Big review today in the New York Times of a Frans Hals show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A great accompaniment to the exhibit would be Michael Kernan‘s The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals, a wonderful, vivid novel that puts you in 17th-century Holland. Kernan writes about Hals with the same delight and empathy that Hals used in his portraits. He balances zest and melancholy, as I think you can see below.
I Capture the Castle is a Sacred Text for me, a book I read over and over again as a teenager and still revisit every few years. Each time, I am enchanted despite knowing the plot and characters intimately, and I think it’s because of a few key attributes.
First, there’s the voice. Narrator Cassandra Mortmain is a bookish seventeen-year-old who has been reared in very peculiar circumstances. Her father, a once-successful author, moved his family into a tumbledown rural castle when Cassandra and her elder sister Rose were small, and her brother Thomas tiny. Though the children are well-educated, they are very isolated, leaving Cassandra literate yet unworldly. And, to keep us reading, she has to be charming. The pretext is that we are reading Cassandra’s journal as she attempts to “capture” her relatives and her world.
Next, Cassandra’s world is pretty unusual. Take the household alone: the elusive author father, who spends his days reading detective novels in the gate house. Add his second wife, former artist’s model Topaz, whose good heart is offset by her artistic pretensions. Elder daughter Rose is a discontented beauty, Thomas is a schoolboy, and there’s also Stephen Colly, the all-purpose help, handsome as a Greek god and in love with Cassandra. The family, moreover, is really, really poor. Poor enough to be generally cold and hungry, and to have only the skimpiest of wardrobes. Cassandra describes all of this with good humor but it’s clearly a dismal way of life with no prospect of improvement.
Into this situation Dodie Smith tosses, naturally, a rich attractive man, the owner of the nearby Big House and actually, owner of the castle. Simon Cotton and his brother Neil — and soon, their energetic mother, the model of the American club-woman of the 1930s — change everything for the Mortmain family. Romantic and cultural complications ensue, some of them hilarious.
I can’t expect to pin down the magic in this book, which has meant a lot to a lot of women. But I think I can point to a few contributive points aside from the sheer exuberant appeal of Dodie Smith’s prose. (For instance, Cassandra on Stephen: “He is eighteen now, very fair and noble-looking but his expression is just a fraction daft.”) One is the setting, the castle itself and the surrounding country. Smith is lyrical both about the beauty of the landscape and the weirdness of the castle. Another element is the way Smith refers to English-major favorites, notably Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. It’s both knowing and respectful, and draws the reader further into the story.
One of my working definitions of charm is the ability to take responsibility for another person’s social comfort. The charmer is the one who asks questions, includes you, makes you feel clever and funny and desirable. That doesn’t really help me define literary charm, but I know it when I see it, and I Capture the Castle is its very embodiment.
My passion for nun literature is not quite matched by my passion for monk literature — which, by the way, is not as rich a field. Matthew Lewis’s 1796 The Monk, an early Gothic, springs to mind but I can’t think of anything since then. [Addendum: my husband reminded me of The Name of the Rose.] Literary attention to cloistered communities has focused on women rather than men. Here’s a theory: if criticism of The Church (Catholic or other) is intended, writers focused on nuns, as in Diderot’s The Nun,or priests, as in Wilkie Collins’ The Black Robe. Monks offer neither the worldly possibilities of power-hungry priests nor the ostensibly kinky sexual dynamics of the convent.
Well, it’s neither of those thrills that Patrick Leigh Fermor went looking for when he took himself off to the Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle, near Rouen, in the early 1950s. Instead he was in search of a quiet and cheap place to live while he wrote. A Time to Keep Silence was published in 1957, based on letters he wrote while at the monastery and then further descriptions of further monastic experiences. It’s a thin book and feels faintly cobbled together, as if Leigh Fermor had re-read his letters and thought, “Hmm, wonder if there’s something publishable here.” Which is not to say that the book is disrespectful. On the contrary, it’s the author’s improbable wonder and enthusiasm for these monasteries that give A Time to Keep Silence its considerable sober charm.
