Rest in Peace, Ruth Rendell (1930-2015). I liked your work, particularly your Barbara Vine novels. Continue reading
Researching a dissertation, I’ve ended up reading some things I wouldn’t normally read. That can be a good thing, although my experience reading some popular fiction has been an unhappy one so far. At the moment, I’m pursuing the idea of ‘genealogical fiction’, and came across the Torie O’Shea series, about a genealogist, written by Rett Macpherson. Several of the blurbs on the back cover proclaim the series as a masterpiece of the ‘cosy’; another says ‘a slice of Americana as warm and comforting as apple pie a la mode’, with the Americana bit being true and the second half being true for a particular type of reader in America’s mid-west, I’m sure.
The one I’m reading is Thicker Than Water, and it’s actually better than another ‘cosy’ novel about a biographer I tried to read. I had found Torie O’Shea annoying but not objectionable. Every twenty pages she proclaims her need for ‘caffeine and sugar’ (in that order), and downs a Dr Pepper. I think this is her ‘quirk’ – it creates character, presumably. One of the blurbs claims there is a ‘characteristic blend of wit and sarcasm’, but for me it’s about as witty as listening to middle-class, middle-aged people banter in a supermarket, and laugh exaggeratedly.
I could forgive this – humour is a taste, and I bet fans of Torie O’Shea don’t find Jonathan Franzen funny – even and especially though he writes in the same milieu. What horrified me was a scene late in the book where Torie O’Shea decides to visit an acquaintance, Leigh, in hospital who has failed in a suicide attempt.
First, Torie and her husband
made a few jokes about my mother winning a year’s supply of bagels. In fact, I think Rudy and I sort of overdid it on the bagel jokes, and suddenly there was an awkward silence. That very thing I wanted to avoid. (177)
At this point, I was glad Torie wasn’t visiting me in hospital regaling me with her banter. But Leigh misjudges her audience and asks them if she will go to hell if she commits suicide. This already makes them uneasy, and the final straw comes when Leigh adds ‘I just don’t see the point [of life].’ To this, Torie narrates:
Time was up. I couldn’t do this one second longer. We said good-bye and wished her well…. Finally Rudy said, “Why did we come to visit her, again?”
“That was God-awful, Torie. Absolutely horrible.”
“With my position in town, and especially with our new inheritance – not to mention we’re her landlords – it’s sort of expected of us.”
“Are you serious?”
“It comes with the territory, Rudy. Get used to it.” (177-178)
End of section. There are no authorial hints that Torie and her husband have failed terribly in the empathy stakes, no censure from another character, nothing to make me conclude anything other than the fact that readers are meant to share Torie’s frustration with this ‘unstable’ woman and congratulate her on at least making an effort and telling a few bagel jokes.
I have a few chapters to go. Perhaps the priest character who was conveniently waiting in the confessional several chapters ago will reappear and tell Torie how nasty she is. But I’m not counting on it. ‘Cosy’ is only cosy for those on the inside of the American dream.
In Ice, A 19th century entrepreneur is obsessed with overcoming death, after losing his father at two and his beloved first wife a year into their marriage. In the present day, a man writes the entrepeneur’s biography from the notes left by his comatose wife, hoping the story he has created will jolt her to consciousness. It’s disturbing for me to discover that a prominent Australian writer has already published a novel on similar themes to the one I’m writing. From a purely selfish point of view, you’ll forgive me for being glad Ice is not definitive enough to preclude another novel with resemblances of theme and milieu.
Nowra’s 2008 novel was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, but had mixed reviews. I think the criticisms are valid, but I was still fascinated by its Australian treatment of death and immortalities in the Victorian era. David Free (Quadrant, December 2009: p.23) is insightful about the novel’s flaws:
This stinginess with dialogue is connected to Nowra’s central vice: his practice of summarising the events of his story rather than dramatising them. His unit of conveying information isn’t the scene, but the drab prose précis. Again, this seems a bizarre technical sacrifice for a novelist to make. If reading a novel about an historical figure sounds like a more enticing proposition than reading a 300-page encyclopaedia entry about him, that’s because we expect the novelist to render his narrative in vivid scenes, to roll up his sleeves and plunge into the business of fictional evocation. Nowra not only doesn’t do this; he doesn’t even seem to try.
