It was startling to finish Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, and find that it was copyrighted in 1962. P.G. Wodehouse hit his stride — well, you could say in 1919, with the publication of four stories as My Man, Jeeves. (Something tells me there are clubs and associations that take all this dating business quite seriously.) The first full-length novel is Right Ho, Jeeves, published in 1934. By the time Wodehouse got around to writing Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, very little had changed, including the menace posed to Bertie’s equanimity by the prospect of marrying Madeline Bassett. She’s attractive enough, except for “that squashy soupiness of hers, that subtle air she had of being on the point of talking baby talk. She was the sort of girl who puts her hands over a husband’s eyes, as he is crawling in to breakfast with a morning head, and says, ‘Guess who?’” Newt-loving Gussie Fink-Nottle appears, sober; Aunt Agatha stays away. Bertie is in fine form as ever: confronting a menacing fellow-house guest he says, “I think if Spode had been about three feet shorter and not so wide across the shoulders, I would have laughed a mocking laugh and quite possibly have flicked my cambric handkerchief in his face.” Sometimes you do want a writer to produce the same book again and again.
A few weeks ago, around the time of the publication of Bring Up the Bodies, Newsweek published Hilary Mantel’s list of five excellent historical novels. Naturally I paid attention. Losing Nelson was the first of them to arrive at my local library and I found it exhilarating. Some critics think historical fiction is somehow lame, or lazy, or unoriginal, and often that’s true. (Also true of literary fiction, though.) Maybe what attracts critical fire is the occasional predictability of the historical novel’s structure. I bring this up because Barry Unsworth so successfully avoids it.
Losing Nelson is narrated by a middle-aged Englishman who has dedicated his life to the late-Georgian naval hero Lord Nelson. This narrator — whose name, Charles Cleasby, is barely uttered in the course of the novel — is one of those lonely weird people who populate the novels of Barbara Pym or, more alarmingly, Ruth Rendell. It’s clear from the start that Charles is immensely damaged and part of the novel’s suspense is generated by sheer curiosity: what the heck happened to him? He is aware of his own peculiarities, but only in part. So he’s one of those tricky unreliable narrators. Especially unreliable because Barry Unsworth pierces narrative convention and has Charles’ story not only shift back and forth in time but also in person, from “I” to “you” to “I” again, only often the “I” is Nelson. One minute we are in Charles’ head, discussing a sea battle, the next minute we are on the deck of a ship, nearly deafened by cannon fire. In effect, Charles in in such psychic distress that he retreats into this alternative identity he has so carefully constructed: Horatio Nelson. He even, it’s clear, has imaginary sex with Nelson’s mistress Emma Hamilton.
It sounds jarring, but Unsworth is so adept that I found the effect magical instead. Both worlds, the contemporary and the historical, are vividly imagined and described but the way they unexpectedly penetrate each other is both original and effective. What’s more Unsworth keeps the narrative tension taut because Charles has made a hero out of his alter ego. Yet as he works on his book about Nelson (of course he’s writing a book) he has to confront a disturbing, anti-heroic episode in Nelson’s career. It’s clear to the reader that the Nelson fetish can’t hold back the tide of Charles’ psychic agony forever. Will the influence of his part-time secretary Miss Lily offer him a steadying hand? Or will Charles come apart as he investigates the truth about what happened in Naples in 1799? As he stands in a shadowy Neapolitan church he thinks, “I felt the same sorrow, the same helplessness that I had so often felt at home in my study. Whatever one made of the documents, the truth of the past was beyond grasping — it lay in the looks exchanged, the tones used, and the eyes and voices had left no trace.” Okay. Maybe we can’t get to THE truth of the past. (The very idea that there is a single truth is a symptom of Charles’ fragile, absolutist view of the world.) But in Losing Nelson, Barry Unsworth gives us a provocative version of it.
Why would I want to read a novel that purports to be the informal diary kept by an upper-class Englishman born in 1906? It comes with footnotes and an index, the scholarly paraphernalia of the genuine journal. But Logan Gonzago Mountstuart is William Boyd’s invention. And Boyd has something more in mind than evoking youthful pre-war European adventures. Here’s his epigraph: “Never say you know the last word about any human heart,” supplied by no less than Henry James. (Not a great title: altogether too abstract.) I have to assume that Mountstuart is an English Zelig of sorts, an Everyman who lives, as he points out at the end, in every decade of the twentieth century. That makes for a rather programmatic approach to fiction: Mountstuart’s almost forced to participate in the historical high spots of the century. And he does: Paris in the twenties, Hemingway, the Depression, wartime service, New York in the sixties, etc. etc. With a scope like that, this novel could have been deadly. To tell the truth, I didn’t really like Logan Mountstuart much and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have liked me either. But Any Human Heart was completely absorbing because Boyd has the gift of readability. Again and again, with each diary entry (the enemy of immersive reading, in a way), you are plunged into Mountstuart’s world.
