who edited The Forward from 1903 to 1946. In the book he is an impish, wise, and excitable figure who rapidly falls in love with modern life. (After he gets a haircut, some new outfits, and a sharp pair of glasses he looks like any other Brooklyn hipster.) Eventually, after making the point about his own obsolescence as the editor of a paper written in a language most of its readers are learning to give up, Cahan disappears from the narrator’s life. But this turn of events doesn’t feel sad, since the book is about giving up the past—not heedlessly, but hopefully. It’s about being honest with yourself about who you are. And it’s about rejecting the guilt that comes from leaving anything behind.

The story of Cahan and the narrator frames the heart of book, which consists of sample letters sent to The Forward. Finck has condensed and edited them to fit the form of a comic book, but she’s been faithful to the spirit of the original. The letters are remarkable—heartfelt, passionate, disturbing, upsetting. Cahan’s responses are measured, firm, almost terse. A recently married woman complains about the many duplicate wedding gifts she and her husband have received (pillow after pillow, lamp after lamp), then worries that she is ungrateful. A barber dreams of slitting a customer’s throat after being insulted and then becomes so obsessed he’ll follow suit in real life that he can’t go to work. A cantor loses his belief in God and wonders whether he can continue in his profession—after all, he knows no other. A childless couple is offered a baby—the mother is penniless and young and can’t keep him—and can’t decide whether to adopt it, imagining all the things that could go wrong, even though they want a child more than anything.

Cahan agrees with the woman that a gift registry (though of course he doesn’t call it that) is entirely sensible and anything but rude: “Your ‘dream’ of having a decent life in America would be better classified as a ‘reasonable expectation.’” He exhorts the barber to “simply laugh off the dream and drive the whole matter out of his head.” He reminds the cantor that freethinkers and believers alike agree that “only a pious Jew may be a cantor” and for a nonbeliever to continue in the role would be “a shameful hypocrisy.” Yet he adds that many cantors have gone on to find work in the theater: “There may be other opportunities for you to make use of and honor your voice.” And he chides the couple for their “Hamletism”: “You should stop asking ‘to be, or not to be,’ and adopt the child immediately.”

Throughout, Cahan’s sympathy for the plight of new immigrants, all of whom are poor and oftentimes exploited, is apparent. To a woman who writes that she is convinced her friend and neighbour has stolen her watch, a precious gift from her son, which keeps the family from going hungry because she pawns it whenever they run out of money, Cahan writes, “What a picture of the wretchedness of the worker’s lot is to be found in this letter!”

These personal conflicts become even more powerful by being told through Finck’s arresting illustrations. The black and white drawings (interspersed with the occasional illustration in the pale blue of old airmail envelopes) express the past without being mannered or old-timey. Finck’s lines are often wispy (an artistic objective correlative for the Yiddish luftmensch, maybe?), but more powerful moments are usually rendered in a thicker, expressionist style. I’m not much good at describing drawings. Take a look at these examples instead:

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Although intelligently and carefully illustrated, words, as its title suggests, matter a lot in A Bintel Brief. That’s not true of 5,000 km per Second, which contains very few words, most of them from conversations that remain unfinished or at cross-purposes. The story is a love triangle, sort of. Piero is a shy, smart teenager with a garrulous, outlandish, confident, not very nice friend, Nicola, who makes fun of him in the guise of looking out for him. Yet Piero isn’t that nice. We see this in his relationship with Lucia, a girl who moves with her mother into Piero’s apartment building at the beginning of the book, and who he falls for. The not nice part doesn’t come until much later, though. At first he seems hard done by. For as soon as they get together, it seems, they separate. (I say “seems” because of Fior’s narrative structure and editing: each section of the book jumps forward in time without any exposition.) Piero travels to Egypt and Lucia to Norway. She writes him a letter breaking off their relationship—“without you I can breathe again”—and ends up with the son of her host family. Years later, pregnant with her first child, she reads about Piero’s work as part of an archaeological team in Egypt and calls him. (Their initially awkward but increasingly intimate conversation, pursued across a continent and despite the one-second lag in the phone call, gives the book its title.) Later, they meet up again back in Italy and get together for a drink. That evening, at first joyful and heartfelt, then increasingly maudlin and rueful, eventually becomes upsetting, even sinister. In a riveting scene, he follows her to the bathroom of the bar and locks the door. Their sex is consensual, probably, but a failure. Fior captures the indignity of middle-aged intimacy without disparaging that desire. In fact, since we see it as a product of all the ways that life seems to make choices for us, all the ways we become people we couldn’t have expected to become, we sympathize with it deeply—but we don’t romanticize it either.