The first section is the longest, most thorough, and richest. Leigh Fermor finds the monastic discipline initially bewildering: “only by living for a while in a monastery can one quite grasp its staggering difference from the ordinary life that we lead. The two ways of life do not share a single attribute; and the thoughts, ambitions, sounds, lights, time and mood that surround the inhabitants of a cloister are not only unlike anything to which one is accustomed, but in some curious way, seem its exact reverse.” For a man as gregarious as PLF, the discipline of severely limited conversation must have been difficult yet among the Benedictines of St. Wandrille he found much to learn and much to cherish. Of course readers of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water will know how much Leigh Fermor relishes sensory and intellectual stimulation — the languages, the music, the vestments, the architecture, the books of St. Wandrille give him great pleasure.
Not so much the harsh discipline of La Grande Trappe, the Cistercian monastery in southern Normandy. This was clearly an alienating experience for Leigh Fermor: he finally says that “I was not in possession of any mental instrument with which to to gauge and record my findings” in the monastery. Finally, tacked on as it were, is a short section on the survival of the rock monasteries in Cappadocia, now part of Turkey.
Two of Leigh Fermor’s strengths as a writer — and, I have to believe, as a person — were his whole-hearted embrace of life and his ability to seek out the best in a situation. Add those to his astounding literary gifts and you get a travel writer whom you’d follow anywhere. Even into the cloister.
It’s a great title, isn’t it? “White shotgun” is apparently the term used in Italy when someone vanishes and no trace remains, no body, no documents…. nothing. As we are told in the first chapter, this is the result when a body is tipped into a massive, pink-frothed vat of lye, somewhere in the woods.
I hadn’t read April Smith before, but she’s good at her job. White Shotgun is a taut, nasty thriller. A leeetle bit too nasty for me, seeing as how I’m terribly squeamish. But Smith certainly knows how to keep the pages turning. The protagonist is FBI Agent Ana Grey, a tough professional who finds herself all unsettled by her assignment in Italy. Seems she has a half-sister named Cecilia Nicosa whom she didn’t even know about. Seems Cecilia is married to an Italian coffee baron with ties to Italy’s mafias. So when the FBI receives letters for Ana, begging that she visit Cecilia in her “house on a hillside” outside of Siena, that becomes an assignment.
But of course nothing is as it seems in Italy. Ana’s charming teenage nephew? A drug addict. The handsome Nicoli Nicosa, Cecilia’s husband? You don’t Even Want To Know. Even Ana’s boyfriend Sterling McCord, an operative with a shadowy private security company, seems suddenly unreliable. Smith ramps up the drama by setting the story in summer-time Siena, during Palio. You know, the crazy horse race run in beautiful Piazza del Campo, when the various contrade of the town compete. Lots of local color. Smith’s gift for that is also applied to a crack house in Calabria, though, where an arch-villain known as “The Puppet” (for his wooden hands) presides over the cutting of heroin. Very vivid, very disturbing. There’s kidnapping, assassination, and another visit to the grisly vat of lye.
As a thriller-writer, Smith has a pretty dark view of the world. For much of the novel, Ana is operating on false assumptions, kept in the dark either by her incomprehension of Italian language and culture, by the procedures of the FBI, or by her free-lancing colleagues. In this novel she does not actually get physically mauled beyond a superficial knife wound to her hand, but the psychic wounds are pretty serious. Since I instantly downloaded the three previous Ana Grey novels I’ll keep you posted on the rest of her story. I’m sure it’s going to be hard to put down.
“So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at night listening to the silence. Eventually, I fell asleep contented, filled with soundlessness, but while I was awake I enjoyed the experience of darkness, thought, memory, sweet anticipations.”
Does that remind you of anything? Yup, me too: surely we’re not wrong in thinking of the first page of Swann’s Way, when the narrator says “For a long time I would go to bed early” and goes on (and on and on …) to discuss the process of falling asleep, invoking darkness, thoughts, memories. When I first read A Far Cry from Kensington back in 1988 Marcel Proust was the furthest thing from my mind but now that I’m sleeping with him, I see him everywhere. I wouldn’t care to sit at a seminar table and defend a Proustian reading of A Far Cry… but there are interesting parallels aside from the opening and aside from Spark’s recurrent insistence on sleep.
