Talking about Books: Arcadia, by Iain Pears

Summer Magic: Iain Pears' Arcadia and a glass of wine.

I got home late-ish on Friday night, picked up Iain Pears’ Arcadia to read a chapter or so of before turning in, and basically disappeared until late Saturday night. To be honest, I kind of knew that was coming–I’ve been excited about this book since I first heard it was coming out and I’ve read and loved all of Iain Pears’ novels, and own most. (And Arcadia! I hoped there were connections to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which I love, and there are!)

First off, the plot of Arcadia is hugely complicated. If you’re familiar with Pears’ work, you won’t be surprised by this: An Instance of the Fingerpost told the same story from four perspectives; the three stories that made up Stone’s Fall were told in reverse order, The Dream of Scipio considers the same fundamental questions through several crises in history…. Lots going on, always. You don’t read Iain Pears with your brain turned off. (His art history series is less challenging but very enjoyable.

Screen shot of Iain Pears' Arcadia App, my phone. Iain Pears explicitly and consciously plays with forms of narration in his work. He talks narrative strategy in this article in the Guardian, in which he introduces the app that he designed for this book. From what I can garner (I read the old school hardback pictured above) the app is an ebook that lets you rearrange the narrative based on whose story you are interested in. There are ten narrative lines (the student’s tale, the professor’s tale) and you can follow read straight through on one narrative line, or stop to move to another. He mentions that critics of his previous novels thought they were too complicated, that readers complained because you had to remember a detail for 500 pages or so. (I’m thinking this is what note cards are made for, that’s how I made it through The Children’s Book, because, as much as I love Byatt, that book positively sprawls.) So he created the app to make things easier on the reader. I’m also wondering what this does to the function of the author– I’d need to play around in the app a bit to really have an opinion, but right now it seems to venture towards the “Choose Your Own Adventure” realm… not really there, of course, because the plot is set and I’m not sure how much the order matters. Perhaps I’ll understand this a bit more when and if I explore the app. Check out this video if you’re interested in the app.

But back to the novel. There is a lot going on at all times. Or at one time. Or however you interpret time, which is a central question of the book. That said, I only needed to flip around in the book to remind myself who someone was once or twice– in some books with multiple interweaving timelines (ahem, David Mitchell) I spend as much time analyzing and tracking as I do enjoying. Not the case in this book.

There are three worlds (for lack of a better designation) in Arcadia: Anterworld, a pastoral idyll with heaping helpings of all things Shakespearean; 1960’s Oxford, where Henry Lytton (friend of Tolkien and Lewis) writes stories about his ideal world as a respite from his war work; and Mull, a far-future totalitarian government in which Angela Meerson’s subversive discoveries about time travel threaten the prized stability. But divisions between these worlds are far from distinct: Henry Lytton has an idiosyncratic friend named Angela Meerson, the world he writes about is called Anterworld, and the rest is plot that I don’t care to spoil for you.

I highly recommend this book. I loved the characters, I loved the worlds, I loved the narration, I loved the problems that it was preoccupied with. Get it, you won’t be disappointed. And the app is free!


Tannie Maria and Nelly Dean: best books of the last year (1 of 4)

I’ve read a ton since the last time I posted here. I should know– I’m packing right now, and I believe my book boxes are at least that heavy. It’s not unusual for me to rave about a book: I generally think most of the books that I read are amazing. If the ending wasn’t wretched, and the dog didn’t die… hey, I liked it enough to finish it, it’s probably still a little bit alive for me, so I’m going to have something good to say. Six months later? I’m all “I think there was a boat in that, right?” and couldn’t pick the lead character out of a lineup.

But these books. These do not present that problem. These are the books that have stuck with me, that I’ll read again. So without further ado:

1. Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery, Sally Andrew

Tannie Maria is a 50-something newspaper columnist in a small town in South Africa. (Tannie is a term of respect for a woman in Afrikaans.) Her column used to be all recipes, but the newspaper owners demanded an advice column, and so now she does both. Or rather, since she doesn’t think she has much to say about love or relationships, she gives people recipes that help with their problems. But sometimes that’s not quite enough….

