Facetious Nights

A book blog

The Lost Stradivarius by John Meade Falkner and The Parson by Anna Kavan

The Lost Stradivarius

Novella-length ghost story.  One young man at Oxford picks up some old-fashioned music on his travels and plays it with his friend.  One particular piece summons a ghostly listening presence.  They are both aware of it, but only one of the young men becomes drawn into dishonesty, forbidden knowledge, sacrifice of all he held previously dear, and ruined health.  This is an elegant rendition of the late Victorian/Edwardian ghost story.  The sinisterly intriguing portrait, the wicked dead, the diary, the intuitive experience of the past, the approach to the unspeakable and the lacuna left for the same.  As with M. R. James, the loss of piece of mind is felt as the most terrible consequence of crossing the path of the dead.  What I liked about Falkner’s other two books was the distinctively twilit, quiet, pleasantly sad atmosphere.  This was the first thing he wrote, and that tone lends itself so obviously to the ghost story that I didn’t really notice it here in its own right.

 

The Parson

Novella about an officer called Oswald and nicknamed The Parson.  Outwardly he is a fine healthy upstanding young man, but he is really rather odd, highly-string and ascetic.  He falls in love with Rejane, a beautiful narcissistic socialite.  Well, really, like Rejane, he is not so much in love as he is engaging with and indulging a phantom of his own psychological needs.  Rejane is intrigued by Oswald in his guise as a voicing of the barbaric, otherworldly North, the landscape of moors and tors.  She is in the habit of adopting various roles she finds herself piquant in, and Oswald offers her a brief fling at being Cathy, though he keeps spoiling it by not being Heathcliff enough.

On the last day of Rejane’s sojourn in Oswald’s part of the world, they have a strange trip to a ruined castle.  Oswald sees Rejane for the witchy soulless creature that she is.  Rejane is almost possessed by the role of cruel queen before nearly falling through the castle into the sea.  Oswald rescues her and, furious with her for despoiling his vision of the perfect woman as an escape from worldliness, he rapes her, though she does not really realise that that is how he means it.  He is traumatised by the knowledge that that is the kind of person he is, and the book ends portentously, which these kinds of stories generally do., and which I’ve come to think is their flaw.  It exceptionalises the characters, makes them too much the people who do what no one ever does except when they do, rather than explaining the strange things that go on inside people as ordinary as anyone.

This was shelved in the Romance section.  The gender dynamics are redolent of Romance, I suppose, but it’s just about told from an angle.  There’s not much that’s new here, I suppose, but it felt new.  Kavan has a kind of distant but intimately knowing approach to her characters’ peculiarities and I quite enjoyed the barbaric North theme, which is something Kavan as well as Rejane is playing with.

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The Following Girls by Louise Levene

Amanda Baker is known as Baker because she is friends with three other girls at school named Amanda.  Set in the seventies, this follows Baker in her quest to escape her hostile, disapproving father and the values of the adult world and find validation and meaning in the determinedly unimpressed atmosphere of her friendship group.  Not that it becomes clear Baker is engaged on anything so romantic and coherent as a quest until it fails; the Mandies drift apart and change into everybody else.  Baker tentatively begins a friendship with Julia, the secretly subversive games captain.  Again, we only realise how much hope Baker invested in the connection when it falls apart.  The book is about the search for option and the acceptance of their absence.

A lot of the point of this book is in its specific atmosphere.  Levene emphasises the particularity of the material world of the seventies.  It’s almost a sensuousness, this attention to the environmental details shaping our experience.  In a kind of contrast to any sensuousness, Levene writes with a keen, often unkind eye.  Like her previous book A Vision of Loveliness, Levene portrays a female world where observation is cold and unkindly exact, and unforgiving judgement pervades.  It’s not an environment in which Baker’s romanticism can fully form itself, let alone triumph in any way. 

I think the Mandies could have been characterised a little more distinctly.  Otherwise my biggest quibble is the anorexia which it becomes more and more clear Baker is suffering from, though it’s never directly addressed.  Sure, she’s unhappy, but we’re never shown how that specifically maps onto the refusal to eat.  It seems too much like a haphazard cherry on top.  I felt the novel’s biggest strength was its bitterness of tone.