And I keep trying to figure out why. As a novelist, I’m always trying to locate the source of tension or drama in what I’m reading, but what could be less ostensibly dramatic than a series of journal entries? Boyd is clearly playing with this idea throughout the book, fooling around with the simulation of a journal’s randomness and the requirements of fiction. Shortly after World War II, he has Mountstuart write,
Isn’t this how life turns out, more often than not? It refuses to conform to your needs — the narrative needs that you feel are essential to give rough shape to your time on this earth… Feelings of depression; feelings of frustration; feelings of emptiness in the face of all this randomness — done down by the haphazard, yet again.”
In fact that may be the dramatic tension in Any Human Heart, far beyond Mountstuart’s trouble with women or his stop-and-start career or his repeated and ultimately rather funny stints as a spy. (Another theme: Mountstuart’s penchant for deception. What is fiction but a series of lies?) It’s the conflict between the ordered and the arbitrary, or, to put it another way, the degree to which luck dominates any human existence. In a creative work that owes nothing to chance, Boyd tries to emulate the haphazard quality that rules a life. Ultimately, the book’s structure leaves it to the reader to assign meaning to Mountstuart’s existence.
Aaaand he’s back! “He, Cromwell.” Hilary Mantel’s improbable protagonist, first met in the magisterial and brilliant Wolf Hall. Let me bring you up to date. It is September, 1535. Henry VIII has been married to Anne Boleyn for two and a half years. She has given him a daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, but not yet a son. He is becoming restless and testy. The royal eye has fallen on the anti-Anne, mild-mannered and modest Jane Seymour. Do you remember how the rhyme goes, to number Henry’s six wives? “Divorced, beheaded, died…” So you know where Bring up the Bodies is going, don’t you?
Like Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies is a substantial book, over 400 pages. But it covers a much more compressed period of time. Did this denseness make it drag a little in the first half, or was that the need to recapitulate? More likely the fact that I was on a plane — Mantel has an extremely deft hand with exposition. Anyway the conflict in Bring up the Bodies is more dense, too. Thomas Cromwell’s character and his role in Henry’s court is established. Likewise Henry’s dilemma, which is beginning to sound familiar (“divorced, beheaded…”). What actually happens in this novel is more fine-grained than the action in Wolf Hall. Cromwell’s handy utilitarian philosophy takes on an ugly edge as he works to grant the king’s desire in a way that won’t blow apart the country. Mantel describes the great Holbein portrait of Cromwell clutching a document, and thereafter you may find yourself counting references to Cromwell’s fists. There’s a mood of suppressed violence in the novel that pays off magnificently in the end.
Henry himself, who had a certain, well, majestic charm in Wolf Hall, verges on the petulant at times. The Court walks on egg shells. And I find I missed some of the great, complex characters of Wolf Hall, like More and Wolsey. Finally, because Cromwell is widowed, he has become something of a business machine. Mantel does her best to give him friendly moments but there is a lot of procedure without much respite in this novel.
But oh! the writing! Mantel’s narrative voice, as in the earlier novel, straddles eras. There are contemporary constructions and vocabulary, easily sharing sentences with phrases that take us back in time. The result for me was like perceiving the action on two levels, or hearing it in stereo — Now and Then, more closely related than we’d ever thought.
Writing isn’t just about words, though, it’s also about imaginations and this may be where Mantel really excels. Time and again, I’d read a passage with delight as a metaphor or an image took me right to her scene, placing me in the heart of the action, at Cromwell’s velvet-clad elbow. I’ll leave you with the opening lines of the novel:
His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”
Leaving aside the fabulous conceit that Thomas Cromwell named his falcons after his daughters, leaving aside the dextrous prefiguration of violence, I have to wonder — how does Hilary Mantel know what a raptor sounds like? Oh, wait — that’s what the best novelists do. They make stuff up, and make you believe it’s true.