From the back cover:

Recipe for Murder
1 stocky man who abuses his wife
1 small tender wife
1 medium-sized tough woman in love with the wife
1 double-barrelled shotgun
1 small Karoo town marinated in secrets
3 bottles of Klipdrift brandy
3 little ducks
1 bottle of pomegranate juice
1 handful of chilli peppers
1 mild gardener
1 fire poker
1 red-hot New Yorker
7 Seventh-day Adventists (prepared for The End of the World)
1 hard-boiled investigative journalist
1 soft amateur detective
2 cool policemen
1 lamb
1 handful of red herrings and suspects mixed together
Pinch of greed
Throw all the ingredients into a big pot and simmer slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon for a few years. Add the ducks, chillies and brandy towards the end and turn up the heat!”

This was one of my Christmas books, and I loved the cover so much that I read it first. And then I bought the audiobook and I’ve listened to it three or four more times since then. Maria is smart and lonely and hopeful and I just loved her and her world more than I can say. A bunch of Tannie Maria’s recipes are included in the back– they sound delicious, and once I’m settled into my new kitchen, I’ll let you know! And I highly recommend the audiobook– Sandra Prinsloo’s voice is perfect for the book. Only downside to the audiobook is that you can’t immediately look up the Africaans words in the glossary in the back, but I think the context makes it clear enough. And while the book certainly stands alone, happy days, it’s the first in a series! The second  comes out on July 7, and you can bet it’s on my calendar.

2. Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights, Alison Case

Nelly Dean has been taking care of Wuthering Heights and the Grange since she was a girl. She told Lockwood the story of Wuthering Heights when he asked, but now she’s filling out the story with all of the things she left out the last time. And she left out almost everything.

I read Wuthering Heights for the first time when I was about 12, long before I cared about or even noticed unreliable narrators, or even narration as a thing to be concerned with. It was all about the story, and who did what and who loved who. or whom. whatever. Long before I cared about that, too. It was one of a few books that basically made my teenage years: Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Phantom of the Opera… overblown romance, a little hidden passion, and I’m there. Always a bit more Marianne than Elinor. Loved that one, too, but basically because the older sister is the smartest. Obviously.

But I’ve been thinking a bit more about narration lately, (taught Nella Larson’s Passing, and so introduced my class to the wonderful cacophony of an unreliable narrator; I rewrote a paper that had been giving me fits to focus on the narrator) and when I did my annual re-read of Wuthering Heights (usually in February), I was very aware of Nelly Dean’s pauses and gaps and linguistic stumbles. And then I was given Nelly Dean for Valentine’s Day, and was completely swept away. I did some research after– apparently I’m an idiot and people have been talking about the unreliable narration of Wuthering Heights for ages… oh well.

(In a completely random full-circle moment, one of the books that I used to frame my thinking about the narration in that paper I rewrote was Alison Case’s Plotting Women: Gender and Narration in the 18th and 19th-Century British Novel. And I only knew her name sounded familiar until I finished the book and was gobsmacked by how good it was and looked her up, and lo and behold, she’s in my library “borrow list.” And the worlds collide.)

What I’m Reading: The Flight of the Falcon, by Daphne du Maurier

The Flight of the Falcon (1965) is generally considered one of Daphne du Maurier’s less-successful works–it wasn’t mentioned in her obituary and The New Yorker called it “extraordinarily dull”–but it’s always been my favorite.

Armino Fabbio has been marking time as a tour guide for the “beef and barbarians” that come to visit Italy. (Beef is his term for the English tourist, barbarian for the American.) After a beggar woman, slumped in a corner of the palazzo, reminds him of home, Armino dreams all night: of Ruffano, the ducal palace, and the inhabitants—his parents, Marta, and Aldo. Aldo most of all.

In his dream, Armino remembers acting out the story of Lazarus with his brother. He has been swaddled in his father’s faintly-stinking night-shirt and thrust into the laundry closet to await Aldo’s voice of Christ.

The handle of the closet turned. The door softly opened. Aldo cried, “Lazarus, come forth!”

