Saturday, April 11, 2015

Eugénie Grandet--Honoré de Balzac

Sorry this is so late. Life just kept getting in the way.
It will tell you something about me that the Balzac I know best is his story “Sarrasine,” a text mostly ignored by readers for a century until, so the story goes, Roland Barthes came across an offhand reference to it by Georges Bataille that intrigued him enough to devote an entire seminar to the little story, the result of which was his extraordinary narratological study S/Z.

“Sarrasine” is amazing and holds up to many readings. But one story out of the thousands of pages Balzac wrote, well, it’s not much to base a judgment on, is it? (Technically I read Père Goriot a long time ago, too, but I can’t tell you anything about it except that it’s about a boarding house. It’s about a boarding house, right?) But now as part of the Slave of Golconda group I’ve read Eugénie Grandet and I’m planning to immerse myself in Balzac as soon as reasonably possible. The guy was clearly a genius.

To come to Balzac through Barthes and post-structuralism is now so old-fashioned as to be almost quaint. The news that Princeton has bought the library of Jacques Derrida, though it warms my heart, makes me certain that the theory that was meat and drink to me is rapidly becoming antiquated. As Alexander Trocchi once said of the canonization of Dada, even “the turds of anti-art were framed and hung alongside “The School of Athens.”

 Although Barthes offered his reading of Balzac as a critique of the ideological dominance of literary realism—specifically, its way of pretending that what it is doing is merely transforming things into words when in fact every thing, in this case every referent, is already produced through the combination of a number of interpretive codes—Barthes would be the first to acknowledge what time has made increasingly clear: S/Z is a paean to that realism, and especially to Balzac. Barthes described the realist writer as a painter whose main tool was not his canvas but the frame he placed around it, which Barthes employs as a figure for the condition of representability itself. To show anything it must first be selected, chosen, made. The trick played by realism—the ideological sleight of hand that bothered Barthes in the early 70s—was to pretend that the frame didn’t exist and that the canvas was simply a swathe of the real. But that didn’t mean, as critics of post-structuralism liked to say, that the art of the canvas was second-rate or disingenuous or bad. After all, S/Z is as much love letter as critique.

It’s entirely possible, though, that what Barthes said about literary realism might really only be about Balzac. Maybe the circulation of codes—by which Barthes meant both pre-established conventions for depicting and thinking about the world, and the way texts are in fact citing other texts when they claim to be showing life—isn’t the way realism works. Maybe it’s just how Balzac works. That’s the thought that came to me when I read, in Eugénie Grandet’s stilted and awkward opening pages, this description of Monsieur Grandet, the heroine’s father, a miserly cooper whose speculations first in the wine trade and later in the financial markets make him rich: “Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet had the qualities both of a tiger and a boa-constrictor.” A tingle ran down my spine. Hadn’t I read about tigers and boa constrictors before? I pulled my copy of “Sarrasine” off the shelf where I duly found this description of a woman entranced by an old man she does not yet know is a castrato: “She was under the spell of that timorous curiosity which leads women to seek out dangerous emotions, to go to see chained tigers, to look at boa constructors.”

No doubt someone has written a book on the history of circuses and the Paris zoo (which, a quick Wikipedia search tells me, was founded in 1793) or any of the other ways in which such exotic animals might have made their way to 19th century France. If anyone knows about that stuff, please let me know, but honestly I’m only halfheartedly interested in that sort of background. What I’m genuinely interested in is how this repeated imagery tells us something about Balzac’s method and the preoccupations of this book. It’s not that Balzac copies himself—Barthes says copies are at the heart of Balzac’s work: what they are about and how they are made—but that in citing himself, in returning even to tropes that aren’t at all central to the subject matter of his writing, Balzac incorporates a process of circulation that is central to that subject matter.

Balzac delights in expressing and examining received wisdom; Barthes called this doxa and Franco Moretti called it Balzac’s “loquacious wisdom.” One of Balzac’s favourite formulations (present dozens of times in “Sarrasine,” admittedly less frequently in Eugenie) is “one of those”: “Prompted by one of those ideas which arise in a young girl’s heart…”; “It was one of those looks in which there is almost as much coquetry as deep feeling.” The implication is that readers will know what the narrator is talking about (ah, one of those ideas, one of those looks). The narrator becomes a kind of cataloguer of the world, able to show us what we might have missed but what, prompted by his description, we recognize as present in the world. But again the point isn’t that literature simply reflects the world beyond it but that it summons that world into being. The circulation of tropes, whether the “repetition” of known truths (“one of those”) or the self-citation of metaphors and images (tigers and boa constrictors) contributes to the way Balzac’s texts elide their own construction. How otherwise could such fanciful and melodramatic tales have come to seem so natural? The seemingly haphazard quality of the prose and the structure—this isn’t Flaubert—similarly contribute to the “natural” or “found” quality of the work: here is a slice of life.

As I said above, circulation isn’t just present in the form of the text. It’s also important in its content. The circulation of tropes that realist representation depends on is like the circulation of capital. And Eugénie Grandet is, at least superficially, about a miser (though the fact the miser is Eugénie’s father and that the book is not named for him suggests we might need to rethink that assertion). Grandet amasses his fortune first through trade (often by deviously undercutting his fellow vintners) but later through investment and speculation, where money is made from money. Rohan wrote about how unconcerned the novel seems to detail the source of Grandet’s money, how uninterested in detailing the labour that goes into making it. But from the perspective of capitalism, the more alienated capital is from labour the more powerful its ideological purchase.

That said, there are important counterweights in the novel to the idea of effortless speculation. Grandet loves gold, even picking gold threads out of a dress. He hoards copper coins in his study, so many that when he takes them out of the house, under cover of night, he needs a servant to help him carry the cauldron on a yoke around his neck. (The scene where Eugénie, half asleep and in the fever of new love, chances upon her father in this act is a masterful phantasmagoria.) In this sense wealth is highly material—and so too are the vividly evoked deprivations Grandet’s household endures as a result of the father’s miserliness, like the sugar cubes Grandet finds time in his busy schedule to cut up. Indeed, the miser challenges the idea of capitalist circulation, because he wants to hoard his money rather than keep it moving about. So although the novel depicts the increase of the Grandet fortune as implacable and inevitable, it also positions the miser as not just the capitalist par excellence, but also, more challengingly, as the limit of that economic system.

I struggled with how to understand the relation between money and heredity in this book. For heredity—by which I mean the passing on of emotional traits and values rather than of physical characteristics—seems to be something that also persists implacably. The novel tells the story of a family, but mostly it focuses on just the father and his daughter. What the daughter takes from the father is important to understanding the book’s remarkable ending. (Balzac might not be too great with beginnings, at least as evidenced by this book, but he sure knows what to do with an ending.)

The back cover of the Oxford edition I read—which comes with a really excellent, smart but not pedantic introduction by Christopher Prendergast, you should check it out if you’re at all interested in this book—asks “Who is going to marry Eugénie Grandet?” “This is the question,” the copy adds, “that fills the minds of the inhabitants of Saumur,” the town in the Loire where the book is set. Amateur Reader has pointed out that this is not really the question of the book. I submit that if there were something like a guiding question for the book it would be something like: “How should we understand Eugénie’s fate?”