Her narrator, Mrs. Hawkins, is looking back on a certain period of her life — a year or so in 1954-5, when she lived in a rooming house in South Kensington. She works at several successive literary enterprises, two publishers and a literary magazine. In the course of the novel, she transforms herself by losing a great deal of weight. In the process, her life is altered because everyone interacts with her differently. She becomes, actually, younger, shedding her authority as she sheds pounds.
The tone is miles from Proustian. Spark’s bracing prose is a marvel of economy and grace. What’s more, the novel is funny. Mrs. Hawkins takes against a literary hanger-on named Hector Bartlett who wants her to promote his career. Early in the novel he asks her, “Won’t you call me Hector?” and she replies, “No, I call you Pisseur de copie” — a term that she claims originates with a French symbolist writer. They become enemies, of course, in the small world of post-war English publishing. But there are further complications involving a lady novelist, a Polish seamstress, and a psuedo-science called “radionics.” It’s all very entertaining and wry.
So, then… Proust? Spark stitches the narrative back and forth in time, bringing us up to the present, diving back into the past, lying in bed and thinking things over. And what seems most Proustian to me is her emphasis on the slippery quality of perception and judgment. From a mere name (say, “the princess of Guermantes”) Proust’s narrator invents a character, a past, an entire milieu. Mrs. Hawkins, sure of her own good sense, does likewise. She makes assumptions and fills in gaps, erroneously. As she says, late in the book, “What did I really know of all the people I had met in the offices where I had worked, day after day?” There are other common points: the emphasis on literature, the gay couple who are her last bosses. I could amuse myself by comparing Mrs. Hawkins’ attendance at a formal dinner party to any one of a number of Proustian social events. The contrast between Proust’s curlicues and Spark’s declaratives gives me great pleasure, even if this is just my little literary conceit.
And for those of you who are keeping track, this is another treat from the magical laundry-room book shelf. A first edition, no less!
Am I old? No, don’t answer that. Old-fashioned, then? Is that why present-tense narration rubs me the wrong way? I think I understand the rationale: as a writer, you might want to get closer, always closer to the story you are telling. Sometimes using the present tense instead of the past does seem more, well, immediate. It feels almost filmic and now that I think of it, maybe the technique comes from film since screenplays are so readily available for reading by the layman. Or maybe now that so many of the conventions of reading-as-entertainment are breaking up, the traditional past tense seems stuffy.
Well, I know I’m stuffy. And I have to admit that present-tense narration puts me off, rather than beckoning me further. But I’ll add in my own defense that it’s a minor issue and that when the book in question is as good as Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places, I’ll overlook it completely (after a few pages). Because this is one splendid murder mystery. Here’s why:
1 — fabulous protagonist. Brilliant, overweight, pushing forty, likeable but strong-minded, Dr. Ruth Galloway is an archaeologist who specializes in ancient bones. She lives in a tiny cottage on the edge of the Norfolk marshes, with two cats and no romantic partner. It’s the bones that get her mixed up in the murder.
2 — fabulous setting. Griffiths places the action in the Saltmarsh, a (fictional) spooky, captivating salt water marsh, home to millions of birds and terrible weather as well as to an Iron Age skeleton that gets Ruth involved with the police. I especially admired the way Griffiths built to her climax which we knew would involve the Saltmarsh in a terrifying way. Possibly because of the use of water, I was reminded of Susan Hill’s marvelous The Woman in Black.
3 — romance. Nuff said.
4 — good plot. Good-ish, that is. Adequate number of clues, red herrings, scary stuff, funeral, procedure, etc. I’m pretty easily satisfied on this front. After all, with murder mysteries it’s pretty much always the same.
Oh, and since I’m on epistemology-watch when I read mysteries, I was excited that these are the last sentences of the book:
‘Seems to me it’s all a lot of guesswork,’ says Nelson.
Ruth smiles. ‘The questions are more important than the answers.’
‘If you say so.’”
Guess the policeman doesn’t like guesswork as much as the academic. Me, I don’t much care, since there are two more books in the series.
