The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson
Expecting from the title for this to be the story of someone with a lot of ups and downs in their lives, and not knowing much else about it, I was a little surprised to meet Richard Mahony. He is not at first glance a tumultuous figure but a rather dour, cautious figure who has trouble connecting with the world. He begins as a shopkeeper but spends much of the novel practising as a doctor, though there are also periods of independent wealth. He broods in an uncharismatic, touchy way, left out of the world’s bonhomie because of his inability to consistently produce or appreciate it, but envying its warmth. He is much less earthbound and more erratic than he at first appears however, more of an idealist, occasionally hyper-social and periodically subject to an irresistible urge to destroy his present life and start again.
He has one friend who means a lot to him, and through this friend he meets Mary, who becomes his wife when she is only 16 and he is 12 years older. At this stage in their lives they both have a good deal of idealism in their make-up; their high ethical standards will continue to be the one thing they have in common. At the beginning the differences in their world-views seems insignificant, not least because Mary is very young. All of Richard’s energies are bound up with the inner world. He pursues the great intellectual questions and is a classic case of caring about injustice while being unable to stand people in the flesh. His interest in spiritualism is a trial for his wife and she doesn’t understand his love of animals. He doesn’t understand and certainly can’t share her patience with real people which comes from both love and loyalty for friends and family and pragmatism, her ability to make useful connections for him if only he will play his part. Richardson does very well at making us understand the tug at both ends, each straining for nourishment in opposite directions. We can enter into each character’s frustrations with the other at times. Occasionally, however, I felt that Richardson hit a false note with Mary’s characterisation in order to achieve this. Generally her kindness and ability to relate to others is emphasised, except when Richardson wants to make too clear a dichotomy between her kind of perceptions and Richard’s and she suddenly fails in kindness due to her lack of ability to perceive the nature of others’ problems. I find it hard to buy the idea that kindness can exist without emotional intelligence and in general Mary’s kindness is clearly shown not to be confined to material problems and their solutions.
The need for companionship and the question of what companionship consists of is one of the novel’s themes. True understanding and sharing of what is most individual or just the simple solidarity and continuing presence of married life? One of the things I liked most about this book is its treatment of marriage as something that creates a partnership like a separate entity from either of them. Romance might have been the lure to enter into the relationship at the beginning but has very little to do with the substance of it. And in the end the fact of having spent so much time together is more important than whether it was ever really the best decision to do so.
This book is Introversion: The Three Act Tragedy and I found it horribly convincing. For me, this passage, which comes at the crux of Richard’s desperation, is the climax of this theme:
For there had been no real love in him: never a feeler thrown out to his fellow-men. Such sympathy as he felt, he had been too backward to show: had given of it only in thought, and from afar. Pride, again! — oh! rightly was a pride like his reckoned among the seven capital sins. For what WAS it, but an iron determination to live untouched and untrammelled . . . to preserve one’s liberty, of body and of mind, at the expense of all human sentiment. To be sufficient unto oneself, asking neither help nor regard, and spending none. A fierce, Lucifer-like inhibition. Yes, this . . . but more besides. Pride also meant the shuddering withdrawal of oneself, because of a rawness . . . a skinlessness . . . on which the touch of any rough hand could cause agony; even the chance contacts of everyday prove a source of exquisite discomfort.
It’s one of those books which makes you wonder why it isn’t better known as one of the Great Books even though you feel a little protective about of it because really you know why it isn’t one of the Great Books even though it has Greatness within it. Partly it might be that Richard’s tragedy is a little too specific; I related to enough of it to be unsure how universal it was. Mostly though because of the accumulation of domestic detail; immense quantities of parties given and home improvements and births, deaths and marriages in their family circle. I have a high tolerance for this stuff and also I thought it conveyed the sense of time; it’s important for this book to convey the impression that it contains the sum of Richard and Mary’s lives. But I can see how others might be defeated.