So great was my dread, so disciplined to his commands my spirit, that I dared not disobey. I came forth, and the horror was that I did not know whether I should meet with the Christ or with the Devil, for according to Aldo’s ingenious theory the two were one, and also, I some manner which he never explained, interchangeable.

Thus at times my brother, robed in a towel as Christ, bearing a walking-stick for crook, beckoned me with  smile, fed me with sweets, put his arms about me, was kind and loving.But at others, wearing the dark shirt of the Fascist youth organization to which he belonged and armed with a kitchen fork, he would represent Satan, and proceed to jab me with his weapon. I did not understand why Lazarus, the poor man raised from the dead, should so have earned the Devil’s hate, and why his friend, the Christ, should so basely have deserted him; but Aldo, never at a loss, informed me that the play between God and Satan was unending, they tossed for souls as men in the world, and in the cafes of Ruffano, threw at dice. It was not a comforting philosophy. 

Aldo is more than a little nuts. But he was killed in the war, as was their father;  Armino, the youngest of the family, has been actively forgetting it all ever since.

Still, Armino is disturbed by the dreams. Even more so when he learns that the beggar woman whose slumped figure brought it all back to his mind has been murdered in the night.

Suspecting he might know the identity of the murdered woman, Armino returns to Ruffano to find that the small university of his childhood has expanded: the university is now the focus of the city. The students in the departments of the university are deeply and violently divided—the Commerce and Economics department pitted against the Arts department in a battle that seems oddly heightened and even inspired by the faculty.

Leading the  turmoil is the charismatic and mysterious Director of the Arts Council, enmeshed in plans for the annual students’ pageant. This year their inspiration is historical: the original Duke of Ruffano’s madness. He judged and punished the secret sins of the Ruffanese, he counted himself a deity, he perished in a mad running of the horses (Pamplona-style) through the walled city. Armino is enormously surprised to find (highlight for spoiler) that Aldo, his assumed-dead brother, is the Director of the Arts.

Armino is given a temporary position in the university library, and thus gains access to some original documents detailing the events of Duke Claudio’s life and death. He is shocked to note the similarity between the events of the early fifteenth century and what has been occurring in Ruffano.

(And you’ll have to read the book for more details. And you should.)

I love this book. It is one that I’ve consistently cited (along with Possession, and Gaudy Night) as a favorite. I love the mingling of the present (well, 1960’s) problems (student demonstrations, questioning of the place of the arts in a world of commerce) with the utter timelessness of the walled Italian city. Du Maurier does such a good job of establishing the time in this novel—the events of the second world war, now twenty years in the past, are as present and as intrinsic to the plot as what happened yesterday.  And what happened yesterday arose directly out of what happened five hundred years ago.

Checking into Jamaica Inn

There’s things that happen at Jamaica, Mary, that I’ve never dared to breathe. Bad things. Evil things. I can’t ever tell you; I dare not even admit them to myself. Some of it in time you’ll come to know. You can’t avoid it, living here. Your Uncle Joss mixes with strange men, who follow a strange trade. Sometimes they come by night, and from your window above the porch you will hear footsteps, and voices, and knocking at the door… You must lie in bed, and put your fingers to your ears. You must never question me, for if you came to guess but half of what I know, your hair would go grey, Mary, as mine has done, and you would tremble in your speech and weep by night, and all  that lovely careless youth of yours would die, Mary, as mine has done. –Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn (1936) is Daphne du Maurier’s fourth novel, following The Loving Spirit (1931), I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932), and Julius (1933). Like many of du Maurier’s novels, (Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek, Rule Britannia, The House on the Strand) the story is set in Cornwall, the peninsula in the southwest of Britain.

Mary Yellan moves to Jamaica Inn to live with her Aunt Patience after the death of her parents. Her aunt’s last visit had been nearly twelve years ago–Mary remembers her as a beautiful and young butterfly, laughing and full of plans for her wedding to Joss Meryln. Patience is now a frail, frightened, half-mad creature, cringing away from her husband and rushing to do his bidding. Joss, the landlord of Jamaica Inn,  is a giant of a man, cruel and harsh.