Between the Woods and the Water takes up exactly where Patrick Leigh Fermor left off at the end of A Time of Gifts; the first sentence reads “Perhaps I had made too long a halt on the bridge.” (A reminder that beneath the lovely rambling quality of these books lies artful structure.) The bridge crosses the Danube, and PLF is about to enter Hungary for the first time, on Easter Eve. With no further fuss, he sweeps us into a brilliant celebration of Easter in the old cathedral of Esztergom, complete with all the elaborate vestments, military uniforms, and glamor you could want. (Scimitars! Monocles! Egret feathers!)
Is it my imagination, or is this volume more poignant than the earlier one? And if I’m right, is that because Leigh Fermor is writing nine years after A Time of Gifts? Could the bittersweet edge be that of a man looking back thirty-odd years? Or could it be caused by the knowledge that nothing is left of the sweet, lazy culture of the Hungarian aristocracy that took him in as a youthful wanderer? As our narrator says of his hosts, “Homesick for the past, seeing nobody but their own congeners on the neighboring estates and the peasants who worked there, they lived a backward-looking, a genealogical, almost a Confucian dream and many sentences ended in a sigh.”
Summer is all around Leigh Fermor as he travels across the Great Hungarian Plain on foot paths or roads bad enough to be almost impassable in a car. (This is 1934, remember.) He is now a thousand miles from England and his mission — to reach Constantinople on foot — is still before him. He is still delighted by much of what he encounters: one host loans him a beautiful mount whom he rides across country for several days. He stops at a peasant’s cottage, the occupant brings him a drink, and, he writes “I sipped it slowly and thought: I’m drinking this glass of milk on a chestnut horse on the Great Hungarian Plain.”
I wonder if Leigh Fermor didn’t write this volume as a memorial of sorts. It’s not just about the aristocrats, but also about the topography, the language, the history, and the tremendous variety of people he meets. For instance, there’s the interlude with a family of Hasidic Jews from Szatmar, who study Torah by paraffin lamp in a remote logging camp. Everyone gets very excited when they read the Psalms together in a hodge-podge of German and Hebrew.
Patrick Leigh Fermor died last month. This book ends with the phrase “To Be Concluded” and I hope there are very complete notes somewhere, though only the most confident writer would dare to mess with PLF’s prose. Anyway, this is the kind of story that just doesn’t emerge organically from modern culture:
One [woman], extremely beautiful and with enormous grey-green eyes, was the daughter of a former Foreign Minister. (At the opera in Paris, where he was staying for the Peace Conference, a friend had asked him who someone — another Rumanian — had married; and he had answered, truthfully, ‘Une grue, hélas.’ ‘Alas, a harlot’ and a few moment later, a hand appeared from the next box, holding a visiting card from the husband in question; there was a duel with pistols and her father was shot through the stomach and spent the rest of his life in great pain.
I’m glad Patrick Leigh Fermor left us some trace of this world.
One of the most fascinating areas of research for Leaving Van Gogh was the treatment of mental illness in 19th-century France. Since the novel is set in 1890, it’s natural that I came across the titanic figure of that era, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot. I even wrote him into LVG by having Dr. Gachet attend one of Charcot’s famous Tuesday Lectures. So Asti Hustvedt’s Medical Muses was a must-read for me, and a hugely satisfying one.
Charcot was one of the founders of modern neurology, and a pioneer in the discovery of the neurological causes of abnormal behavior or illness: for instance, what we call “Lou Gehrig’s disease” is sometimes still known as “Charcot’s disease” in France. But Hustvedt focuses here on Charcot’s work on hysteria, which at the turn of the century was held responsible for a number of mysterious symptoms like partial anaesthesias, paralysis, even the appearance of stigmata — none of which had a discernible organic cause.
This would be interesting, though abstract, if it weren’t that Charcot’s work at the famous women’s hospital of the Salpêtrière was carefully documented in records both verbal and visual — yes, there were photographs. Thus two of Charcot’s patients, Blanche Wittman and Augustine Gleize, became quite famous in their day. Hustvedt focuses on Blanche, Augustine, and a third woman, Geneviève Legrand, as a way of examining the fascinating, complicated, multi-layered phenomenon of hysteria.