I love the book’s way of wrong-footing us, of presenting scenarios we’ve seen before and then upending them. When Eugénie’s glamorous and spoiled Parisian cousin Charles comes to visit, and when the girl is instantly smitten with him to the point of giving him her heart, and, just as importantly in this novel, paying off his debts, we think we know what to expect. Surely this rakish dandy will do her wrong; surely he will be her ruin. When Charles learns, shortly after his arrival in Saumur, of his father’s suicide after the shame of becoming a bankrupt and accepts that his only hope of recovering any position in Parisian society is to seek his fortune in the Indies, we are sure he will abandon to Eugénie. And in this case we are right, just as we are also right that Eugénie will hold fast to his memory. Charles, who whatever his flaws was always rather sweet, becomes hardened in his seven years overseas—not least because he soon realizes that the real money is in selling people not goods. Embroiled in the slave trade—in “unremitting contact with selfish interests”—he becomes hardened and cynical: “his feeling for others contracted and withered away.” Balzac immediately adds that after all Charles is a Grandet: “The blood of the Grandets fulfilled its destiny. Charles became hard and ruthless in the pursuit of gain.” That ruthlessness extends to his personal life. On the ship home, Charles meets a titled, well-positioned family that has been much reduced materially. Although he doesn’t much care for Mademoiselle d’Aubrion—and Balzac does his best to make sure we don’t either, describing her as “thin and spare, with a supercilious mouth, dominated by a blunt, over-long nose, which was normally yellowish but became quite red after meals, a kind of vegetable phenomenon that is more unpleasant in a pale, bored face than in any other”: nothing by halves for our Balzac—Charles marries her anyway, because her family’s connections will open Parisian society to him. So important to him is this idea of securing a brilliant position that even when he learns that Eugénie has repaid his father’s creditors, with interest, he only pauses momentarily to lament the loss of a fortune the size of which he hadn’t suspected—what he really cares about, Eugénie can’t give him.

I suspect Charles isn’t the only Charles in Balzac’s works, and I bet some of them get their own novels. But in this novel his trajectory must remain only a sketch because its main interest is in Eugénie. Her honour has not been besmirched; she hasn’t become a fallen woman. She and Charles share only two kisses before his departure; he does not force himself upon her or leave her ruined. Nor does she simply renounce the world after her disappointment. She doesn’t become a nun, exactly—this isn’t The Princesse de Cleves. It’s true that her first reaction to the news of Charles’s dismissal of her after seven years is to calmly state that now she can only “suffer and die.” She even tells her priest that she wishes to leave the world and live in seclusion. But she doesn’t. She learns Charles’s marriage will not come off until his father’s creditors are appeased and arranges to pay all the outstanding bills. We don’t know why she does this. From self-abnegation? From a desire for revenge? To make Charles dependent on her? None of these are right. What we do know is that when she decides to take this action, a friend of the family tells her, “ ‘As you said that, your voice was just like your late father’s.’” This a moment after the text has told us: “she decided that, in future, she would assume an impassive expression as her father had always done.”

So the heredity that concerns the book pertains as much to Eugénie as to her Charles. For she too is a Grandet. And she becomes increasingly like her father. She is immured neither in a convent nor in the walled garden where she once sat with Charles, but she is imprisoned in a life of emotional nullity. Although enormously rich, she doesn’t hoard her wealth; indeed, she gives generously to charity and the Church. But the hardness that attached itself to Charles also begins to manifest itself in her. She isn’t cynical, but she does, the narrator tells us, respond to others “ironically,” a word it would never have used to describe her earlier.

It is in this spirit of emotional asperity that she agrees to marry a lawyer from Saumur, the now middle-aged son of one of two families that had been vying for Eugénie’s hand—and her fortune—since even before the arrival of Charles. But she marries Monsieur de Bonfons only on the condition that he expect nothing more than friendship from her. (And that friendship seems quite icy.) She doesn’t pine for Charles, she doesn’t preserve the memory of their courtship in Havishamian aspic. She simply turns that part of herself off. When Bonfons dies only a few years later, she becomes even richer, even more isolated, even more forbidding. The irony of the Grandet family is complete: the one who cares nothing for gold is showered with it. She uses it to do good in secret. But despite this charity, and despite her beauty, which, the narrator tells us, persists even as she approaches forty, despite her poise, she isn’t the same as she was as a girl:

She has all the nobility of grief, the saintliness of one whose soul is unsullied by contact with the outside world. But she has also the rigid outlook of an old maid and the narrow vision that comes from the restricted life of a provincial town. In spite of her income of eight hundred thousand livres, she lives as poor Eugénie Grandet used to live. She lights her fire only on the days when her father used to allow the fire to be lit in the living-room, and puts it out according to the rules in force when she was young. She always dresses as her mother did. The house at Saumur, sunless, devoid of warmth, gloomy, and always in the shade, reflects her life.

I’m interested in the way the book here reverses its understanding of the distinction between Paris and the provinces (Paris = flashy, vain, superficial; provinces = solid, demure, profound). There’s enough criticism of Eugénie in this passage to complicate the saintly resignation that would otherwise have reduced her to caricature. To be sure, if the book really believes in the ideas of emotional inheritance it so often references, then she couldn’t have ended up any other way, and so it would be meaningless to speak of criticism. And on the book’s final page, the narrator both backpedals on some of the things it says here—claiming that “the greatness of her soul lessens the effect of the narrowness of her upbringing”—and finds fault with the situation itself. Whether the tragedy is really that “a woman who, made to be a magnificent wife and mother, has neither husband nor children nor family” (a surprising thing to say, given the book’s interest in heredity, which would seems to make nonsense of the possibility raised here that Eugenie was made to be something her family could not have given her), the book does leave us feeling the hopelessness of her situation.

But Eugénie Grandet is melancholic not tragic. From the first sentence, in which the houses in certain provincial towns arouse melancholy as much in the stranger who comes across them as in the people who live in them, melancholy is referenced throughout the book, the best way to describe the strange uncertainty of the narrator’s description of the widowed Madame de Bonfons. Melancholy is the way the book gives its protagonist a fate more complicated, if not necessarily more pleasant to experience, than those typically granted to heroines of the period. I find myself thinking about her a lot, and, as Barthes once did, look forward to delving further into the vast and surprising work of her creator.

(cross-posted from Eigermonchjungfrau)

Monday, April 06, 2015

Eugenie Grandet General Discussion

Now that the holidays are behind us, let's have a general discussion thread for Eugenie Grandet.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Religious Surprise

Many years ago, during my French decadent period, I read The Girl With the Golden Eyes, The Unknown Masterpiece, and Père Goriot. I generally prefer other writers like Louÿs and Proust to Balzac. For Eugénie Grandet, I read the digital edition translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. Since we all know the plot, I will eschew a plot summary, first to note items which stood out to me while reading, and second to assess my reaction to the story.

Cruchotines and Grassinists I adore the use of such terms for the followers of certain factions that I have found often in French writing. The idea behind these terms for a group of supporters is no different from those today who identify themselves as belonging to Team Edward or Team Jacob. Balzac and others simply make the more literary and expressive word choice.

Eugénie and her mother silently exchanged a glance of intelligence. The sentence comes before Charles is introduced, in reference to the prospects of marriage for Eugénie. This took me off guard, because it suggested a hidden plot or secret which I did not find in the text. Even rereading the passages surrounding it later, I am still puzzled.

"Well, I shall be glad to have anything to eat,—anything, it doesn't matter what, a chicken, a partridge." The hour is 11:00AM, and the subject of discussion is breakfast. I laughed at the idea that Charles would eat a chicken or a partridge for breakfast. He says it so matter-of-factly, I don't know if this reflects his normal breakfast fare, or if, like the finery he wore, he is putting on for show.

"See here, monsieur," said Nanon, bringing in the eggs, "here are your chickens,—in the shell." Nanon, the loyal servant, provides this appropriate retort several paragraphs later.

When Eugénie, aged twenty-three, first sees her cousin Charles, his Parisian elegance makes a strong impression upon the ignorant provincial girl, who considers her other suitors to be unsuitable matches. For Eugénie, "roused in her soul an emotion of delicate desire", there is nothing wrong with love at first sight.

Eugénie is plain and "a girl without the least freshness" who all believe could not hope to capture the heart of Charles. Even Charles is seen to ogle Madame des Grassins. Eugénie's features are a little vulgar, but "the lines of her figure were ennobled by the softer Christian sentiment which purifies womanhood and gives it a distinction"--by all her actions she proves herself to possess the greatest inner beauty.

"Are there not thoughts and actions in the life of love which to certain souls bear the full meaning of the holiest espousals?" For Charles, his love strikes me at best as a matter of the moment, and at worst as mere expedience. He falls in and out of love several times. For Eugénie, her love is proven eternal. Charles had been brought up and taught "to calculate everything". What Eugénie saw in him was the reflected rays of celestial light from her own soul. She was attracted only by her own noble sentiments, for "Charles was too much a man of the world ... to be possessed of noble sentiments."