Nancy by Rhoda Broughton
Victorian novel about the marriage of a young girl to a much older man. The third book by Broughton I’ve read, having previously read Belinda and Cometh Up As A Flower. The worst of them, which is only to be expected considering I chose it out of morbid fascination to see how it transitioned the heroine from one of a jolly group in the schoolroom to marrying the man who was at school with Father. Broughton’s thing so far as I have read her is to have a chatty, jaunty Victorian chicklit mode coloured lilac with melancholy ponderings on the transience of life and having the heroine’s life blighted. There’s something about this style that both embarrasses me for my capacity to enjoy it and convinces me that Dodie Smith imprinted on Broughton when young; there are echoes of Cometh Up As A Flower particularly in I Capture the Castle. Both Belinda and Cometh Up as a Flower feature the heroines having their lives blighted by marrying older men when there was a young and beautiful man they wanted instead. Broughton’s claim to fame is that her heroines feel desire. Here that pattern is slightly varied; Nancy’s bright young life is blighted, not permanently but for much of the novel by marriage problems but she doesn’t want to be married to anybody else. There is a beautiful young man, but he’s sullen and insufferable for his assumption that he and Nancy are having a Thing when they are not. By making Nancy convinced she is undesirable, giving her a horrible father to escape and depriving her of viable alternative men, Broughton makes it more credible that she would make the most of Father’s old friend. But if she’s not tormented by his oldness and stuffiness, Broughton feels she must be tormented all the same and so endless misunderstandings take up too much of this.
Exodus by Lars Iyer
The last in a trilogy of short novels about W. and Lars, two academics in philosophy departments. There are descriptions of Lars’s damp, rat-infested flat; otherwise the substance of all three is W. berating Lars for his stupidity and the two of them lamenting their own idiocy and inability to truly think, and the dreadfulness of the world as it surely approaches some kind of apocalypse. These laments are humorous and it was on this level that I mostly enjoyed them, but they also represent the upholding of a standard, an unachievable ideal that Iyer is on some level seriously saying he does not want the world and Lars and W. to be forgiven for not realising. I think. Despite all the abuse W. aim at Lars, it seems quite a nice, effective friendship in some ways; their shared world of exaggerated, performative despair bonds them and channels their anxieties.
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write by Sarah Ruhl
A charming book about playwriting and theatre in general. I like the idea of theatre though haven’t seen that much of it and I like reading about creative work. In general I think the mini nature of the “essays” helped the charm as we zip along but there were definitely were some where I was like come on Sarah Ruhl, couldn’t you have actually written the essay? One of the main themes was the importance of hanging onto the creative core of the work while being enmeshed in some very uncreative structures and procedures (it seems like putting on a play can be less fun than I might have hoped.) Working motherhood was also a theme; accepting children as part of life rather than an obstacle to it and maintaining that writers live first of all, as well as working through the usual guilt.
Roderick Hudson by Henry James
I enjoyed this less than The Princess Casamassima and The American which I read last year. I don’t think any of the three are really the books people talk about when they talk about Henry James and none of them were more than the sum of their parts. But I felt the two I read last year had a richer texture and more content and more finely drawn characters. This, his first real novel, was fine but the reading experience felt blander.
Rich and benevolent but directionless Rowland Mallet takes talented but undeveloped sculptor Roderick Hudson under his wing. I expected Roderick’s artistic talent and its faltering to be more the subject of the novel than it really was. The meandering romantic entanglements are more privileged. Rowland has a nobly stifled crush on Mary Garland, Roderick’s cousin and fiancée, a girl of stout virtue and integrity. Rowland, a little plump and helplessly polite and sensible, is driven by his sense of responsibility for Roderick’s well-being; a responsibility he feels not only to Roderick but his mother and Mary. One of the more common responses to this book is to believe that Rowland’s crush is not on Mary but Roderick. I couldn’t see it myself, I suppose simply because Mary, sketchily drawn as she is, is clearly preferable to Roderick. I found Roderick simply irritating rather than the intriguing possessor of a tragic flaw. Roderick is callow and stunted, incapable of growth, inaccessible in many ways to outside influence. His defeat is the mortified realisation of smallness and, worse, his smallness in Rowland’s eyes.