OK, are you ready? Let’s do the sex part first. One of the key characteristics of hysteria, as defined by Charcot and his followers, was that the sufferers had attacks in the course of which they were not themselves, and sexual reverie was a frequent component. The patients at the hospital were all women, and many of them had suffered sexual abuse before arriving at the hospital. The photographs of the patients that illustrate various stages of the hysterical attack are often suggestive. The doctors, naturally, were all men.
Then let’s think about the theatrical element, especially involving hypnosis. An hysterical woman who had lost the use of her left arm — for no clear physical reason — might be hypnotized. When it was found that she could use that arm under hypnosis, it became clear that her paralysis was generated by her psyche. Imagine this fact being demonstrated in a theater, before an audience of physicians and journalists. Imagine hypnotized patients being pierced with pins and feeling no pain, or submitting to post-hypnotic suggestions.
Now look at women, and women’s undefinable complaints. Poor women, mad women, unclassifiable women, women who had sexual urges outside the marital framework. Hustvedt even brings religion into the mix, since her third case study, Geneviève, was deeply religious. (There’s a remarkable chronological connection with the flourishing of hysteria and the cult of Lourdes.)
That’s a pretty combustible mixture. Hustvedt’s careful research and scholarly writing style tames it all, while the way she frames the narrative in the lives of these three women puts a personal face on many of the issues. The hysteria diagnosis went out of fashion shortly after Charcot’s death in 1893 but as Hustvedt points out, doctors are still puzzled by a variety of complaints — chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome to name only two — that cause suffering without being attributable to physical causes. We now have medications that can alleviate suffering but sometimes we don’t even know how or why they work. Not that different, perhaps, from 1890?
If there’s a writer who can credibly manage the issue-based murder mystery, that writer is Julia Spencer-Fleming — but it’s a project fraught with difficulty. We read murder mysteries to escape. That doesn’t mean they all have to be set in England between the wars and to star old ladies in flowered hats. But the fiction must operate as a coherent alternative reality, and the problem comes when you sense your author manipulating the storytelling in order to make a point. Late in One Was a Soldier, a character says, “Your little burg’s not a military town, that’s true, but it’s the kind of town where the military comes from. Small, rural, not much opportunity, right? How many of your young people join up to get away?” Julia Spencer-Fleming calls herself an army brat, so she knows the ways of the military. What’s more, those of us who’ve read this wonderful series surely do so partly because her portrayal of small-town upstate New York feels so authentic; “the kind of town where the military comes from.” My problem with One Was Soldier was that it felt ever so slightly schematic.
Spencer-Fleming’s unifying device is a veterans’ support group, led by a therapist named Sarah who is never granted much of a character: she’s really a fly on the wall. The veterans in the group represent various branches of the service, socioeconomic groups, and kinds of damage suffered in Iraq or Afghanistan; young Will, a former track star, lost his legs to an IED. Trip Stillman, an orthopedist at the local hospital, suffered traumatic brain injury. And that rangy helicopter pilot in black — why, that’s the Reverend Clare Fergusson, back from 18 months flying a helicopter and addicted to a mess of substances.
Of course once the story’s under way, everything is fine. Clare and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne pick up where they left off, in their sexually charged and emotionally plausible romance. Spencer-Fleming’s done a great job of keeping them apart but that can’t last forever, so I was thrilled with the way she’s invented a new romance between two youngsters in the Millers Kill Police Department, the hottie Hadley Knox and red-haired rookie Kevin Flynn. I was absorbed in the plot until, around halfway through, I realized that no crime had occurred yet. But I was wrong — Spencer-Fleming is very good at this, and she’d gotten the criminal proceedings under way while ostensibly focusing on the veterans’ therapy group.
And one thing that’s consistently admirable about these books is that, though they are entertaining, Spencer-Fleming doesn’t flinch away from the hard stuff. Clare has flashbacks. Young Will Ellis has to adjust to a harsher future. Attractive characters die. I can see why the author was drawn to this material and she handles it as well as anyone could. The effects of war on a town like Millers Kill are as real as the effects of the weather or the faltering economy. And if Julia Spencer-Fleming wants to use her fiction to draw our attention to an all-too-real issue, in the end I have to admire the way she does it.