Eugénie reads a letter Charles has written to a woman called Annette whom he loves in Paris. Even in the face of such evidence that he loves another, Eugénie feels only love for his poverty. And she resolves to remedy his poverty by giving him money he requires to travel. Charles releases Annette from their love, because of his poverty, prefiguring his later release of Eugénie from their promise of love because he believes her impoverished.

Annette has ingrained in Charles what they had been taught by one Madame Campan (who brings to the mind of this reader the Marquise de Merteuil): "'My dears, as long as a man is a minister, adore him; when he falls, help to drag him in the gutter. Powerful, he is a sort of god; fallen, he is lower than Marat in the sewer, because he is living, and Marat is dead. Life is a series of combinations, and you must study them and understand them if you want to keep yourselves always in good position.'" In the way of this lesson Charles proceeds to treat the good-hearted Eugénie, taking all he can from her in emotion and money in exchange for mere words and artifice.

There are passing moments when it seems and is suggested that Charles falls genuinely under the influence of love for Eugénie. When they are alone together, sitting in the garden, Charles leaves his "worldly passion" and turns to "true, pure love". But as soon as his affairs in Paris are settled, he announces that he will leave and that Eugénie ought to consider other offers of marriage. She rejects the idea, and they both pledge themselves to each other. "No promise made upon this earth was ever purer. The innocent sincerity of Eugénie had sanctified for a moment the young man's love." Soon, though, apart from Eugénie, he falls back under the influence of worldly passion. I believe all along he was merely using Eugénie, treating her well just for what he might get from her, as he had been taught--though his heart and mind have been sufficiently warped for him to believe in the moment that his feelings are genuine.

I took note of an interesting sidebar to the subject of marriage and theme of love. At the end of Chapter Nine, Nanon declares: "If I had a man for myself I'd—I'd follow him to hell, yes, I'd exterminate myself for him; but I've none. I shall die and never know what life is. Would you believe, mamz'elle, that old Cornoiller (a good fellow all the same) is always round my petticoats for the sake of my money,—just for all the world like the rats who come smelling after the master's cheese and paying court to you? I see it all; I've got a shrewd eye, though I am as big as a steeple. Well, mamz'elle, it pleases me, but it isn't love." Three chapters later, she marries the same Cornoiller.

When Charles returns to France with wealth, he is offered a marriage. He writes to Eugénie to inform her, to release her from their "childish love", so that he may marry a woman whom he does not love, but through whom he will gain a title. Eugénie is encouraged to marry another, but only after she receives word that Charles refused to make good on his father's debts does she agree to marry one of her original suitors, President Cruchot, on the condition she may pay the outstanding debts and might remain a virgin while wedded. In addressing Eugénie's decision to marry without love at the end, the literary historian and critic George Saintsbury wrote: "It is perhaps necessary to be French to comprehend entirely why she could not heap that magnificent pile of coals of fire on her unworthy cousin's head without flinging herself and her seventeen millions into the arms of somebody else".

Eugénie's love for Charles is "the love of angels". Even so, she writes to Charles a letter that barely conceals her bitterness, and states the truth she has come to recognize: "I have, it is true, no part in the world; I understand neither its calculations nor its customs; and I could not give you the pleasures that you seek in it. Be happy, according to the social conventions to which you have sacrificed our love." Eugénie is faithful with small things in God's way, and so God continues to increase her more and more. She spends the rest of her days far wealthier than her father or her suitors or Charles could ever have imagined, and longing only for heaven.

Her father, Monsieur Grandet, fights against her throughout the novel, yet even during his harshest treatment she always honors him, and is never corrupted by him. Eugénie's faith clearly comes from her mother; her father remains hard-hearted, parsimonious at best, a lover of money at worst. Saintsbury called the character of Monsieur Grandet a bold depiction of "perhaps the worst and the commonest vice of the French character, the vice which is more common, and certainly worse than either the frivolity or the license with which the nation is usually charged--the pushing, to wit, of thrift to the loathsome excess of an inhuman avarice." He went on to claim that the money-grubbing of Grandet "almost escapes greediness by its diabolical extravagance and success."

In 1839, only six years after the first publication of Eugénie Grandet, the New York Times Review wrote about Balzac in reference to this book: "...the subjects of his sketches are neither suited to our tastes, nor likely to be understood by those who are unaquainted with the character of that society from which they are taken." Though the novel is titled after and follows the concerns of Eugénie, the Review noted it is her father, Monsieur Grandet, who towers over all the other characters, through whom Balzac exposes vice "in all its naked deformities."

Charles--the object of all Eugénie's affections, and perhaps a father-substitute in her quest to be loved--proves the worse character in the end, earning his ill-gotten wages through "traffic in human flesh"--the buying and selling of people as slaves. Though such trade was not outlawed in French colonies until twenty-eight years after events in the book take place, the text makes clear that Charles had become more merciless than Grandet: "He ceased to have fixed principles of right and wrong, for he saw what was called a crime in one country lauded as a virtue in another. In the perpetual struggle of selfish interests his heart grew cold, then contracted, and then dried up."

In the preface to La Comédie Humaine, Balzac wrote: "Christianity, above all, Catholicism, being ... a complete system for the repression of the depraved tendencies of man, is the most powerful element of social order." Eugénie Grandet ends, to my surprise, as a highly religious story, with the man who goes out and experiences the world becoming corrupted by it, and the woman continually refined and elevated by her heart closer to God.

In the 1901 Dana Estes edition, Saintsbury wrote: "As a matter of fact, no book can be, or can be asked to be, better than perfect on its own scheme, and with its own conditions. And on its own scheme and with its own conditions Eugénie Grandet is very nearly perfect." I liked it, too.

Eugénie Grandet

Honoré de Balzac begins this 1833 novel with a detailed description of a melancholy street in the town of Saumur:
There is, perhaps, in these houses, a combination of the silence of the cloister, the desolation of the moorlands, and the sepulchral gloom of ruins. In them life is so still and uneventful that a stranger would think them uninhabited, if his eye did not suddenly meet the pale, cold look of a motionless figure whose almost monk-like face appears above the window-ledge at the sound of an unknown step.
What little buzzing there is in this quiet town concerns the future of the novel’s title character, Eugénie Grandet, a young woman just reaching marriageable age. Who, the town wonders, will Eugénie marry? Her father, Felix, is extremely wealthy (and extremely miserly), and so quiet, sheltered Eugénie is much sought after. But she expresses no preference—or much of anything at all—until her cousin Charles unexpectedly arrives from Paris. She becomes immediately fascinated with this flashy young men, and as she learns of his sudden misfortunes, she is overcome with pity and love.

In meeting Charles, Eugénie, who, despite being a wealthy heiress, has had to make do with very little, begins to find her own voice. She sees possibilities outside her immediate environs. Her heart has left the cloister that her father has kept her in by withholding money and cultivating his family’s dependence. And so Eugénie acts on her newfound desires, eventually causing her father to clamp down even harder, stowing her away as he does his wealth. For Felix Grandet is not merely miserly his money; he is miserly with all things—food, attention, affection, and plans. Even his stammer is doled out only when it serves to his advantage. All things exist to serve his greedy ends.

Throughout the book, Felix takes note of the household spending, even when the spending comes from his family’s own allowances. He expects them to live a certain way, storing up money just as he does. Extra lumps of sugar or pancakes for a guest are serious indulgences, not to be taken lightly.  Eugénie’s great crime is not that she wanted something, but that her desires caused her to treat her possessions as her own possessions.

In meeting Charles and releasing herself from her father’s influence, Eugénie finds her own power. But is this ultimately a good thing for her? The book’s treatment of the world outside is ambiguous. Charles seems to become his best self in the cloistered world of Saumur. On the outside, he is shallow and selfish. Poverty and quiet teach him to be different. Can he leave and remain that same man?
Eugénie certainly hopes for Charles to find success and remain her loving cousin when he steps outside. She has no choice but to remain with her father, always remaining faithful. Somehow, though, she manages to hold on to the independence she found when she met Charles. When she’s free of her father, she’s able to make choices to further her own self-interest in the way she sees fit. Her money gives her much of her freedom, but her purity of character gets some of the credit as well. She uses her money to defy convention, but her defiance is in devoting herself to goodness, choosing a sort of cloistered life for herself. In that life, “the greatness of her soul lessens the effect of the narrowness of her upbringing and the ways of her early life.”