Piero can’t get it up; Lucia tells him to take her home. In a central panel she repeats what she said at the beginning of their fumbling: “I told you not to look at me.” We can read this as her shame at herself, at the body she’s become. But we can also read it as a demand, almost a snarled rejection: leave me alone. After all, Piero is married with a child. His desire for Lucia after all this time seems driven more by anger and insecurity (he’s convinced things didn’t work out with Lucia because Nicola was always getting in the way) than by constancy and star-crossed love. In a final turn of events, our sympathy for Lucia is challenged. We’re left unsure whether there’s anyone to admire in the book, but a coda set in the early days of their teenage courtship reminds us of the joyful start of even relationships that turn bad for reasons that are too complicated to parse.

Fior’s drawings are sumptuous without being lovely (nothing twee about this book). Even when vibrant the colours have a sickly hue. Greenish yellows, browns and purples predominate. See what I mean?

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I learned about this book from Shigekuni; be sure to read his compelling review.

It’s strange: although at first I liked Bintel a lot more than 5,000, the latter has stayed with me longer. Warmth is probably the quality that’s most important to me—definitely in people, and often in books. Finck’s book—so sympathetic to both those who need advice and those who give it—has warmth in spades. Fior’s book is not warm—not cold, exactly, but definitely unsparing, sometimes just this side of tawdry, though also keenly aware of what time does to people—but I keep thinking about it. That doesn’t mean it’s better. It just rattled me a little more.

Fortunately, reading isn’t a zero-sum game, so no need to choose. They can be read in an hour, but they’ll stay with you a lot longer. The best news is that Fink and Fior each have a new book out in English in 2018. I’ll be getting to them as soon as I can.

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“Wonderful, Cheerful”: Marie Darrieussecq’s Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker

Now this is the kind of thing I like. The French novelist Marie Darrieussecq has written a wonderful short book, an essay really, on the early 20th-century painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. It’s not a volume of art criticism. It’s not a biography. (In principle, I should love biographies. I love the bits and pieces of people’s lives. But anything that starts with parents and grandparents, or, God forbid, a family tree, ugh I just can’t do it.) You’ll learn a lot about Modersohn-Becker from this book, and about the circle of painters and writers she lived among, including, most famously, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, but you’ll learn it causally, almost offhandedly. Darrieussecq says she is not writing “Paula M. Becker’s life as she lived it, but my sense of it a century later. A trace.”

Before discovering Darrieussecq’s trace I knew nothing of Modersohn-Becker, and I can’t even remember how I came across this book, but I’m glad I did because both the artist and this book about her are wonderful. I’m tempted just to fill this post with examples of Modersohn-Becker’s work. Take a look at these:

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A word about names: Darrieussecq calls Modersohn-Becker by her first name. Normally, I can’t stand that kind of thing in biographies, etc. The familiarity feels unearned, presumptuous. Darrieussecq has her reasons, though. She won’t call her Paula Becker, her maiden name. Nor Modersohn-Becker, the name she took after marrying the painter Otto Modersohn. Nor even Becker-Modersohn, as the museum of her work in Bremen has it. As Darrieussecq explains:

Women do not have a surname. They have a first name. Their surname is ephemeral, a temporary loan, an unreliable indicator. They find their bearings elsewhere and this is what determines their affirmation in the world, their “being there,” their creative work, their signature. They invent themselves in a man’s world, by breaking and entering.