In trying to cover 58 years in the life of the central character, Malcolm McEacharn, summary is the default mode. It doesn’t read exactly like an encyclopedia or even a conventional biography, because we are brought inside Malcolm and other character’s minds; but it does read like fiction which is not fully imagined.
[SPOILER ALERT] Yet it’s crammed with fascinating plot developments, ‘tall-tales’, as one reviewer wrote, building on the actual life of Malcolm McEacharn. The iceberg Malcolm tows into Sydney Harbour at the beginning of the novel has, at its core, a preserved sailor. Malcolm attends seances to find his dead wife; collects bottled foetuses of every creature; digs up the bones of his father.
It’s hard to find much trace of Virginia Smith’s The Carradine Diary online. It was her second novel, published in 2004 by Diva Books in London soon after her death in a car crash. Trove lists just one copy in Australian libraries, in the St Kilda Public Library. I picked up a secondhand copy spending a gift voucher at Elizabeth’s Books. I bought it guessing from its blurb that it was a good example of the biographical quest genre I’m researching.
Indeed, The Carradine Diary is a ‘textbook’ example. The British narrator, Abby, travels to Canada to illustrate the biography of a famed (and fictional) early twentieth century children’s novelist, Lucy Pritchard, creator of the children’s character, Hector Price. The biographer is Mo, an old friend of Gayle, Abby’s partner. Abby sets off on a car trip to the places Lucy lived so she can draw key landmarks for the book. She finds herself attracted to a tourguide named Elise at the old schoolhouse where Lucy taught for a year; a year in which, supposedly, very little happened in Lucy’s life. When Abby’s car breaks down, Elise asks her to stay with her, in the same house where Lucy boarded a century earlier. Elise’s family is in conflict over a diary written by Lucy and only recently discovered. Elise’s mother attempts to stop Abby reading the diary, but Abby manages to read it in stages at the same time as struggling to make up her mind about what to do about her intense attraction to Elise. Her own forbidden love echoes the passionate affair Lucy writes about a century earlier with one of Elise’s ancestors.
There are further twists – probably too many of them – and far too much vacillation in the final chapters, as Abby keeps changing her mind over her dilemmas. I suspect this would have been smoothed out had Smith lived. She writes well, and it is an interesting novel.
“Virginia Smith” was her married name; but we read in the editor’s introduction that Virginia had left her husband a few years earlier and was in a committed relationship with a woman. A posthumous collection of poems was published under her maiden name “Virginia Warbey”. It was a sad and fascinating piece of web-bioquesting for me to come across this anonymous comment under a review for the poetry collection:
Its very interesting how people assume so much.
Virginia wasnt planning a new poetry collection at all – she felt she had gone beyond poetry and had moved on to other things….
She had also left the writers group because she felt she didnt really get out of it what she should have gotten out of it.
Her new novel, that remains unfinished, by her own admission, was her best work by far.
And, in all honesty and hindsight, Virginia is probably cringing at Ratified.
It seems her legacy is contested by someone who knew her very well. If this was a bioquest novel, a committed biographer would unearth the truth about her life, echoing a crisis in the biographer’s own life. But this is as far as I, at least, will get.
An annual poetry competition is run in her name.