The final lines of the short novel leave Eugénie in this cloister of her own making, and I wonder if she’s happy there. Balzac leaves the question open, I think. She does not seem angry or bitter, but we’re left with the idea that she feels a lack. Her money is no comfort. Instead, “money was destined to impart its cold glitter to her angelic life and to inspire a mistrust of feeling in a woman who was all feeling.”

Eugénie is the kind of character who could easily be written off as too pure, too obliging, too angelic, but I have a hard time seeing her that way. She is good, but her goodness is not weakness. In her, Balzac offers a character whose purity is her strength, and she is strong.

Also posted at Shelf Love

Eugenie Grandet

I should admit before writing about Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet that this is my second Balzac novel, and I didn’t get along with my first, Cousin Bette. Fortunately, I liked Eugénie Grandet much better. Those of you in the know, is Eugénie Grandet simply a better book than Cousin Bette? Or have I changed somehow, or am I simply in a different mood this time? I found Cousin Bette unsatisfying because I missed the depth of character I love in 19th-century novels. The characters were either perfectly good or completely awful and without some complex, interesting character to latch onto, I lose interest. I should confess, also, that I don’t remember a thing about Cousin Bette and am basing these remarks on a paragraph I wrote in an old blog post. The book just didn’t stick with me.

I’m not sure how much longer Eugénie Grandet will stick with me, but I did enjoy the reading experience much more [lots of spoilers ahead!]. Like Cousin Bette, it’s a critique of society’s obsession with money and the way the hunger for money corrupts and ruins lives. But perhaps Eugénie as a character is more memorable than anybody in Cousin Bette. Yes, she is drawn in broad strokes and the very large changes she makes throughout the course of her life are described quickly, but I think the shortness of the book and the relative brevity with which many of the events are described work well. We can see the larger point Balzac is making about greed, enjoy the satirical way he portrays many of his characters, feel pity and horror at Monsieur Grandet’s miserliness, and even suffer a little at Eugénie’s fate, all in a book that’s only about 200 pages. I like long novels very much, but perhaps I don’t like long novels by Balzac.

I seem to be confessing a lot in this post, so let me keep going: I had a hard time with the novel’s opening pages, the description of the town of Saumur and the Grandet home. I read and reread those pages, and I couldn’t pin down the details in my mind. I also couldn’t keep many of the minor characters straight, those Cruchots and des Grassins. It didn’t seem to matter much as I read along that I couldn’t remember who was who and what their relationships were. Those characters are there to make a point collectively, to illustrate the greediness of the town generally and the atmosphere in which Eugénie lives — one in which everyone is after the Grandet money but everyone generally loses their money to the Grandets instead. These characters spend their whole lives trying to ingratiate themselves into the Grandet family, hoping Eugénie will marry one of them, or her parents will marry her to one of them, and it doesn’t seem to matter to them that they are spending decades in this one pursuit.

The heart of this book seems to be the relationship between Eugénie and her father Grandet, and then the ways that Grandet haunts her even when he is gone. Through the influence of her mother, most likely, or just through strength of character, Eugénie passively resists her father’s greed and miserliness, keeping a freshness and innocence throughout her young life. When her cousin Charles appears on the scene, she finds a reason to actively resist her father: romantic love. She wants to provide for Charles, to give him the comforts she has grown accustomed to living without herself, and she doesn’t care about the money involved. And then she commits the act that her father finds it nearly impossible to forgive, giving away money itself.

But what does she get in return for her generosity and love? She gets to do the thing so many women get to do in novels: wait. And she is waiting for a man who fell in love with her, yes, but who is not worthy of her. He was a young dandy when they first met, vain and foolish, but after his father’s bankruptcy and his desperate need to make money, he becomes truly corrupt, making that money through slavery and wanting only to reappear in Paris a fabulously wealthy man. Poor Eugénie keeps believing in him as long as she can, but her faithfulness gains her nothing. Or perhaps it does gain her something — it seems to insulate her from corruption herself. She stays true to idea of love, even though she doesn’t ever experience it again herself.

Ultimately, the book seems to be exploring what greed does to the emotions, the way it shrivels them up and kills them. Or if it doesn’t kill them, it turns them against the one feeling them, becoming a burden:
and yet that noble heart, beating only with tenderest emotions, has been, from first to last, subjected to the calculations of human selfishness; money has cast its frigid influence upon that hallowed life and taught distrust of feelings to a woman who is all feeling.
This is a melancholy tale, but it is kept lively by Balzac’s wonderful descriptions, like this one of Grandet:
Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet was something between a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He could crouch and lie low, watch his prey a long while, spring upon it, open his jaws, swallow a mass of louis, and then rest tranquilly like a snake in process of digestion, impassible, methodical, and cold.
Or this one of the Cruchots and des Grassins:
All three took snuff, and had long ceased to repress the habit of snivelling or to remove the brown blotches which strewed the frills of their dingy shirts and the yellowing creases of their crumpled collars. Their flabby cravats were twisted into ropes as soon as they wound them about their throats. The enormous quantity of linen which allowed these people to have their clothing washed only once in six months, and to keep it during that time in the depths of their closets, also enabled time to lay its grimy and decaying stains upon it. There was perfect unison of ill-grace and senility about them; their faces, as faded as their threadbare coats, as creased as their trousers, were worn-out, shrivelled-up, and puckered … A horror of fashion was the only point on which the Grassinists and the Cruchotines agreed.
These people are just horrible. Balzac is wonderful as describing horrible people! This seems to be where much of the book’s energy lies: in capturing just how truly terrible people can be.

"A bourgeois tragedy": Balzac, Eugénie Grandet

Using the hashtag #IHaveNeverRead, Penguin UK recently urged people on Twitter to "confess" their "shocking literary shortcomings" -- an exercise in weirdly inverted snobbery that inevitably recalls David Lodge's game 'Humiliation'. I'm actually less and less humiliated by the vast array of titles (classic or otherwise) that I haven't read: there are just so many books, after all, and it only takes a moment to figure out for sure that I'll only ever read a tiny fraction of them. And what counts as a "shortcoming" in someone's reading depends so much on what purpose we think that reading is supposed to serve. Since I'm supposed to be something of an expert in a particular subcategory of literature, it's easy enough to point to books that in some sense I should have read by now (Dombey and Son, say, or Pendennis). But even within those parameters, is it "shocking" that I haven't read, say, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, or anything by Disraeli? What about Charlotte Yonge? And in the larger context, while I regret not having read Moby-Dick (yet) or Crime and Punishment (again, yet!), I hardly see this as something I need to be ashamed of.

balzacYou can probably guess where I'm going with this. Until now, I hadn't read anything by Balzac: Eugénie Grandet is my first. I have read about Balzac, here and there and especially at Wuthering Expectations, where, I realize, exploring the archives, Tom called Eugénie Grandet "Balzac's best book" and his own favorite. I'm actually glad I hadn't remembered that as I read through the novel myself. It might have discouraged me, as I found Eugenie Grandet pretty hard going. On the other hand, knowing why Tom rated it so high might have helped me appreciate it more as I plugged along. If Eugénie Grandet is indeed the best of Balzac, then perhaps I am not (yet) very good at Balzac. That's OK: you have to start somewhere!

Because it's what the library had, the edition of Eugénie Grandet that I actually read is the 1950 Modern Library College Edition, translated by E. K. Brown, Dorothea Walker, and John Watkins. It doesn't have any notes: when I read more Balzac, I think I would benefit from them. It does have a brief introduction, which I looked over before reading the novel (I skipped any parts that looked like they'd spoil the plot). The most helpful bit for me was its explanation of the unprecedented importance Balzac placed on characters' "material circumstances" -- and the passing editorial remark that this is what accounts for his "characteristic openings," which are "such fatiguing obstacles to most modern readers who prefer a more insinuating exposition." Knowing that this info-dumping was a Balzac thing, I persevered through the opening of Eugénie Grandet, which is indeed dense with details which (to my newcomer's eye) never really took on a great deal more than descriptive significance: did we really need to know that much about the streets, houses, trade, and residents of Saumur to appreciate the moral and personal implications of Monsieur Grandet's miserly ways?