I like this passage. It begins conventionally enough, almost doctrinaire. But Darrieussecq isn’t bemoaning women’s victimhood. Women do find their bearings, they affirm themselves in the world. But it’s not easy. And so then comes the passage’s sting, a lovely little image of how this self-invention happens in a patriarchal world: women break and enter. Not to steal but to make a place for themselves, a task that is creative (they “invent”). If they won’t be invited they will enter however they can.

So I’ll follow Darrieussecq’s lead and call her Paula. Does Paula break into a man’s world? I’m not actually sure she does. But she does something more important: she becomes the person she wants to be. Paula has a marvelous insistence. For example, in May 1900, she writes from Paris, where she has gone to study, to her acquaintances Otto and Hélène Modersohn back at home in the artist colony of Worpswede near Bremen, telling them what she is doing and seeing in Paris. They must both come to visit, she urges. But especially he must come:

Dear Frau Modersohn, I know you are not well, what with all these flus and colds this winter, but if you are not up to the trip, do send your husband. Of course, he will say no; he won’t want to leave without you, but be firm, don’t give in to him. A week will suffice. He will return to you full of vivid impressions.

Modersohn says he cannot come. Then he sends a telegram: he is coming. He arrives on June 10th. Four days later, he returns in haste to Worpswede. Hélène is dead. Paula returns too and gives up Paris. The next year she and Otto marry.

But it’s unclear that Paula set out to pursue Otto. And as it turns out, their marriage is not really a success. Otto’s painting is not as good as Paula’s. He is not as imaginative and sensitive as his friend, Rilke. Otto admires his wife’s painting, but Darrieussecq thinks he misunderstands it, praising it as naïve and simple when it is neither. In general Darrieussecq presents Otto as a problem for Paula, not so much an oppressive patriarch but rather something like an oaf who has the power of the patriarchy behind him. (Though, to be fair, he will take care of the two small girls he has been left by each wife; he will tend Paula’s legacy assiduously.) Eventually Paula leaves him. Later they reconcile, briefly. After years of not wanting a child she gets pregnant, probably by her husband. The birth is difficult, and Paula is sentenced to bed rest. When she gets up, eighteen days later, she immediately collapses and “dies of an embolism, from lying down too long. As she collapses, she says ‘Schade.’ Her last word. ‘A pity.’” It is November 1907. Paula is 31 years old.

Always, throughout this short life, Paula is insistent. She is driven to create. She writes to her mother that something in her cries for air, and won’t be silenced. Her soul “hungers for something profound,” she tells her husband. And she satisfies that hunger. She works hard, painting all day, almost every day. Striking, beautiful paintings.

Being Here is beautiful too, but it’s not especially elegant. The prose doesn’t feel as freighted, as poetic, as portentous as some of the great essayists I love even though that style can grate (John Berger, or Annie Dillard, say). I don’t mean that Darrieussecq is a bad writer. Far from it. But elegance isn’t what she’s after. Maybe that’s one reason she is so drawn to Paula, whose figures (especially their hands) are often misshapen or bent.

Darrieussecq has a way with pithy, paradoxical observations (she is French, after all): “There is no sounder basis for a relationship than misunderstanding.” She also writes sentences that don’t seem fancy or clever but that strike a chord: “She must love her mother to write her such wonderful, cheerful letters”; “A sitting takes a long time. ‘My bum has gone blind,’ one of her models, an old man, told her.”

The book is episodic, filled with fragments. About a holiday she takes in the summer of 1904 with Otto and some friends in a nearby village, Darrieussecq offers “two highlights”: “Paula’s bed collapses; Paula and Heinrich Vogeler have a violent argument. That’s all I know about it.” The abruptness of the prose and the jaggedness of the short sections the book is divided into create the sense of the past as foreign and unknowable.I found myself trusting Darrieussecq all the more because of the fragmentary and partial nature of her representation.

Despite having been surrounded by other artists, indeed of having spent most of her life in an artist colony, Paula is in Darrieussecq’s portrait fundamentally solitary. Darrieussecq describes her as “a woman who paints, alone, whose paintings are not seen.”