The Victorian House by Judith Flanders

The title is shorthand for “The domestic life of Victorian middle-class women.”  The main thrust of this book, I think, is to emphasise that our image of the standard middle-class Victorian domestic set-up is often erroneously high-faluting.  Advertising campaigns and housekeeping advice books conspired to suggest that the women buying and using soap and cookery books had the type of establishments where there were servants to do everything – while the fact that there was a market for this combination of product and ploy indicated that the mistress of the house was obliged to get involved.  And a governess, for instance, was not de rigeur; many women would simply have been taught by their mothers.  The biggest reason why all this sort of thing doesn’t really register in our idea of these people’s lives is because there was an obligation for women to be silent on much of what their womanly domestic duties actually consisted of.  For all that men were so very keen on women wanting to carry them out, and finding that willingness sexually attractive, Flanders portrays men as being actually quite viscerally repelled by exposure to housekeeping inaction, finding the petty necessity of its details sordid and unseemly.  There’s also the fact that knowledge of what goes into maintaining a house and family elicits acknowledgment that it is work, extra specially so in this period, and that women were therefore active and skilful.

There’s a lot of emphasis on the Augean Stables nature of Victorian housekeeping, with chimneys and smuts and lavatories with cess pits and gas lamps that ruined their surroundings and varying amounts of running water and the terrible business of laundry, and sewing sheets side to middle.  So much of the baggage of housekeeping in days gone by has been forgotten.   Also there’s the hopeless business of trying to keep people alive and some very strange ideas about the kind of nourishment babies could live on.  And the terrible nuisance of crinolines in omnibuses and a wealth of other random details.  Flanders is quite keen on emphasising the unattractiveness of the Victorians; they are more likeable in novels in which it becomes clear that people didn’t always, or even usually, behave just as they ought than in their nonfiction confident prescriptions and demands.  They seem very rigid here, full of very precise rules for every social interaction, which were different depending on your exact social circle.  This book isn’t particularly well-organised, and the question of what makes it into the book and what doesn’t seems very random sometimes, but if you’d like to know more about the nitty-gritty of how these people actually lived you should find something to interest you. 

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

I’m not usually a reader who finds that a weak ending spoils even the most enjoyable of reading experiences, but I can’t say anything about this without a first oh dear for the fumbled dismount.  Port and Kit are a dysfunctional American couple travelling aimlessly through North Africa, just after WWII, I think.  Kit is a tightly wound neurotic, engrossed in her obsessive compulsive magical thinking interpretation of the world.  Port is distant and wry, seeming recklessly set, in his own way, on finding some experience that will make him feel, or perhaps make him not feel at all.  Both drift into infidelity.  Both intend to restart their relationship, re-establish true communication, at some vague future period.  I’ve read another book by Bowles, Let It Come Down, and what I found with that book was true of this; Bowles writes on Heart of Darkness territory, but manages to circumvent my usual response to nullness.  As well as the sleepwalking characters, there’s the alien land and culture, the exposure of which to the Western characters making both too vulnerable, and the sense of dread caused by the characters’ increasing loss of control combined with this setting and situation.

I liked all this – Kit and Port’s slide into automation, the sense of an unidentified quest or flight, the mounting dysfunction.  Then there is a disaster, like we all knew there would be, and Bowles drops the ball with Kit’s reaction to it.  She goes into the desert with two Arabs on camels and loses her sense of identity and memory of disaster in enjoying being raped by them.  More follows, but it’s all in the same vein.  I was all set up to buy quite a lot, but no one can sell that.  No one gets to sell that Ethel M. Dell stuff while wearing their Serious Psychological Drama hat.  It’s irredeemably silly and the book does depend on being taken somewhat seriously.  It’s also terribly sexist, of course.  The deadpan use of the trope assumes even more about the desirable rapist situation than more overt breathless fantasy type stuff.

Chance by Joseph Conrad

I didn’t like Heart of Darkness – found it strangely insubstantial in an exceedingly dense way – and was somehow encouraged to try this on the basis that I’d never heard of it.  It’s one of those books that’s Another-Author-Lite but still manages to be its own thing.  It’s Henry James with a dash of Trollope – the heroine’s father reminding me of Melmotte in situation, with the same emphasis on the belief in non-existent money generating its own temporary wealth.  Conrad and James seem to have the same way of dramatising almost indefinable moral realities and shades of character.  I often stopped to notice how much Conrad was making out of little, which is perhaps hard to make sound admiring, but I usually was.  I like there to be somewhere things are given their due.  James feels very soft to me, and Conrad feels colder and harder edged. 