Besides the obviously horrible relationship of her aunt and uncle, much about the inn just doesn’t make sense. There is little custom: respectable travelers, Mary is told on her journey, avoid the place. Still, men are heard coming and going at all hours of the night. Mary sneaks out of her room one night and overhears Joss taking shocking orders from an unidentified man, then passing those orders along to the band of ruffians that he leads.

The book makes no mystery of the fact that Joss is a bad ‘un–from his introduction, at the end of chapter 1, he’s obviously and unmistakably a villain. Even the details of the “strange trade” are revealed fairly soon in the narrative. But the identity of Joss’s superior–someone in the neighborhood, well-spoken, authoritative– is unknown. This provides the primary source of tension in the novel: in the face of unmistakable danger, who is she to trust? Mary meets and suspects various men in the village; the most likely candidates for chief villain are the engaging and attractive Jem Meryln, younger brother of Joss and criminal in his own right, and the helpful albino vicar Francis Davey.  As Mary tries to figure out who she can confide in, even the most innocuous exchanges become fraught with meaning and danger. 

(I find I can’t talk about this novel without a few spoilers, but I hate to ruin a surprise. Highlight the next paragraph to read what I find so problematic about the novel, or skip this part and just go order the book.)

The true horror  in the novel is not about the trade but about the relationships. Joss is abusive and cruel to his wife, Patience; Patience is cringingly devoted, protective and loyal past all belief. The novel introduces Patience as an early image of Mary–the beautiful, laughing aunt’s visit is clearly remembered years later; various statements by Joss draw similarities between their appearance and mannerisms. Just as Mary is a younger iteration of Patience, Joss’s younger brother, Jem, resembles Joss in stature; though less violent, he is shown to be on the same general criminal track as Joss. Jem is a complicated hero–he isn’t complicit with Joss’s activities at Jamaica Inn, but he’s hardly trustworthy. Given the structure of the book, it is fairly obvious Mary is going to end up with him.. but he’s so similar to Joss that I keep expecting him to back-hand her when she doesn’t get into the wagon quickly enough. Mary needs a counselor, a kick-boxing class and a safe house, in my humble opinion. The ending makes me feel like an old village woman, shaking her head over the foolish choices of the young. 

I almost think that the conflicted ending adds to the novel–it seems much more in line with the spirit of the work to be left with a sense of lingering menace rather than have all threats strictly contained and removed. After all, the book is about unseen evil, unsuspected malevolence masquerading behind a smiling facade. Although Mary has discovered what lies at the heart of Jamaica Inn, how naive to assume that was the only unknown peril. 

 Jamaica Inn: if you haven’t read it, check it out!

What I’m reading: Russian Winter, by Daphne Kalotay

I’ve spent the afternoon curled up on the couch with a book–one of my very favorite ways to spend the day. I’ve been reading Russian Winter; it is quite wonderful.

Nina Revskaya was an idealistic and patriotic star of the Bolshoi Ballet; fifty years later she is crippled by rheumatism, living alone in a Boston flat with only her nurse to urge her to take medicine for her constant pain.

Nina decides to auction off her extensive jewel collection and to donate the proceeds to the local arts community–actually, she is avoiding a confrontation with Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian poetry, who believes she has the answers to his questions.

Drew Brooks, a gemologist who works at the auction house Nina contacts, is surprised when Grigori anonymously donates a piece that completes Nina’s collection. While Grigori and Drew investigate Russian documents to find the province of the collection, Nina’s memories of Soviet life become impossible to ignore.

Good god, was this a great book. I downed it in one long, lovely gulp; I didn’t come up for air until it was over and done, the ballet slippers put away, applause dying down, crowd gone home. It was a little bit Black Swan (ballet, Swan Lake, back stage rivalry), a little bit Dr. Zhivago (bone-crunching poverty of the Stalinist state, political maneuverings, late-night KGB visits), a little bit Possession (an academic mystery–in that the clues aren’t footprints, but artifacts and articles–investigating an earlier, unknown time through previously unrelated or undiscovered letters, photographs, articles, news-clippings, a romance from the past mirroring a romance in the present, lots of lovely time in the archives and musings about the life of the mind.) 