Memory (memories, remembering, memorializing…) is one of the key themes of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Stranger’s Child – the presence of the past in the present. It is 1913 in part one, “‘Two Acres’”, and an event occurs which will resonate across the decades in the rest of the book – the young poet Cecil Valance writes a poem, “Two Acres”, in the autograph album of sixteen year old Daphne, a poem which will be quoted by Winston Churchill during World War One and learned by generations of schoolchildren. The idea of an autograph album is an interesting act of remembering. Daphne and Cecil reflect on it briefly, Cecil remarking on an autograph from a now-dead aviator and Daphne saying in reply:
‘He only sent it to me the week before his propeller broke. I’ve learned that you can’t wait with airmen. They’re not like other autographs. That’s how Olive lost Stefanelli.’ (p. 41)
Cecil remarks that in the light of this story he is anxious and it is ‘rather morbid’ but Daphne assures him that the other autographers are all still alive. His anxiety proves to be well-placed – he will die several years later in the war and the autograph album will be a part of the remembering of him. Equally ‘morbid’ will be the effigy of him built by his mother in the family chapel.
Both Daphne and her brother George had affairs with Cecil; the question of whether Daphne’s was a chaste one or not is never resolved in the novel, but we know George’s was certainly not. Both siblings will reflect in decades to come on the disproportionate attention given to Cecil and the public requirement of remembering him. In part two, set in the 1920s, when faced with the prospect of speaking to Cecil’s first biographer, George reflects:
It was awful that Cecil was dead, he’d been wonderful in many ways, and who knew what he might not have gone on to do for English poetry. Yet the plain truth was that months went past without his thinking of him. Had Cecil lived, he would have married, inherited, sired children incessantly. It would have been strange, in some middle-aged drawing-room, to have stood on the hearthrug with Sir Cecil, in blank disavowal of their sodomitical past. Was it even a past? – it was a few months, it was a moment. (155)
In part four, set in 1980, Daphne says something similar to a friend on the telephone in the midst of interviews with Cecil’s second biographer, ‘Really Cecil means nothing to me – I was potty about him for five minutes sixty years ago.’ (500)
Brushes with celebrity have to be relived over and over, as Daphne’s mother demonstrates back in part one, telling yet again the family anecdote about her encounter with Alfred Lord Tennyson on a ferry while on her honeymoon, with Daphne finishing it off for her; six decades later, Daphne will refer briefly to the same anecdote in the phone conversation previously mentioned. Anecdotes become entrenched and, Daphne reflects in old age,
‘He was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories. It was diamond-rare to remember something fresh.’ (496)
Tellingly, Daphne’s own ‘memoir’ is a series of stories about her encounters with famous people.
Memories, Hollinghurst reminds readers throughout the novel, cannot be trusted. In the final section, Paul Bryant disputes Dupont’s description of the colour of Peter Rowe’s Imp, claiming it was beige, not pea-green (541). A trivial difference; but we know that Paul Bryant has remembered wrongly – he notes the ‘pea-green’ Imp forty years earlier (307). If the incident has a function, it may be to call Paul’s memory into question, which is important as it Paul is the one exposing people’s lives as a biographer. Paul’s main source for the tell-all biography of Cecil is Daphne’s brother, George, and his memory is the least reliable of all; he has dementia. Yet dementia makes him extremely candid; unlike the other interviewees, he hides nothing, holds nothing back, telling Paul whatever he remembers. Hollinghurst introduces a further level of unreliability by presenting the interview with George as a diary entry reconstructed from memory by Paul soon after the event; the battery in his tape recorder had gone flat, meaning the interview was not recorded.
There are just some sketches around the theme of memory running through the novel. It is a useful approach; more than any other unity (except perhaps the character of Daphne), the novel has unity around the theme of memory. Indeed, perhaps a more obvious title for the novel would be Remembering Cecil.
Swann: A Mystery / Carol Shields (1987)
I’m writing a dissertation on aspects of the biographical quest, and so everything I’ve been reading has had to relate to that lately. In the biographical quest (bioquest) novel, a genre identified by Jon Thiem, a quester goes in search of the life of someone from the past, doing detective-like work through archives, documents and old haunts to come to grips with the secrets of the subject and in the process, being changed themselves. The prototypical example is A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance, published three years after Carol Shields’ Swann. Swann is not a typical example of the genre, but it stands in interesting overlap with it.