Christina Light seduces Roderick’s attention away from not only Mary but his work. She is, like himself, a mercurial creature unlikely to ever develop into anything very different, but she’s more intelligent and more convincingly glamorous. She has to be mentioned because she is the nullifying force, blighting Roderick’s vulnerable vitality and creative ability. This is represented as being fairly final though it seemed to me nothing more nor less than a fit of depression. I was unconvinced that Christina, enlivening though she was, wasn’t a bit extraneous to the story of Rowland and Roderick. This malevolent hypnosis is one of James’s themes, though, this idea that the force of one person’s personality can arrest the life-force of another.
The climax of the Rowland-Roderick story is a mixture of tragedy and bathos, with poor old Rowland providing the bathos. After he finally expresses some indignation it is not long before “his extraordinary, acute sense of his rights had been replaced by the familiar, chronic sense of his duties” and he has been made to be in the wrong for expressing himself. He ends by continuing to sniff around Mary Garland more timidly than hopefully. It is his investment in other people’s lives rather than having one of his own which makes him undignified.
The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens
Middlebrow from the forties. Oliver, a long-term though not permanent invalid after WWII, looks on at family life. One sister gets married, another sister’s marriage is in trouble and he himself is intrigued by his nurse, the competent but primly enigmatic Elizabeth. Will Elizabeth really marry someone who wants to go to Torquay for the honeymoon and whose best friend calls her “Little lady”? Other tangles with wicked stepmothers and kleptomaniac mothers-in-law arise. A collection of loosely connected strands with everyone getting their turn, not a narrative with much central, consistent drive. I really enjoyed this — like a rich tea biscuit when you’re really in the mood for a rich tea biscuit.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The story of Romy, a lapdancer who is in jail for life after she killed her stalker. She has a young son and is tortured by her inability to assure herself of his wellbeing, let alone see him herself. The novel cuts between her life before jail and her life in jail. It also cuts between her story and the perspective of a guy who teaches classes in jail, who has the odd thought about life in the mountains, some extracts from the Unabomber’s journal, chapters from the perspective of a guy in jail who was mixed up with a woman who is a death row celebrity in Romy’s jail, and who rambles internally about country music, one chapter from the perspective of someone Romy is actually in jail with, and one chapter from the perspective of Romy’s killed stalker. I wouldn’t have minded more details about the other women prisoners, but having just one chapter about just one of them seems lopsided. The other stuff did not provide an interesting perspective. There were also too many details about San Francisco that were just wallpaper to me but I’m willing to believe that’s because I’m British and Kushner was writing for people who at least had preconceptions about the place.
The core of this is sound, the core being the portrayal of life in a women’s prison. It’s claustrophobic and compelling, and the details of the ludicrously frustrating systems which rule and have ruled the characters’ lives are clearly presented. Unfortunately I got the impression Kushner thought the core wasn’t ambitious enough and made me think of a bird gathering up unsuitable materials which won’t weave together, bent on making a bigger and better nest. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been possible to add material to the core of the novel that would have illustrated the emotional themes or the socioeconomic implications. But Kushner’s added material is awkward and badly chosen and dilutes the impact of the novel as a whole. Sometimes putting a whole bunch of the things that interest you into one book is a good idea and sometimes it isn’t.
Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy
Novella set in a Swiss boarding school in the fifties. Deals primarily with a friendship between the narrator and a girl called Frederique, though also covers the narrator’s impressions of boarding school life in general. Boarding school life still seems to be life for the narrator, writing years later. Restlessly longing to be out in the world in her schooldays, in her adulthood she is haunted by Frederique and her many schools in general. The confines of institutional life are represented as containing some ascetic, ceremonial quality that is the clue to a mystery. This is an enigmatic work that is all atmosphere, and the nature of the atmosphere is itself a kind of mystery. I felt the writing was pretentious at times yet at the same time irresistibly called to mind the word crystalline. Frederique, “the most disciplined, respectful, ordered, perfect girl,” is not the sort of person teenage girls are generally represented as finding charismatic in books about people being haunted by memories of charismatic teenage friends. The narrator feels that perfectly folded clothes are a sign of some sort of secret knowledge, a secret knowledge which is nearer death than life. It’s a strange book and over before you know it, but not without leaving an impression.