Wonderful read–well-written, intelligently plotted and highly, highly recommended.


Happy Birthday Daphne!

Daphne du Maurier

Today is the birthday of one of my very favorite authors. Dame Daphne du Maurier was born on May 13, 1907.

Gerald du Maurier as Captain Hook in 1904

Her father, Sir Gerald du Maurier, was an actor and stage manager, and a friend of Henry James and J. M. Barrie. His cousins, the Llewellyn-Davies children, were Barrie’s inspiration in Peter Pan, and one of Gerald du Maurier’s most acclaimed theater roles was that of Captain Hook.

Gerald’s father, Daphne’s grandfather, was the writer George du Maurier. His novel Trilby is his most well-known work, primarily because it introduced the character of Svengali, a hypnotist who guides the actions of the naive Trilby. The name has entered the lexicon as a term for one who manipulates one under his control.

Muriel Beaumont, Lady du Maurier, in 1916

Daphne’s mother, Muriel Beaumont du Maurier, was from less artistic stock: her father, a proper British solicitor, disapproved of her stage-ambition. She ran away to the theater, appearing in The Admirable Crichton with George du Maurier when she was 19. They were married five months later.

Muriel remained on the stage until 1910–by that time she had two daughters, Angela (1904) and Daphne (1907).  Her third daughter and final child, Jeanne, was born in 1911.

Daphne du Maurier’s most well-known work is Rebecca. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s quite fantastic. Du Maurier’s descriptions of the family estate, the servants, the portraits, even the bunches of scarlet rhododendrons are incredibly menacing. Those rhododendrons stuck with me:

Suddenly I saw a clearing in the dark drive ahead, and a patch of sky, and in a moment the dark trees had thinned, the nameless shrubs had disappeared, and on either side of us was a wall of colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads. We were amongst the rhododendrons. There was something bewildering, even shocking, about the suddenness of their discovery. The woods had not prepared me for them. The startled me with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic, unlike any rhododendron plant I had seen before. (65)

I find I have much more to say about Daphne du Maurier than I thought, and so am implementing The Week of Daphne (cue fanfare). We’ll count this post as the introduction and background, upcoming posts will look at the various film adaptations of her works, undoubtedly talk a bit more about Rebecca (since I barely touched on it here), as well as more fun stuff about my other favorite du Maurier novels: My Cousin Rachel, The Flight of the Falcon, The Scapegoat, Rule Britannia, The House on the Strand, Jamaica Inn… so much to look forward to!

What I’m Reading: A Room with a View

It so happened that Lucy, who found daily life rather chaotic, entered a more solid world when she opened the piano. She was then no longer either deferential or patronizing; no longer either a rebel or a slave. The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected. The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort, whilst we look up, marvelling how he has escaped us, and thinking how we could worship him and love him, would he but translate his visions into human words, and his experiences into human actions.

Perhaps he cannot; certainly he does not, or does so very seldom…

Love this. I want to shoot into the empyrean without effort. The image reminds me of a trapeze artist, gracefully and incomprehensibly flying above our heads. (If you haven’t read Nights at the Circus,  you should. It’s lots of fun. Speaking of trapeze artists, which we weren’t.) Such a picture of escape, of freedom. Sadly, I have much to much to do to even think about trying to escape. The walls are much too thick.  (C’mon fellow nerds, what movie?) 

I began A Room with a View on the way to school yesterday. After absolutely loving Howards End, which I read earlier this year, I’m ready for some more Forster. He’s a bit of a revelation for me–a new favorite.  I seem to have had this book confused with Daisy Miller (understandably, I believe–so far they seem quite similar) but thus far I like Lucy much more than Daisy. Daisy always reminds me a bit too much of Lydia Bennett–annoying and silly and self-centered and vain. Obviously, I really disliked both.

Lucy, so far*, seems much less silly– Forster makes a point of showing both her instinctive reactions to things (correct, genuine) and then her recollection of how she “should be” reacting to something, after which she turns all terribly proper and stilted. You can see a bit of that in the above quote–she is able to somehow get loose of social restraint when she plays the piano, to “shoot into the empyrean.” Of course, she is going to either have to quash that impulse toward freedom or be crushed by it. (She might be headed for an ocean dip with the rather sodden Ms. Pontellier.)