The difference is effected by Marlow, who prides himself both on being cynical and outside the absurdities of everyday life and, I think, on respecting the things he values more than others.  Marlow contributes sexism in one of the ways that sets my teeth on edge most: intrusive remarks about the limitations of women.  This sort of thing always seems like the author was so overflowing with their tiresome opinions they simply couldn’t keep them to themselves long enough to write a story.  In this case, of course, I was only able to take a dislike to Marlow rather than Conrad, as Marlow is, nominally at least, a character rather than an author.  I can’t say I especially care for Marlow, but filtering the story through him does give it a particular flavour.

Flora, the heroine of a ruined, disgraced financier, is a bit like a Thomas Hardy heroine to start with, in the sense that it is her tragic difficultness which makes her strangely alluring, with her white little face and sense of damage and things left unsaid.  Conrad is more ironic about it though and doesn’t intend to see it through.  She’s really just a nice girl who’s had a hard time.  Dependant on menial spare woman type positions gained through the charitable interposition of an earnest couple, the drama of the first part of the story turns on her engagement to the brother of the earnest woman.  His intervention in her life is made to represent her salvation, but she can only barely accept it and it is greeted with horror by his sister and brother-in-law.  The second part of the story turns on the postponement on the salvation, as Flora and her husband, a captain, are joined on his ship by Flora’s ex convict father.

I didn’t enjoy a lot of the bit on the ship with Flora and Anthony and de Barral all almost hypnotised into stasis by each other, or at least de Barall hypnotising the other two.  It clarified what I didn’t like about Heart of Darkness; the effect of stagnation.  I actually find descriptions of emotional stalemate and apathy viscerally suffocating when the atmosphere is really captured, and Conrad seems to have his own version which almost disappears in nullness.  So I was pleased enough, if a little bemused, when this apparently insoluble situation is dissolved very quickly at the end.

I very much enjoyed a lot of the writing and will try something else by Conrad.

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

The 1000 page first half of the Fortunes of War sequence.  Harriet and Guy Pringle are a young newly-married couple being batted around by WWII.  For the first two books they’re in Romania, for the third they’re in Greece.  The real appeal of the trilogy is the sense of being offered a vantage point on the historical events unfolding.  I found it easy to get swept up in the sense of panic and doom and inevitable disintegration.  The Pringles stay put in both Romania and Greece until pretty much the last possible moment for them to get out, and the sense of being almost deserted on a sinking ship is again easy to feel involved in.  Manning provides a good mixed portrait of the earnest, harrowing side of war, and the more banal irritations and obstacles created by it.

This is a war book, but it’s also a book about a marriage.  When we begin, Harriet is not a particularly nice person and doesn’t like herself much, closed off in various ways, while Guy is insufferable in a particular strain of stereotypical masculinity.  He’s quite a broadly drawn picture of the lover of humanity more in general than particular, generous and giving but unlikely to save anyone who needs personal investment and awareness of the risks posed by a hostile world to be saved.  Harriet becomes someone whose side the reader is more likely to take (it would take a contrary reader, I think, to take Guy’s side, but if we are to take a side at all) when she is the one who worries about what will actually happen to someone Guy has taken under his wing and moved in with them.  The worst of Guy is perhaps his idea of marriage; Harriet is now to be considered as part of himself and therefore needs only the consideration he would afford himself.  Being selfless and opposed to personal considerations, this is not much.  He also considers it beyond question that his morality is hers.

Harriet takes some refuge from the emotionally arid atmosphere of their marriage in random passionate investments in stray animals and people, which is a rebellion against Guy’s ethos as well as something of a reproach to its effects on their marriage.  She has non-affairs with irritating young men who tell her how lucky she is to be married to Guy, as if she is both desirable for her connection to him and accessible as the lucky one in the relationship.

There are plenty of characters in this book, and one of the pleasures is the way they wander in and out.  Harriet and Guy battle with a plethora of rather odd, selfish scheming men who are out for what they can get out of the war, usually at Guy’s expense.  One of Harriet’s frustrations with Guy is his unwillingness to see and combat others’ venality.  There is Prince Yakimov, an aristocratic parasite, plaintive and always hungry, who enrages Harriet before she becomes, like me, rather fond of him.  People are not untouching, but there is no one who is your actual thoroughly likeable sympathetic character.

This is one of my favourite books so far this year, but it wasn’t perfect.  I would have liked the characterisation to be a little more fine-grained.  Because it is very autobiographical, sometimes I had an indefinable sense that things were as they were because that was how it was in real life, without providing sufficient evidence for necessity and inevitability in the fictional dimension.  Also, I found it annoying that Manning reminds you who everyone is each time, when these really are the sort of books which follow straight on from one another.  But I was always glad to get back to this.  It wasn’t one of those big books that somehow weigh you down even when you’re not reading it.