Cold Earth by Sarah Moss
The story of a group of archaeologists setting off to Greenland just as an epidemic begins. Concerns about this epidemic and their ultimate survival run alongside a ghost story. In some ways the survival story and the ghost story are rivals (for me the survival story won) and in others their intertwining illustrates the continuity of human history. The fact that they are us and archaeology is not that separate from life is a theme: “Even hiding traces leaves traces. And we were there. We are history too.” The effectiveness of the ghost story drops when Moss drops the perspective of Nina, who perceives the presence of the dead Greenlanders most clearly, though much of her purpose for offering the perspectives of other characters seems to be to assure us that although they are sceptical about the ghosts they experience disconcerting things too. Still, it added resonance to the story of the dead Greenlanders and emphasised the way in which the survival story makes the archaeology extra excavating as they learn desperation and despair in the same place as the Greenlanders did.
I had some minor practical quibbles but generally felt that the biggest flaw was that Moss seemed to have a much clearer grasp on one character than the others. Nina, a literature postgraduate student who shouldn’t have been there at all, suffers from anxiety which expresses itself in hyper-focusing on grounding practical comforts like food and her expertise on them and in an inferiority/superiority complex. She initially seems vulnerable but you quickly realise that she is ready to defend herself on the offensive like a tiresome little dog, seeing social interaction as a win or lose situation. Her cultural background is the most like Moss’s and the other characters did not come from other worlds very convincingly.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip
Very slow, quite dense fantasy novel about conflicting loyalties. Or at least I’m not sure it is that slow seeing as it’s not a long novel and quite a lot of things do happen, but somehow they seem to happen suspended in some thick fluid. In a good way! I thought the way the conflicts were set up was very effective, apart from the point at which McKillip leaned too heavily on the idea that characters who clearly don’t believe in keeping their hands clean of bloodshed at all cost would suddenly be appalled by a particular revenge and that it must not be allowed to happen. This often happens with historical or fantasy fiction and makes me feel bloodthirsty when the characters are wringing their hands and shaping the whole plot around the idea that life must always be preserved and I just do not buy that it is that big a deal for them. But anyway, I liked the psychological themes and the fairytale-ish atmosphere.
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
Not a conventional narrative but a collection of pieces about the author’s experiences in Benedictine communities and with communal Christian spirituality more generally. One of the reasons why I read this was because ever since a disastrous stint as a PhD candidate I’ve been feeling oppressively conscious of the thought-feeling divide and feeling the need for things which speak about feeling as a kind of knowing. The book did deliver, a little more specifically than I’d expected in parts; Norris speaks about feeling uncomfortable in academic settings as a poet. The longer pieces had a distinct tendency to be the ones that felt most as if Norris had something to say; some of the shorter pieces felt more like filler journalism so far as my interest in them went. The pieces got shorter towards the end of the book and my interest waned. I liked the pieces about the process of gaining meaning from various texts and was quite struck by Norris’s claim for spirituality as necessarily communal. I’m always interested in institutional life and there’s some interesting stuff about that though really the book is very much about Norris. I’ve always been drawn to material about religious experiences without being an actual religious person myself and there’s often a funny tension between feelings of overlap and feelings of difference. I found this interesting and rewarding as a whole, but not all the way through.
Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquahoun
Surreal, occultist novella about a girl trapped on her uncle’s island. At the limit of the extent to which you can string images into a narrative. Very much what you’d expect it to be like, I suppose, very much like listening to a long dream. It made me think about artistic effects of compression; the way it allows you to juxtapose more things without having to explain connections and therefore gain effects that way but also loses effects because no dwelling, no explanation. Quantity rather than quality, even in such a small space. Still, the images did have something.