I’m feeling somewhat less than positive about Lucy’s chances of happiness… were she to begin “living like she plays,” she would scandalize society. I have no idea what happens next… but I’m rooting for her!

I love finally starting new/old books. Makes me happy.

(*I just finished Part I. Lucy and her horrible cousin/companion are leaving the Pension Bertolini for Rome.)

Theorizing community

I’m in the midst of attempting to formulate something brilliant for an upcoming project… so far I’m feeling a little incoherent. Earlier this spring, I read and re-read Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits; it’s a great book–complex and twisted and frustrating and sad… it’s one of those books that I truly believe everyone should  read, but no one I know has. Sad. But I’ll keep pushing it.

(plot spoilers– but the book is so good that the plot really isn’t the main thing, so feel free)

Horace is a black teenager in a rural community in North Carolina. The community is as many rural communities are:  heavily influenced by religion, race, a sense of history and continuity– redemption after slavery, proving racial equality–, being “respectable,” ideas of family and generation and respect for elders and the past and the upward, promising trajectory of history and ‘the race.’

Horace is gay. He is tormented, quite literally, by the fear of his family and church exposing and condemning his sexuality. He goes a little crazy–he sees bird men and ghouls and a mysterious double of himself that orders him to shoot the pastor–and then, horrifyingly, shoots himself.

This is awful. It is sad when it happens in a novel and tragic when it happens, as it too  often does, in reality. What I intend to look at, however, is not a simple reduction of this novel to a pre-figuration of the “It gets better” campaign- which, obviously, is problematic on many levels- instead I intend to examine the effect of Horace’s suicide, which he postpones until it can be witnessed by his uncle, the preacher, on the community as a whole.

I believe that a community is created by the mutual credence given to a set of stories. That set may exclude as much as it includes–the stories of the unsuccessful long shot, the insufficiently brave, the missed chance that is never reclaimed… these are not stories that are precisely profitable for a community’s sense of self and are not, therefore, usually prevalent in its collective mythos. I believe that stories of homosexual members of the community are most frequently included within this subset of excluded stories. Horace’s suicide, which, as I mentioned, is witnessed by his uncle, forces an acknowledgement of the previously ignored. He destroys the assumption that “none of us are like that”, or that “that’s a white thing” by dramatically–theatrically– forcing everyone to look.

I plan to examine this book and the ideas of community and homosexuality and suicide and religion… my thoughts are circling around a re-formulation of the centrality of history and of memory to the idea of the self. If community is created by mutual credence given to a set of stories, then all (all!) that is needed to fundamentally change that community is a change in the stories that are told and believed.

At least, these are the ideas that are percolating in my little house tonight.

What I’m Reading: Bella Tuscany

Since my re-immersion in the world of academia, I’m finding it a bit difficult to read strictly for fun. I pick up a book, and by the time I come out the other end, I have half a notebook of ideas for research. That isn’t precisely a bad thing- I’d much rather have the creative juices flowing than otherwise- but it makes my leisure reading not quite so leisurely.

Hence, the travel memoir. While I come up with places I’d love to visit, I can enjoy the words more freely than when I am subconsciously tracking how frequently such and such word is used to describe…whatever.

This is the third book of Frances Mayes’ that I’ve read. My favorite is still Under the Tuscan Sun (don’t judge it by the movie of the same name- only the location is the same), but both A Year in the World and Bella Tuscany have images that are knock-you-over beautiful. I feel like I understand where she is coming from–I’m sure many people do–but she writes about getting away from the mad rush of the academic world- always writing, researching, reading, grading- and into a life that follows the planting and the harvesting and the morning cup of cafe at the village trattoria. Exactly what I so often need, even if, for now, it is only accessed vicariously.

In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes talks about finding, deciding to buy, and restoring Bramasole, her Italian villa. A Year in the World focuses on more exploratory travels- short trips and original impressions of new places. Bella Tuscany is a combination of the two- the heart of the book is definitely in Bramasole, but she talks about several short-ish trips to cities in Italy.