This is thin ice for a lover of George Eliot, obviously; more than once I have made the case to bored students (following Eliot herself) that the action of Middlemarch  can't be rightly understood without her long sections of exposition, and my favorite chapter of The Mill on the Floss is "A Variation of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet." I'm a fan of telling! Showing can't do everything. But I couldn't discern any way in which the crux of Eugénie Grandet depended on the contexts so meticulously established: the tyrannical Monsieur Grandet didn't seem in any particular way a creature of his time and place, any more than did his daughter, the almost-insufferably patient and virtuous Eugénie. She does, however, exemplify a specific ideal of femininity: "Women have this in common with the angels," intones our narrator; "-- suffering humanity belongs to them." "To feel, to love, to suffer, to sacrifice will always be woman's fate," we're told; "Eugénie was to be in all things a woman." So on the one hand we have painstaking specificity, while on the other we have transcendent, platitudinous universals.

eugenie-grandet-honore-de-balzac-001That's not quite fair, though. Grandet isn't altogether a caricature, and Eugénie has some surprises in store for us, as does Balzac, as he throws a elegant but tragically impoverished cousin into the plot to help Eugénie find her spine and then cheats us of either obvious ending: we get neither the tragic "daughter sacrificed on the altar of forbidden love" nor the comic "true love triumphs over bad dad." Instead, things go in weird directions in this "bourgeois tragedy": the cousin is morally degraded by making his fortune in the slave trade; disappointed in the lover whose memory (and "dressing case") she has cherished against all odds, Eugénie nonetheless enables his marriage to someone else and then marries herself -- after insisting her husband-to-be accept her terms, which include preserving her virginity. Left a rich widow, she continues the penny-pinching ways learned from her father in her own life but puts her wealth to good use otherwise: "pious and charitable institutions, a home for the aged, and Christian schools for children, a richly endowed public library."

I enjoyed being surprised by the story in this way. I wonder if rereading the novel would help me see what it means: is it singular, for instance, a simple slice of imagined life, or is there a larger idea at work here, about money or marriage or virtue or love? There are definitely ideas floating around in the book: the other aspect of it that I especially liked, in fact, was the intrusive narration, which seemed a bit haphazard but provided many quotable bits: "Isn't this the only god in which we believe today," he asks, "money, in all its power, symbolized in a single human image?" "How terrible is man's estate!" he continues; "there is not one of his joys which does not spring out of some form of ignorance." "Misers do not believe an a life hereafter," he tells us later on, in the passage that I thought probably came closest to telling us the moral of the story:

 the present is everything for them. This thought throws a horrible light on the present day, when, more than at any other time, money controls the law, politics, and morals. Institutions, books, men, and doctrine, all conspire to undermine belief in a future life -- a belief on which the social edifice has rested for eighteen hundred years. . . . To attain per fas et nefas to a terrestrial paradise of luxury and empty pleasures, to harden the heart and macerate the body for the sake of fleeting possessions, as people once suffered the martyrdom of life in return for eternal joys, is now the universal thought -- moreover a thought inscribed everywhere, even in the laws which ask the legislater: What do you pay? instead of asking him: What do you think? When this doctrine has passed down from the middle class to the populace, what will become of the country?

Against that dystopian vision, he puts the angelic figure of Eugénie -- except that her sacrifice is made for love, not God (and an unworthy love, at that), while her "noble heart," tender as it is, has been irrevocably tainted by her father's example, "always to be subject to the calculations of human selfishness." So where does that leave her -- or us? Maybe when I read more Balzac, I will know better.

(cross-posted at Novel Readings)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Balzac by a Hair!

Our next book will be Honoré de Balzac's Eugénie Grandet. Let's plan to begin the discussion April 1st, before everyone gets busy with Passover or Easter or taxes or the cruelest month or whatever.

 I look forward to the book--I've hardly read any Balzac--and to hearing what you have to say. Thanks to all who voted. Don't forget, anyone can participate.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Let's discuss discussions

Here's something else to consider. We seem to have fallen out of the habit of discussing the books in the forum. Do we want to revive that practice with the next book? Should we start taking our talks over to a, say, private group at Facebook?

Any other suggestions?

Monday, February 02, 2015

Our Next Book

Susan asked me to propose some titles for the next Slaves read-a-long, and I’m happy to oblige.

I chose books I haven’t read in a genre I don’t know well but want to know better: short 19th Century novels. (Here’s hoping Rohan hasn’t read them all…) These books are all about 200 pages and represent five different European languages. Like almost all novels of the period, it seems, they are primarily about the predicament of women at the time.

Vote for your choice in the comments, let’s say by Valentine’s Day. We’ll aim to discuss the book starting April 1st, no foolin’.

Honoré de Balzac—Eugénie Grandet (1833)

“Who is going to marry Eugénie Grandet?” That’s the question at the heart of this novel, one of the first in the sprawling canvas of Balzac’s Comédie humaine. Eugénie’s father, a wealthy miser, has his own answer to the question. But when Eugénie’s orphaned and penniless cousin arrives, she counters with a different one, such that the father’s cunning is matched against the daughter’s determination.

Anne Bronte—Agnes Grey (1847)

Agnes Grey eagerly takes up her post as governess, only to be disabused of that confidence by her unmanageable charges. The novel promises to be about work, though romance is present too, when Agnes meets the local curate.

Theodor Fontane—Irretrievable (1892) (Also translated into English as No Way Back)

Set in Holstein about thirty years before its date of publication when the area still belonged to Denmark, Irretrievable tells the story of a mismatched couple who have been married for 23 years—Count Helmuth Holk is fun loving; his wife Christine is solemn. The two slowly drift apart, a movement exacerbated when the Count is called away to the court. As the copy of one of two recent editions into English puts it, the couple “find themselves in a situation which is nothing they ever wished for but from which they cannot go back.”

Benito Pérez Galdós—Tristana (1892)

Don Lope pays off a friend’s debts, at the same time assuming responsibility for the friend’s orphaned daughter, Tristana. He takes her into his home—and into his bed. Tristana accepts the arrangement willingly enough, at least until she meets a handsome young painter. Soon she surpasses the Don in defiance of convention.

Ivan Turgenev—Home of the Gentry (1859)

“Another’s heart is like a dark forest,” we learn in this novel about a man named Lavretsky who returns to his native Russia after his marriage falls to pieces in Europe. Unsure what to do with himself, Lavretsky visits the estate of his widowed cousin and her two small children. Regret, indecision, and, as the passage about the wilderness of the heart suggests, heartbreak ensue.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Vet's Daughter

Well, that was quite a journey. This 1959 novel by Barbara Comyns starts off seeming like one kind of book, but as it goes on the story gets more and more odd until the oddness is the center of the story. A far-too-realistic novel about a neglected and abused young woman becomes a story of magic, a fairy tale gone awry when her escape route becomes her prison. Maybe, in the end, it’s all one story after all.

Seventeen-year-old Alice lives in a poor South London neighborhood with her father and mother and a menagerie of animals that come and go, sometimes going home and sometimes to the vivisectionist. At his best, her father is cold, but he can also be openly cruel and demanding. Both Alice and her mother seem terrified of displeasing him. When her mother is ill, she pleads with Alice not to tell him that she’d been lying down to rest.

When Alice’s mother dies, Alice’s situation becomes more desperate. She reaches out to one of his colleagues, a man who appear to be in love with her but whom she does not love in return, and he gives her a way out as a companion to his mother, a woman engulfed in grief and living in a partially burned home under the care of terrible couple who take pleasure in treating her poorly.

Alice, meanwhile, discovers an unexpected source of freedom. She realizes that she can float in the air. But just as she’s starting to learn to control and enjoy this ability, it becomes its own prison, with disastrous results.

In trying to work out what this book is actually about, I keep coming back to the fact that her father is a veterinarian, and the women in his home are treated no better than the animals in his care. The fate of the animals in his care seems completely subject to human will, and Alice’s fate is completely subject to the will of others.