Those paintings aren’t seen in this book, at least not literally. (In all the most important ways, Darrieussecq absolutely sees her, and helps us to see her too.) It’s strange that the book contains no reproductions, a fact probably explained by cost and copyright and similar practical concerns. But I think it’s also a choice on Darrieussecq’s part. Late in the book she writes:

The paintings exist. They are sufficient unto themselves. She does not say much about them. She rarely speaks about her art. … And anyway: how do you write paintings? You can describe their features, their shapes, their contrasting colours. You can express an opinion, criticize them. You can provide an historical perspective and put them into context. But write them? There is a huge gap between the words and the images. Dreams and projections arise from the faultline.

(Typical Darrieussecq: she complicates her own claim in that last sentence. The gap between painting and writing isn’t just an absence. It describes possibility as much impossibility.)

Darrieussecq doesn’t say much about the features, shapes, or contrasting colours of the paintings. She gives us some context, but no grand historical overview. Instead as I’ve tried to show she gives us bits of Paula’s daily life.

But Darrieussecq does have something like an argument to make, especially when it comes to telling us how Paula paints the female body:

In Paula’s work there are real women. I want to say women who are naked at long last: stripped of the masculine gaze. Women who are not posing in front of a man, who are not seen through the lens of men’s desire, frustration, possessiveness, domination, aggravation.

These women aren’t coquettish or exotic or provocative or any of the other qualities that Darrieussecq, in a bravura passage, associates with one after another of the great male painters of the European tradition.

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And her paintings don’t just feature real women: they show real babies, too. Darrieussecq is especially struck by a painting of a woman breastfeeding. It is “not sentimental, or pious, or erotic: another sort of sensuality. Boundless. Another sort of power.” Seeing this painting makes Darrieussecq wonder why she had never heard of Paula Modersohn-Becker before. And in that moment comes the impetus for the book: “I had to write the life of this artist and help to make her work known.”

Paula doesn’t just paint other women. She paints herself too. The book’s cover reproduces one of the now famous self-portraits painted while she was pregnant. Thinking about Paula’s paintings of her pregnant body brings Darrieussecq to one of the few times she inserts herself and her own experience into the text. (I actually don’t mind that sort of thing, but books in which the writing “I” is at least as much a part of the work as whatever thing or place or artwork it’s observing have become so commonplace that Darrieussecq’s reticence is striking.) After reflecting on facticity of Paula’s pregnant self-portraits (they show the reality of what they show; they are not allegorical, like, for example, a contemporary painting by Klimt’s called “Hope”), Darrieussecq explains that the only photograph of her in her home is a portrait taken when she was six months pregnant:

At the time, I often offered it to journalists when they asked me for an author photo. It was rejected every time. The answer was always the same: ‘We’d like a normal photo.’

For Paula, pregnancy, like everything else that met her gaze, whether birch trees or chickens or old men, was normal. Ordinary not in the sense of unimportant but rather in the sense of being worthy of being recognized.

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When we think of modernist artists preoccupied by thing-ness or objectivity (and then with metaphorical or symbolist rejections of objectivity) we might think of Rilke. Another appealing thing about this book is that Rilke doesn’t steal the show. (Hard to avoid—he was pretty much a show-stealer, as best I can tell.) He is important—a phrase from The Duino Elegies, “Being here is wondrous,” gives Darrieussecq her title—but he’s not the star. Darrieussecq likes him more than Otto. I think she’s glad, impressed almost, that he and Paula never became romantically or sexually entangled. They were kindred spirits: the best artists of their circle; they respected each other. There was something like equality between them. Indeed, if anything Paula was the one person who could make him do things for her. (There’s a nice bit about some furniture left over from her Paris studio that she makes the eminently impractical Rilke dispose of. The whole business really flummoxes him.) But in the end Rilke fails Paula, saying of her to an interviewer in 1924: “The last time I saw Paula Modersohn was in Paris in 1906. I didn’t know her work very well at the time, or afterwards, and I still don’t know it.”

In the end, though, Rilke’s self-serving and disappointing dismissal of Paula doesn’t matter. Paula’s life was too short, but it was a good life. When Darrieussecq falls in love with Paula’s work she is struck by the feeling that she misses Paula. She regrets not only not having known her work before, but, more dramatically, not having been able to know her. The lovely thing about Being Here is the way it overcomes that gap, repairs that impossibility. It makes us feel Paula’s being; it allows us to be with her. It’s a happy book, it made me happy anyway. And can’t we all use more happiness these days?