I’ve read three of Shields’ novels now, and in all three I have found her tone ambiguous – elusive, maddening and clever. She writes with a satirical edge, and yet it is not only satire, she follows enough realist conventions and has enough depth of representation to ensure that. Swann makes contemporary literary critics out to be ridiculous – but it doesn’t only do that. The first ever symposium devoted to the poet Mary Swann is being held, and we see events leading up to it through the eyes of each of the main players, before the symposium itself is presented as a movie script in the final part (a choice which did not make sense to me). The critics are busy reading all sorts of things into her work, detecting influences and praising her brilliance; a biographer is writing the story of her life. Yet the part-time librarian of the rural area where Swann lived and died knows better about the truth of her life – she was a poor, uneducated farmer’s wife who invested no deeper meanings in her work; when she wrote of the desire for a well, she wanted a well, not baptism, for example. She was murdered by her husband hours after delivering her manuscript to a journalist who ran a small press publishing rural poets in his spare time. The publisher’s wife accidentally used the original manuscript to wrap fishbones; many of the lines were scrambled and the two reconstructed the work the best they could, inevitably ‘improving’ it along the way.
In the bioquest, the secrets of the past are (imperfectly) revealed – there is optimism about the recoverability of facts and of the value of scholarship and the work of the biographer. The absence of this is what places Swann outside the genre, in my opinion. It is inevitably a continuum – gaps and silences are a feature of the genre; Swann is mainly about the gaps and silences.
I found it an engaging read, in that maddening way I mentioned. Shields has a lot of insight into people, even when she’s skewering them.
The Ghost Writer (2004) begins in regional South Australia in the 1970s, as the narrator Gerard grows up lonely in an isolated town with a protective mother, Phyllis. Phyllis is protecting secrets, and the day Gerard snoops through her locked drawer to find an old magazine and a photograph is the last time his mother even speaks of her English childhood in a country house called Staplefield. Around the same time, Gerard receives a letter from a penfriend club and begins a passionate exchange of letters with an orphaned, paralysed English girl named Alice Jessup.
Gerard takes another chance and finds the old magazine still in the drawer; inside the magazine is a ghost story by his great-grandmother, Viola, reproduced in full in the novel. Gerard keeps pouring his heart out to Alice, his ‘invisible lover’; he saves up to visit her in England as a surprise, only to hear nothing from her when he gets there. She was sick in hospital, she tells him later, and we jump forward years, to find Gerard in his thirties, still living unhappily with his mother, and still hanging on the hope that an operation will allow Alice to walk, the condition she has placed on them being able to meet in person.
After his mother dies, Gerard makes another trip to England, this time advertising for anyone who knew of his mother or great-grandmother while he waits for Alice to be ready to see him. An elderly lady writes to him and he begins to uncover the family secrets which might explain his mother’s unhappiness. At the same time, he uncovers more of Viola’s secrets, which eerily presage events in the life of Phyllis and the sister Gerard didn’t even know she had. The prophetic stories, the family secrets and the mysterious Alice finally all come together.
The Ghost Writer is suitably haunting, carrying in it the sadnesses and disappointments which span across generations, paralleled in and engulfed by the strange world of Viola’s stories. Gerard is a likeable if self-occupied loner and his voice is clear yet affecting. This novel moved me and mystified me.
When I had finished reading the last of Rossi’s letters, my father said, I felt a new desolation, as if he had vanished a second time. (119)
In this opening sentence to Chapter 15 of The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova captures the gist of the genre of ‘biographical quest’ or ‘romance of the archives’. People from the past come to life again in the pages of the documents they have left behind. The quester comes to know them, only to love them again when the trail goes cold, when the last document is read.
It is an experience many of us know in part from reading letters of dead people, perhaps our family who we knew, or our ancestors who we didn’t. It is also the thrill of a kind of life beyond the grave, and the sophistication of a plausible ghost story. Perhaps this is part of the genre’s attraction.