At one point in the book, a parrot who lives in Alice’s house because the owners pay the vet to keep it is consigned to a downstairs lavatory because its chatter annoys Rosa, Alice’s father’s new girlfriend. Banished by its real owners, it is then banished again by its caretakers. Alice and the parrot are alike, right down to having their most notable skill become their biggest source of trouble.

Every bit of Alice’s life, even the good parts, is governed by someone else. She has to follow her father’s rules to the letter. The few bits of freedom she has are those he allows or those she sneaks. Her only way to get help is through another man. One man she meets attempts to rape her, and another woos her only to abandon her without a word. She never gets to make a proper choice for herself. She doesn’t have much more freedom than a pet, but she has a human mind.

All of the woman are pets, to some degree. Some are treated well, but hardly any of them get to make their own choices. All are at the mercy of the men who care for them. They may attempt to intercede for one another, but the success of those attempts are still subject to the choices of men.

But how does the turn toward the supernatural fit in with this idea? Maybe Alice’s ability is a way of showing that freedom cannot come through ordinary means. Women’s earthly talents are no good in this universe, so perhaps they need an unearthly talent. Yet, for Alice, that talent is also a prison, turning her into an organ grinder’s monkey. Literally breaking the law of gravity isn’t enough to free her.

 Review also posted at Shelf Love.

Thoughts on The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

"She can't do that, can she?" I asked myself when I reached the last page of Barbara Comyns' 1959 novel The Vet's Daughter. "She can't have a first person past tense narration and then kill off the narrator on the last page! I mean, obviously, she can, but isn't it stooping kind of low?"

Then I looked back a few pages, spotted a one-sentence flashforward whose significance I'd failed to note previously, and all was forgiven. I love dead narrators. Alice Rowland has been playing this card--that she's talking to us from beyond the grave--close to the vest.

Many things are played close to the vest in The Vet's Daughter, leaving the reader at the end not quite sure how we're supposed to interpret certain events, or even certain characters. For example, the novel opens with a description of a "man with small eyes and a ginger moustache" who walks along the street with Alice while she "was thinking of something else. . . . He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee-caps." This man is not seen or mentioned again until the final pages of the book. Clearly Comyns intends the ginger man to serve more purpose than arouse Alice's pity--but what? I can't worry it out.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is the story of Alice Rowland, 17-year-old daughter of an abusive London veterinarian who is more apt to send an unwanted puppy to the vivisectionist for a pound than to put it down humanely as he is supposed to. He's broken Alice's mother's front teeth with a kick in the face, and even worse, her spirit. He mostly ignores Alice since she disappointed him by being born a girl, but she's still frightened of him. Their house is grotesque--dark, smelly, decorated with the rug of a Great Dane's skin and a monkey's jaw, filled with animals in cages that Alice is required to take care of.

One night shortly before Alice's mother, who is dying of cancer, is euthanized against her will by Alice's father, Alice listens to her mother reminisce once again of growing up  on a farm in the mountains of Wales: "Dark brown moss grew in the mere by the farm; and once I saw a little child floating on the surface. She was dead, but I wasn't afraid because she looked so pure floating there, with her eyes open and her blue pinafore gently moving. It was Flora, a little girl who had been missing for three days. . . "

The morning that Alice is told her mother has died, she sees a Jacob's ladder that the sun has made across the floor of her mother's bedroom.

After the funeral, Alice's father goes missing for three weeks. He returns with a barmaid --the strumpet from the Trumpet-- Rosa Fisher (a fisher of men?), who he euphemistically tells Alice will be their housekeeper. Rosa quickly assumes an evil stepmother-like role in Alice's life. One afternoon while fixing their lunch in a steamy hot kitchen Alice imagines--or so she thinks at first--that she is floating above water in the mountains. "This wonderful water world didn't last long because a mist came, and gradually it wasn't there, and something was hurting my head. Somehow I'd managed to fall on the kitchen floor, and knocked my head on a coal scuttle. Coal had got in my hair, but otherwise everything was as it had been before I'd seen the water garden--just boiling beef and steam, and heard Rosa's and Father's voices coming through the wall."

Alice hasn't realized it, but her mother's reflections and death have inspired her to begin levitating. For most of the book, I was prone to read these instances metaphorically, as they happen after times of great psychological distress for Alice. Yet Comyns has Alice read ghost stories and Alice mentions how happy her mother's ghost must be when she leaves home to be a companion on an island for Henry Peebles' mother (Peebles is a kind man who cares for Alice, although she does not particularly want to marry him).  There's no denying that there's something supernatural going on here, especially once you accept the story's being told from beyond the grave.

And after Alice's father decides to exploit her talent, once she has returned home following Mrs. Peebles' suicide, to have her "rise up before all the people on the Common" it becomes clear that Comyns is turning Alice into a Christ figure, parodying the Christ story, since, as a character explains, the beauty in Alice's case is she isn't religious: Alice is given wine to drink and thinks it must be blood; she smells sour bread and cockroaches; she is kept prisoner; she exclaims, "Please God, don't let that happen to me. Father don't make me do this thing. I don't want to be peculiar and different. I want to be an ordinary person. I'll marry Henry Peebles and go away and you needn't see me any more--but don't make me do this terrible thing."

Alice's ordeal is not removed. Alice, in despair and humiliation, is brought in a bride's white dress, in a hearse-like carriage, to rise up and then come "down amongst the people." Trampled by a frightened crowd milling about in circles, she dies. Unlike the man with the ginger mustache, who dies with a terrified expression on his face, at the moment Alice's life is finished, she states, "[F]or the first time in my life I was not afraid."

And now I'm left with the thought: is the man with the small eyes and the ginger mustache a stand-in for the reader? A small-eyed someone Comyns and her characters briefly walk beside while thinking of something else?

The Vet's Daughter--Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns’s strange little book The Vet’s Daughter (1959) is narrated by Alice Rowlands, a seventeen-year-old girl who temporarily escapes the desperate circumstances of her home life when she takes a position as companion to an old woman, the mother of one her father’s colleagues. This woman, a Mrs. Peebles, is so sunk into depression or anxiety or ennui or something that she earns Alice’s description of her as “so sadly vague and harmless.”

Mrs. Peebles has survived a house fire, the death of her husband, and even a suicide attempt. A man delivering bread to the house discovered her “limply hanging in the green barn among the apples, and he had the presence of mind to cut her down with a pair of sheers and untie the dreadful rope around her neck.” This passage puts me in mind of the suicide Mr. Valpy, whose death in Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical fragment “A Sketch of the Past” gets fused in the mind of the young Virginia with the image of an apple tree in the garden. More pertinently, it offers a fine sense of Comyns’s calm way with horrible things. Some of that measured quality attaches to the narrator too, though equally characteristic is the gallows sprightliness evident in the sentence that comes right after the description of that macabre discovery: “Sometimes, when I looked at her there appeared to be a sinister brown stain round her neck, and I couldn’t help wondering if her eyes had always been so prominent.” This is funny, but not arch or knowing; mostly it’s discomfiting. Alice’s sentiments here seem almost naïve, but she is neither guileless nor foolish, even though she is almost always at the mercy of others.

Of all the unsettling, even startling things that happen to Alice in The Vet’s Daughter, why is it that the detail I remember most is so benign? Alice’s time with Mrs. Peebles comes to an abrupt end when the old woman—distraught that the couple who have kept house for her, a nasty pair straight out of a Roald Dahl story, have absconded with the silverware—is found drowned, presumably having finally succeeded in killing herself.

A kind policeman questions Alice and, as she has nowhere else to go, takes her in for the night. His house—unlike all the other filthy, dilapidated houses in the book—is “red-bricked and very clean.” (I picture it like the policeman’s house in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, all bachelor ship-shape.) And there’s an unexpected grace note: “Homing pigeons that had failed to return were in a box beside the fire, waiting to be claimed.”