Louise Penny’s Crime Fantasies

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Louise Penny is the best bad writer I know.

A couple of months ago, I read Glass Houses, the most recent installment of the Inspector Gamache mysteries. It’s by no means the best in the series but it helped me think about what’s particular to Penny’s work.

If you have any interest in crime fiction, you probably know about Louise Penny. (If you haven’t read her and you think you might, beware that there are a few, though not too many, spoilers in what follows.) She is famous for her lead detective, Armand Gamache: impossibly decent, intellectual, large-spirited, and psychologically well adjusted. (He isn’t tormented or self-destructive or alcoholic or divorced, which makes him a welcome change from many fictional detectives.) But for me, anyway, more appealing than her protagonist is her setting, specifically her enticing depiction of the Eastern Townships between Montreal and the US border, especially her fictional village of Three Pines. When I say fictional, I don’t just mean that Penny’s made Three Pines up. I mean that even in the world of the novels it doesn’t really exist—it’s not on any maps, no one’s ever heard of it, people only stumble upon it (and once they do they never want to leave), it’s out of cell, GPS, and internet range. In short, it’s more a fantasy than an actual place.

Specifically, it’s a fantasy about the healing power of community. Those who come to Three Pines are usually hurting, and the place nurses them back to health. It’s a place where people work only at the things they love, a place where they take walks, eat plenty of delicious food, drink plenty of delicious drinks, and somehow seem to have all the money they need.

But Penny has the good sense to emphasize the sting hidden in every paradise. For one thing, the murder rate is alarmingly high (hazard of any small-town crime setting: think Murder, She Wrote’s Cabot Cove). More interestingly, the healing or peace promised by Three Pines doesn’t come easily, maybe doesn’t come at all. People have their demons, most of which are convincingly ordinary (insecurity, jealousy, anxiety). Penny is excellent at showing how such seemingly minor problems can lead to terrible outcomes.

*

I’ve been following Penny from the beginning, thanks to my wife, who picked up her first novel, Still Life, from the (now apparently shuttered) bookstore in the Halifax airport over ten years ago, back when Penny only had a UK publisher. I’ve always been terribly shallow when it comes to book covers, and I didn’t think the book could be any good because it was so ugly. I’d have never picked it up on my own. (I’ve also never been much for Canadian crime fiction—have at me in the comments, tell me what’s good.) Fortunately, my wife is much more broad-minded than I am. She prodded me to read it, and I liked it quite a bit. In general, the first few novels were quite good. And I especially liked the idea that Penny was writing a quartet—one book for each season. That seemed to be the idea, initially. But then they became a phenomenon, and the series took off.

As the books went on, the things I didn’t like became harder to overlook. I gritted my teeth at the lame banter among the Gamaches and their friends (the gay couple Gabri and Olivier, owners of the village’s B & B and bistro, are particularly egregious examples: they’re supposed to be arch, but they just come across as tragic). I rolled my eyes at Penny’s weakness for puns and long-running jokes (there’s one with a pet duck that says “fuck fuck fuck”—the less said the better). And I even got tired of the luscious descriptions of food and drink, though no one can beat Penny when it comes to describing how lovely it is to escape Canadian weather for a cozy fire and a bowl of warm nuts.

Most of all I was bothered by the prose, which is workmanlike at the best of times. All writers have their tics: one of the Penny’s that’s particularly annoying is her fatal attraction for sentence fragments. (I don’t actually have any of her books to hand, so I can’t quote an example. But they are the kind of sentence fragments that are supposed to add suspense or emphasis, but which just end up being clunky.)