Here’s what you need to know about In the King’s Arms. There is a pub in the very center of Oxford called “The King’s Arms,” so the title may be a pun. The protagonist’s name is Lily Taub: taub means “deaf” in German. Dunno if that’s significant. The story is that Lily, the earnest, studious, beautiful daughter of New York Holocaust survivors goes to Oxford for a graduate degree in the early 1970s. She falls in with a well-to-do English family: witty, clever elder brother Peter is a student, his breathtakingly handsome brother Julian didn’t get accepted at the university. Their mother is anti-Semitic. Lily spends a cold damp Christmas with them. I kept waiting for something a little bigger to happen but all the heft of the book was in the flashbacks to the Taub parents’ harrowing experiences. Lily gets homesick, gets mono, has a baby-sitting mishap. Gets, in the end, the lovely Julian. I have no objection to fairy-tale romances about handsome young Englishmen with long dark hair and that off-hand English way about them, but the culture-clash/anti-Semitism/re-examining-your-identity-under-a-European-sky part of the tale ended up going nowhere.
In the afterword Sonia Taitz reveals that In the King’s Arms was written 25 years ago. She has an Oxford M.Phil. so I’m guessing the novel was inspired by her own experiences.
Who reads cat books? Me, apparently.
Kitty Cornered was a gift from a lovely friend who must be extremely sensitive, because she gathered from the occasional faint protest that Beloved Husband and I were sometimes puzzled by our cat’s behavior. Really, we never complain about him. Not about the scars on our hands, or the electronic food box set to pop open at 2 a.m. Certainly we never moan about his elaborate slimming diet or his equally elaborate beauty rituals (two brushes; bribery-fueled manicures).
And now that I’ve met the creatures in Kitty Cornered, I would never dare criticize an 18-pound long-hair who sleeps 16 hours a day. You want cat trouble? Bob Tarte has cat trouble times six. He also has trouble with ducks, parakeets, and rabbits, but I could only concentrate on the felines. Some of this is laugh-out-loud funny, especially since Tarte is ready to throw his sense of dignity under the bus. Guess that’s crucial with six cats. He’s also clear about his emotional bonds with the animals, especially with the skittish, damaged Frannie whose integration into the household is the somewhat attenuated narrative arc of the book.
Does it get dull sometimes? Yes.
Did I read the whole thing? Yes. Willingly.
Will you like it? I think you can tell by now.
I’m a big fan of John Singer Sargent’s paintings and on a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I was moved by the room devoted to his portrayals of the Edward Darley Boit family. Of course I knew the big canvas now usually known as “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.” But hanging near it were Mrs. Boit, cheerful in a pink dress with black coin-sized polka dots, and a much more sober portrait of Papa Boit himself. And flanking the big portrait of their daughters were the very same immense Oriental blue-and-white vases in the canvas. To quote from Sargent’s Daughters, “When they first traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts for display in 1986, they contained — among handfuls of the excelsior with which they had been so carefully packed — a cigar stub, a paper airplane, a pink ribbon, a tennis ball, sheets of geography lessons, a letter about the repeal of Prohibition, an Arrow shirt collar, an old doughnut, an admission card to a dance at the Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead, Massachusetts, three badminton shuttlecocks, many coins, and a feather.”
The contents of the vases, like the painting itself, were once part of family life, and this is one of the points of Erica Hirshler’s book. Sargent’s Daughters looks at a familiar image — call it a document if you’d rather — from a series of different angles. Hirshler covers Sargent’s biography as well as that of the Boit family before the time of their commission of the portrait, which was painted in around 6 weeks in the fall of 1882. As a formal portrait, or a record of the appearances of four young girls, it was highly unconventional. But Edward Boit was a painter himself and a friend of Sargent’s; it’s assumed that he was pleased with his daughters’ casual poses and the fact that the eldest girl, Florence, seen dimly lit and in profile, is scarcely recognizable.
Hirshler discusses the history of the picture; where it was exhibited and what critics thought of it. She broadens this discussion to take in the rise and fall of Sargent’s reputation, which suffered in the years when American art veered toward abstraction. Sargent’s fluent, European-style virtuosity looked meretricious for a while there, but it has come roaring back into fashion, and Hirshler spends some time with recent feminist and psychosocial interpretations of the painting. But what I found most moving, and saddest, was the history of the daughters themselves.They were frozen in time, weren’t they, in the big dark front hall of that Avenue Friedland apartment, immobilized in their starched pinafores and dark stockings? Of course not. Jane was mentally fragile, not one of them ever married. Their mother Isa, laughing around the corner, died before she reached fifty. Edward Boit remarried and had two sons, whom Sargent didn’t paint. The creation of this canvas, like every family portrait, commemorated a moment. Sargent’s Daughters both precisely defines that personal, individual moment, and demonstrates the wide-ranging impact of the work of art.