Maybe the reason this image stays with me so strongly is that it’s one of the few homey, domestic, and even hopeful moments in the book. True, these birds are failures, homing pigeons that never made it home. In their dispossession they are rather like Alice. But they seem to have ended up well. Imprisoned, perhaps, or packaged at least, yes, but well looked after, all cozy beside the fire. And surely someone will want them: they are waiting to be claimed, after all. It’s unclear anyone wants Alice, for anything other than abusive or mercenary reasons, except perhaps Mrs. Peebles’s son Henry, Alice’s father’s colleague, the man who arranged for her to look after his mother and who cares a great deal for her even though she can’t bring herself to return the feeling. (In the end, he proves unable or unwilling to save Alice.) The pigeons in their box remind us of so many unhappy animals in the book, especially those in Alice’s father’s care—a term we can only use ironically, since he sells the ones he doesn’t like to a vivisectionist. That’s to say nothing of the ones he has used to furnish his house: a rug from a Great Dane’s skin, a monkey’s skull that sits on the mantelpiece, “a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it” to prop open the door to his study. The house is full of piteous and frantic mewling and screeching and barking—as well as, before long, the tortured cries of Alice’s mother, who dies from a painful, undiagnosed illness.

Whatever their fate, then, the pigeons don’t suffer as these other animals do. Maybe I held on to the image’s intimation of a happier future—the moment someone finally claims the birds—as a corrective to my uneasy suspicion that Alice has had something to do with Mrs. Peeples’s death. And I don’t just mean that in the childish sense of the omnipotence of thoughts: Mrs. Peeples disappears on an afternoon when Alice has fled the house, unable to take the woman’s presence any more (“She became repulsive to me, like some old brown flower”) and the girl feels guilty for having felt that way. I mean it more literally: in the possibility that Alice has done her companion in.

That suspicion might be a way to understand the strange paragraphs—suddenly and unusually narrated in present tense—that describe Alice’s search for Mrs. Peeples. Here’s the first one:

Clank, clank my feet on the stairs; clank, clank on the landing. All the doors are open. One of Mrs. Peeples’s black shoes is caught in the ironwork and abandoned. Through the open doors are rooms with open windows, and it is like a zoo with the animals let loose and escaped. No one is there. “Mrs. Peeples, where are you?” Where are you? Not upstairs or below, or in the garden where you never went. Where are you? For a long time I look for her, even in the green shed, but she isn’t there hanging from the roof with the rope cutting into her brown neck.

The garden where you never went. It’s as if Alice knows she is already dead. The odd syntax of the final sentence, which paints the picture of the death it claims to disavow, doesn’t make the scene any less creepy. And why is Alice saying to herself (“Where are you?”) what she has already said out loud? In the end, I don’t think Alice has really killed Mrs. Peeples. Instead it’s as though she’s in a fugue state here, which is a pretty good description of the whole atmosphere of this strange little novel.


So who is this Barbara Comyns and where did she come from? The US edition includes a short introduction by Comyns, reprinted from a British reprint from the 1980s. (It is the fate of writers like Comyns always to be reprinted, always to be rediscovered.) Comyns gives us a rather helter-skelter autobiography. We learn of a violent father who went through the family fortune, an invalid mother who suddenly, unaccountably went deaf, a series of unlikely governesses. Her childhood seems to have been both privileged and hardscrabble. Later came art school and two marriages and a whole series of odd jobs, in advertising and in real estate, as an artist’s model and a refurbisher of cars. Throughout she kept writing, though with only middling success, it seems.

It’s heartening anyone published her at all, so odd is her prose (at least based on this book). I remember once in graduate school, having recently discovered Henry Green, another unusual English writer of the mid twentieth century, telling one of my advisors that I wanted to include him in my dissertation. She was generally speaking encouraging of my project (as well as unusually well read for an academic). But talking with her made me nervous and prone to prattle on. I remember saying to her, rather grandiosely, that Green wasn’t like anyone else, it was as if he’d dropped to earth from the moon, to which she tartly responded that no one dropped from the moon, that he wasn’t so unusual as all that, that he had his context like anyone else. I think now that this is true. And reading Comyns I was reminded of a number of other wonderful, more or less minor British writers from about the same time. There’s something of Jean Rhys in Comyns’s portrayal of the hopelessness felt by young women (though Alice, and perhaps even her deaf friend Lucy, who flits intriguingly along the margins of the novel, is more resourceful than Rhys’s protagonists). I caught echoes of Richard Hughes’s hallucinatory portrayal of childhood in A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) and of Rebecca West’s matter-of-fact inclusion of supernatural elements in her amazing The Fountain Overflows (1957). (It’s probably no accident that these last two titles, like The Vet’s Daughter, are published by NYRB Classics.)  Sometimes Comyns reminded me of Penelope Fitzgerald, in the obliquity of both her narrative structure and her own biography. (Fitzgerald kept herself and her family afloat by taking all sorts of odd jobs, too.) I even caught an anticipatory hint of early Ian McEwan—The Vet’s Daughter is like a less macabre Cement Garden (1978). And those are just the writers I know: I’ve a hunch, that Comyns might be like Ivy Compton-Burnett and Muriel Spark, though I haven’t actually read them yet.

So Comyns might not be sui generis. But I don’t think I was entirely wrong in thinking (wishing?) that Henry Green, or Barbara Comyns, or any similar writer, the ones that slink through the supposedly dull and genteel world of twentieth century British fiction like feral cats, is an alien, weird figure. However romantic or idealized, that way of thinking might keep us alive to the wonder of such writers. And in literary historical terms it can help us see that realism only ostensibly triumphed in the fiction of the period. In reality, a perverse, fantastic, Gothic strain runs throughout it. I’m thinking, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, of writers as seemingly different as Elizabeth Bowen, Doris Lessing, and Daphne du Maurier. (Importantly, I suspect, the weirdness that disrupts these novels almost always manifests itself in depictions of children.)

In The Vet’s Daughter the clearest example of this strangeness—the oddest, most unsettling thing in this odd, unsettling book—is Alice’s sudden ability to levitate, or, as she prefers to call it, to float. One night Alice finds herself rising out of her bed and she knows she isn’t dreaming because she hits her head on a sconce that is still cracked in the morning. She is as surprised by this turn of events as we are. But the novel takes it in stride. It quickly becomes clear that we aren’t to take the floating as a hallucination on her part or a metaphor on the novel’s (her way of rising above the unhappy events of her life, say). Alice’s ability is both ordinary (when she cautiously asks Mrs. Peeples if she has ever heard of anything like it the woman says she believes it used to be quite common) and extraordinary (it fills everyone who sees it with horror, even disgust). I like that the novel doesn’t try to explain it away, or use it as a way to redeem or transform Alice’s mostly grim and unhappy life. Indeed, it’s not long before someone—her father, the very man who hatefully said he hoped he would never see her again—tries to profit from Alice’s ability. He arranges a public demonstration, doubtless the first step on a tour that, Alice sees all too clearly, will make her into a freak show exhibit.

In a marvelously ambivalent ending, though, these plans are foiled. Alice’s appearance in the air above Clapham Common causes a riot in which three people, including Alice herself, are killed. The first person narration comes abruptly to an end, her fate given to us through a newspaper report. The bitter irony of the book’s end fits with its way of ruthlessly undermining anything nice or good that happens to Alice: a boy she falls for, who teaches her to skate, throws her over; Henry, Mrs. Peebles’s kind son, doesn’t come when she calls him in her hour of greatest need.