After the seventh book, A Trick of the Light, a particularly uninspired outing, I gave up on the series for several years. But earlier this year I picked up where I left off, largely because I started listening to audio books on my commute, and the library had recordings of the whole series. Listening instead of reading made a huge difference, especially because Ralph Cosham was a brilliant narrator. His Gamache was so compelling: even now, when I’m once again reading the books, I still hear his voice in my head. I suspect he eased over those sentence fragments (smoothing the chopped up pieces into complete sentences). For whatever reason, Penny’s prose bothered me much less in Cosham’s narration. It was a shock to learn that Cosham died suddenly after recording the tenth book, The Long Way Home. The new guy, , Robert Bathurst, had an unenviable task. But even allowing for the fact that the first voice you hear is probably the one you’ll like best, I don’t think Bathurst is a good fit for the series (hectic rather than ruminative, sage-like). After listening to the first of Bathurst’s readings recordings—it didn’t help that it was the preposterous The Nature of the Beast—I went back to paper.

And at this point, I’m so invested in the series that not even Penny’s mediocre prose can stop me. Especially because Penny does some things extremely well. Her books are varied in style: some are classic remote location-fixed set of character mysteries (what I think of as country house murder mysteries a la Poirot (The Beautiful Mystery, a personal favourite), some are spy stories (The Nature of the Beast), some are missing person investigations (The Long Way Home). Some focus on Gamache’s friends; some take him far afield.

With its commitment to the real, crime fiction is good at teaching us about places. And you can learn a fair bit about Quebec history and culture from Penny’s books. Admittedly, some volumes are more successful than others in this regard. Hits include the references to the painter Clarence Gagnon in The Long Way Home or the fictionalized Dionne Quintuplets in How the Light Gets In. Misses include a backstory involving the real-life engineer and ballistic missile developer Gerald Bull in The Nature of the Beast and the references to the Spanish tradition of the cobrador, a debt collector, in the new book, Glass Houses.

 

 

Clarence_Gagnon_-_The_Valley_in_December-1908

Like many long-running crime series, the relationships between the main characters have become more important than the crimes. That’s especially true of the one between Gamache and his second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Penny, herself a recovering alcoholic, does a particularly good job with the story of Jean-Guy’s addiction to prescription medication (played out over several volumes and frighteningly dark without ever being melodramatic).

But where Penny is at her best is in presenting epic struggles between good and evil. From the beginning of the series, Penny presents Gamache as struggling against corruption in the Sûreté du Quebec. Initially, this malevolence is a backdrop to the cases Gamache investigates, a kind of whispered possibility of something larger out there. But as the series goes on that battle takes center stage. The canvas of characters gets bigger; we get a better sense of the history that’s led to the current state of affairs. But Penny isn’t a sociological crime writer, the way someone like Jean-Claude Izzo or Leonardo Sciascia were. The more you read her works, the more you see that realism isn’t really her game. (The depiction of the fentanyl crisis in the new book is a case in point—it’s presented as an existential crisis, a canker on the soul of the province rather than a function of specific socio-political forces.) How the Light Gets In is probably the pinnacle of the series so far. It’s genuinely exciting. Suspenseful, yes, but more edge-of-your-seat-will-the-little-band-of-warriors-defeat-the-forces-of-evil than whodunit.

Penny, in other words, is a fantasy writer who happens to write about crime, more Tolkien than Christie. What makes Penny of her moment is the way she applies popular psychology to those epic battles of good versus evil. Penny’s books are full of what some readers might call psychobabble. I actually find Penny quite compelling on the importance of admitting our vulnerability, and devastating in her portrayal of how everyday emotions like insecurity can cause so much hurt to the ones we say we love. The juxtaposition of this language of therapy with a genre (fantasy) that I don’t associate with psychological acuity is weird and often clunky but a large part of what gives Penny her distinctive flavour and, I suspect, her staying power.

Most of the books after How the Light Gets In have detailed the aftermath of Gamache’s victory over the forces that sought to undermine the Sûreté. It’s nice to see Penny taking so long with this task: rot can’t be easily eradicated. I’ve no idea where this will all go. I thought Penny had written herself into a corner already a few times in the series, and she’s always got out of it. So I’ll stick around to see what she does next.

Does anyone know any other crime writers who write in this way? Who are really more like fantasy or science fiction writers? Is this a thing and I’d just never come across it before?