Her descriptions of Venice keep coming to mind: “I long to go inside the houses, experience from the inside what it’s like to have high tide lapping at the lower floor, smell the damp marble, see the rippling shadows of the water on painted ceilings, push back faded brocades to let the sun in.”

Those rippling shadows of water on painted ceilings…

My grandparents owned a house on the Kentucky River–I remember lying on the indestructible brown Berber carpet in the middle of the summer, the river plishing and plashing below, watching the lacy white curtains billow in afternoon river breeze and the hundreds of points of light that the river’s reflection would throw on the white ceilings.

I think this is why I love books so much- that memory was buried under twenty-some years of detritus, but reading her description of a similar sight in Venice conjures those long-ago lazy summer days.

What I’m Reading: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The ancient General Fentiman is found dead in his favorite chair at the Bellona Club. The death appears to be natural, but a survivorship clause in a wealthy relative’s will, also newly deceased, requires a closer look at the circumstances.

The unpleasantness begins on Armistice Day, and echoes of the first world war create a complex theme throughout the book. The general’s two heirs, George and Robert Fentiman, are veterans. While Robert is the classic war hero- all hale and bluff and ready to shoot game in Africa after the war is over- George has suffered from shell shock since his return from the front.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s portrayal of shell shock and frail/fractured masculinities is one of the reasons I find her work so fascinating. Detective fiction, especially from this era, usually serves to shore up the disintegrating class system and the problems of modernity by ignoring all changes (Agatha, I’m talking about you). Sayers breaks that trend: Numerous characters in her books have been negatively affected by the war– Wimsey himself suffers from returning bouts of shell shock, and is open about spending time in an institution of some sort after the war. He met, and was rescued, by Bunter at the front, and Bunter is frequently presented as the indispensable one who knows what to do when the terrors come.

Bunter doesn’t suffer any aftereffects from the war. By positioning the hero, Lord Peter Wimsey (the aristocrat with excellent taste, excellent sensibilities, and excellent mental facilities) as the one with shell shock, I think Sayers is making a rather subversive stab at modern (well, 1914-style) war. She doesn’t make the leap to actually condemn the war– it is shown as a necessary evil–but in showing the repercussions of war, the long-term destruction of the livesthat escaped instant annihilation, she opens a space for a rather crippling critique of war. Presented with such violence, the correct response (since her hero responds this way) seems to be mental fracture. Instead of condemning shell shock (as was a prevalent party line at the time) as the effect of war on “weak, un-manly” men, shell shock seems to be the correct response.  (This from Elaine Showalter’s fascinating discussion of shell-shocked soldiers in  The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980.)

I also love Sayers’ gestures towards understanding women’s roles. Wimsey is summoned in the middle of the night by the long-suffering wife of the shell-shocked soldier, who has gone missing. The police had made rather a bungle of an interview earlier in the day, and there are fears that George has had a recurrence of his difficulty. Wimsey’s first instinct is pure lord of the manor: he orders her to sit and calm herself, while he begins making some tea for the little woman. He then stops himself with the following reflection:

“One has an ancestral idea that women must be treated like imbeciles in a crisis. Centuries of ‘women-and-children-first’ idea, I suppose. … No wonder they sometimes lose their heads. Pushed into corners, told nothing of what’s happening and made to sit quiet and do nothing. Strong men would go dotty in the circs. I suppose that’s why we’ve always grabbed the privilege of rushing about and doing the heroic bits.”
And then he sits down while she makes the tea.

This is why I love these books: if he had just sat down while she made the tea, he would have looked rather patriarchal/aristocratic/little woman will serve/godawful. Instead, Sayers has him begin to do the expected thing- to take over- then stop himself. Sayers is excellent at discussing the motivations behind actions and assumptions. Even when she is wrong (in my opinion) about those motivations, she articulates a reason behind them. They aren’t just the “natural male response” or the “natural female response”: there are deeper issues at stake. I think she works to expose the construction of identity, and more particularly, of gender.

(And that sounds like an abstract for the paper that I someday will write about her works.)