Perhaps surprisingly, given what I’ve said, The Vet’s Daughter isn’t unrelievedly bleak, but it’s hardly easy going. You can see why I needed to hold on to those pigeons, and to think of them as rescued. But the book whetted my interest in Comyns’s other books, even though I’ll need to take a deep breath first.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Definitely Floating": Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter

And then in the night it happened again and I was floating, definitely floating. The moonlight was streaming whitely through the window, and I could see the curtains gently flapping in the night wind. I'd left my bed, and except for a sheet, the clothes lay scattered on the floor. I gently floated about the room. Sometimes I went very close to the ceiling, but I wouldn't touch it in case it made me fall to the ground.
What a strange, and strangely compelling, novel The Vet's Daughter is! It seems like a grimly realistic story at first, with its details about the sordid life of eponymous Alice, her coarse, brutal father, and her sad mother, doubled up with a pain that only makes her husband despise her the more: "For Christ's sake, woman, send for a doctor; and, if he can't put you right, keep out of my sight!" It continues in what seems like a straightforward enough way, with her mother's decline and death, and then the arrival of Rosa, the wicked would-be stepmother. It's an unrelentingly dark story with a gothic atmosphere only rendered stranger by the constant presence of the vet's patients:

At night I was all alone in the house. Although I slept with my head under the bedclothes, I could hear awful creakings on the stairs, and sometimes I thought I could hear whisperings by my bed. I asked Mrs. Churchill if she would stay and keep me company; but she said her husband didn't like her to be out at night, and she had 'our Vera's' boy staying with her while his mother was in hospital. One night the dogs started barking and yelping and I thought something terrible really had happened. I lay in bed shivering, too afraid to go and see if the house were on fire, or if burglars were creeping through the pantry window. In the morning I found the cage that contained the old cock with the diseased eye had fallen to the ground, and the bird was dead and heavy.

 Things only get stranger, and grimmer, as the novel goes on -- and then just when you wonder whether Alice has hit rock bottom, she rises -- quite literally -- to the top:

In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me -- and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought, 'I mustn't break the glass globe.' I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I'd been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn't a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.

It's possible to move past this moment and assume that, Alice's own conviction (and the physical evidence) notwithstanding, it was a dream . . . except that it keeps happening: she keeps "floating" above the dreary circumstances that she seems so powerless to change, above the disappointments that follow so bitterly one after another, above the people who fail her or leave her or just don't love her. Her levitation brings no levity to the novel, though it is darkly comical. For instance, when she asks her one ally, her admirer Henry Peebles, "if it was unusual for people to sometimes rise into the air when they were resting in their beds -- particularly in strange beds" he is understandably "very slow in understanding what I meant"; when she decides to show her false lover Nicholas that she "can do things others can't do" he watches her rise, horrified, and then "in a scared and awful whisper" tells her to "Stop it, stop it, I say!"

Alice can rise above her life but not leave it behind; it seems only fitting that the last indignity she suffers is having her gift used against her, and poetic justice that her final fall should precipitate destruction. The novel has the tautness of a fairy tale and the patness of an allegory. Though it ends up not being a realist novel, though, it's very specific about Alice's oppression and her psychic suffering: its critique is perhaps more resonant and devastating because it resorts to fantasy rather than offering restitution or resolution.

The Vet's Daughter is the first Comyns novel I've read and it definitely makes me want to read more (I've got Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead in my Virago collection). Her prose is not elaborate or florid but her turns of phrase are remarkably satisfying and often surprising. The very first line of The Vet's Daughter is actually a good example: "A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else." Aren't you immediately curious, both about the man's business with her and about what she was thinking when he interrupted? I see that the other two novels also have brilliant, irresistible starts: "The ducks swam through the drawing-room window," begins Who Was Changed, while Our Spoons opens "I told Helen my story and she went home and cried." The Vet's Daughter also shows that Comyns can do vivid, tactile description, full of the kinds of little details that make a scene particular, and also scenes full of dramatic action, fear, and pathos -- such as the terrible attempted rape, after which Alice -- bruised and bleeding, stands in the street and thinks "There is no hope for me -- no hope at all."

The Vet's Daughter is at once compact and suggestive: it is dense with details that feel meaningful, and meaningfully connected, but whose meaning is not immediately transparent. Why, for instance, is Alice's father a vet? I don't mean literally, in terms of the plot, of course: is there something about his meticulous care for animals (his skill as a vet is often mentioned) that helps us understand Alice's place in the world? Why does Alice call Henry "Blinkers"? What doesn't he see? How does his mother's life or death reflect Alice's situation? What exactly is Nicholas's role -- if he even exists? Does any of it happen the way Alice says it does, in fact? I found myself thinking that it would teach very well: it's eerie and fast-paced enough to catch students' attention and puzzling enough to keep it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Barbara Comyns's The Vet's Daughter

Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter was not what I expected, but then, this is my third Comyns novel and none of them have been what I expected. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was my first one, and it was an unsettling mix of a light, breezy tone and dark subject matter. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead remains my favorite Comyns so far; it’s very strange, opening with ducks swimming in and out of drawing room windows and staying on a similar off-beat note. The world of the book seems familiar, but it’s not, quite. The Vet’s Daughter is perhaps more like Our Spoons than Who Was Changed, but it’s darker in tone throughout. But it also veers off in some odd directions, especially in the second half.
It tells the story of Alice, the daughter of the title, who lives in London with her bitter, nasty father and her ailing mother. She’s trying to give her mother as much help as she can, but her mother is on her way out of this world, and now the daughter is going to be left to manage her father on her own as best as she can. She has a friend Lucy, but she can only see her occasionally, and Lucy is deaf, which makes communication difficult. The vet’s practice has sinister aspects to it; a vivisectionist stops by to pick up unwanted animals and many of the animals they keep suffer. There are few bright spots in Alice’s life. One is Mrs. Churchill, who is a companion to the family during and after Alice’s mother’s illness. She provides some needed stability.
Mr. Peebles is not exactly a bright spot in Alice’s life, but he’s a friend and one with some power to provide Alice with much-needed diversions. He is another veterinarian who has helped with the family vet practice, and it becomes clear early on that he is attracted to Alice. It seems as though he might provide an escape, but Alice does not return his feelings. She spends time with him but considers him only a friend, although marriage is always there as a possibility should she get desperate enough. She walks a line between honesty and deception, trying to get what pleasure she can out of his company without leading him on.
All this takes place in the gloomy setting of poverty-stricken London, but this is only the first half of the novel. In the second half Alice heads out toward the English coast to live with Mr. Peebles’s mother. She is a depressed woman living in a house that’s halfway burned to the ground, being cared for by a truly strange, scarily sinister couple, the Gowleys. Alice’s job is to be a companion. She is still isolated here, this time geographically isolated as well as emotionally so, but this job brings some new opportunities with it. Alice learns about the countryside and its ways, and she also learns about sexual desire, as she meets Nicholas, a young, attractive soldier who teaches her how to ice skate and seems to be attracted to her as well. This relationship puts her feelings toward Mr. Peebles in a new light; she knows now what real attraction can be and marriage Mr. Peebles takes on an even duller, bleaker aspect.
I think I’ll stop there with a discussion of the plot, except to say that levitation becomes an important plot point, and I’m trying to figure out what to make of this. Alice had a couple experiences with levitation during her sleep while in London, and it happens again out on the coast. She experiments a bit and discovers she can levitate at will, although it takes a lot of energy and focus. When her father finds out about her ability, it becomes another way he can exploit her, and her life closes in on her again. But what are we supposed to make of this? I first thought she was merely dreaming that she could levitate and that it was a metaphor for her desire for freedom or something like that. But then what I thought was a metaphor becomes real and she actually does have the ability to float up into the air. Of course, it is still a metaphor even though it’s “real” — her ability to levitate only sets her apart and leads to more suffering and despair. The thing that makes her special makes her miserable, and there is no chance for escape, ever.
I’m still not sure what I think of the book as a whole, and I’m looking forward to reading other people’s thoughts. I liked the first person narration; the story is told through Alice’s eyes in her forthright, no-nonsense tone. Alice is so young — only seventeen — and she hasn’t had the chance to do much in her life, but she has seen a lot of suffering. One of the first things she tells us is that “if [my mother] had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.” She describes her father’s cruelties matter-of-factly and without dwelling on the darkness of it all, but there’s a sadness to the tone as well, as though she knows life isn’t ever going to offer much, in spite of her hopes. When Nicholas betrays her, she is not really surprised. But I’m not sure how to integrate the two parts of the book, particularly the very ending. The note the book ends on seems appropriate, but to get there by way of levitation? I’m curious what other people think of the value of bringing in this fantastical? supernatural? element.
But I definitely can conclude that Comyns is a writer I want to read in full. I love how she’s full of surprises and that her novels have so much variety. I love the darkness and twistedness of her worlds, and the way she look at that darkness straight on.