‘I Won’t Name It’

‘Good Behaviour’
A big house in County Wexford, Ireland, c. 1880-1900 (National Library of Ireland on The Commons @ Flickr Commons)

Early in Molly Keane’s recently reissued 1981 novel Good Behaviour (NYRB Classics, $16.95, 320 pp.), the narrator, an Anglo-Irish woman named Aroon St. Charles, remembers the primary lesson of her childhood: “Even then I knew how to ignore things. I knew how to behave.” Raised in a stylish, chilly, not-what-it-used-to-be Anglo-Irish “big house” called Temple Alice, Aroon is taught how to ride horses (fearlessly), how to drink (often), and how to deal with bills (shove them in the drawer). But most importantly, she learns that behaving well is largely a matter of not behaving badly—of knowing and avoiding the things that simply aren’t done. If you’re male, you don’t read too much. If you’re female, you don’t eat too much or take up too much space or generally remind the world that you have a body. (Aroon’s mother has perfected this corporeal vanishing act, “elegant as if on stilts above all the trouble beneath her feet. Even the old fur coat with its cracked skins had a cloudy airiness as she wore it.”) Regardless of gender, you don’t fuss or make a scene.

Above all, you don’t talk about, or acknowledge, or even see, sex. Your father is a philanderer, sleeping with maids and governesses and neighbors? Avert your eyes, as Aroon does, and deny, deny, deny—most of all to yourself. Your beloved is sleeping not with you but with your brother? Play—or, best of all, be—dumb, as Aroon is. Sex is messy, and messes aren’t the thing. (That’s why we have maids, darling.) In the moneyed but fading world to which Aroon belongs, ignorance is an art, and like all arts it requires imagination: in this case, the ability to not see the mess that is actually there.

The Booker-nominated Good Behaviour was Keane’s twelfth novel but the first published under her own name. (Keane was also from a well-behaved—read: miserably buttoned-up—family. Being a novelist was another thing that simply wasn’t done.) It opens with an act of civilized vengeance. Aroon, fifty-seven years old, serves her bedridden mother rabbit mousse. “I like things to be right,” Aroon says, and the presentation is perfect: “The tray did look charming: bright, with a crisp clean cloth and a shine on everything.” The catch is, Mummie can’t stand rabbit: with all those droppings and all those babies, rabbits are quite messy. The smell is enough to make the cloudy, airy Mummie figuratively perish, which she promptly and literally does. Death by rabbit mousse—it’s a deliciously nasty beginning, and it leads Aroon to wonder how she got here: “All my life so far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives. I have lived for the people dearest to me, and I am at a loss to know why their lives have been at times so perplexingly unhappy.”

Of course, Aroon has not done everything for the best reasons: a rabbit dinner might seem nice but it also can kill. She can be a monster of selfishness, waiting on her mother not because she cares for her but because she wants to subdue her: “I enjoy the room whenever I go in. It’s all my doing and Mummie, lying back in her nest of pretty pillows, is my doing too.” If she would only look, Aroon would see why she and her family are so un-perplexingly unhappy. The contortions that good behavior requires are their own form of violence.

 

All of this pain is intuited by the reader, but it’s rarely stated.

Good Behaviour’s first chapter ends with Aroon declaring her intention to pick this lock of unhappiness: “If I look back beyond any shadow into the uncertainties and glories of our youth, perhaps I shall understand more about what became of us.” The irony is thick. “Glories of our youth” is a platitudinous description of Aroon’s upbringing that we already sense won’t stand up to scrutiny. It doesn’t. As a child, Aroon feels a “grotesque, sentimental fixation on Mummie.” But Mummie, who paints and gardens less because she loves beauty than because these activities give her license to be emotionally distant, doesn’t want intimacy: “Mummie escaped us all.” Aroon loves her father even more—he will occasionally chuckle and smile kindly at her—but he’s most interested in riding horses and sleeping with women. All of this pain is intuited by the reader, but it’s rarely stated, or even seemingly known, by Aroon. She prides herself on “her cast-iron memory.” But her strongest capacity is for elision, her most long-standing relationship the one she has with her own willed ignorance.

Keane has set herself a technical challenge. She must make us see all the things that Aroon doesn’t see: the fact that Mrs. Brock, Aroon’s beloved governess, commits suicide after being seduced and abandoned by Papa; the fact that Richard, a handsome young man with “a quick, hard grace about [his] movements,” isn’t her romantic ticket out of a deadly home but the current lover of her brother, Hubert; the fact that Mummie knows of, even condones, Papa’s infidelities. As Aroon gets older, the sorrows pile up. Her brother is killed in a car accident. The family begins to run out of money. Aroon, a “big girl,” doesn’t win any suitors and her slender mother won’t let her forget it. Richard ends up choosing a different woman to be his beard. Yet Aroon’s ignorance remains, the gap between what happens and what she sees becoming both funnier (just how blind can one person be?) and more painful.

There are many moments of brilliant, farcical comedy. Later in the novel, Papa loses a leg in World War I and then has a stroke. Rose, the family cook, begins doubling as a nurse: changing his sheets, feeding him, doling out whiskey despite the doctor’s prohibitions. It soon becomes clear to the reader, though not to Aroon, that Rose’s ministrations are also sexual in nature. When Papa’s actual nurse complains about the whole sordid business, she’s fired. On her way out, she confronts Aroon. While she won’t say what Rose is doing, she at least angrily says that there’s something they’re all not saying: “You can’t name it,” she says to Aroon, “and I won’t name it. It’s a nasty name for a nasty thing.” “What are you talking about?” Aroon asks. But she doesn’t wait for an answer and instead sends the nurse on her way. “I’d rather hate for you to miss your train.”

Fast forward fifty pages. It’s evening, and Aroon sees her father’s light on. She goes in to say goodnight. “Rose sat beside him, her head bent low as if she were whispering; her hand was under the bedclothes warming his foot.” Reader, she was not warming his foot. “His feet are perishing,” Rose says. “She spoke in a curiously apologetic way as though I might not see or understand that she was warming his feet.” But that’s the thing about Aroon: she doesn’t see, and she doesn’t understand—or, she chooses not to see and decides not to understand. When Papa, overexcited, dies later that same night, Aroon blames Rose, though not for the reason we might expect:

“I told you whisky would kill him. I told you, didn’t I?”

She looked at me from a distance. “Yes,” she said, “you told me.” She said it gratefully as if my accusations were some kind of reprieve.

Of course, these accusations are a reprieve: better for Papa to die of Rose giving him alcohol than of Rose masturbating him under the sheets. In the rankings of bad behavior, sex is worse than alcohol.

 

That’s the thing about Aroon: she doesn’t see, and she doesn’t understand—or, she chooses not to see and decides not to understand.

At times, Good Behaviour reminded me of several of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, especially The Remains of the Day—another 1980s novel about chosen ignorance. In it, a butler named Stevens refuses to see the immorality of his beloved employer and Nazi sympathizer, Lord Darlington, or his own love for another member of the help, the housekeeper Miss Kenton. But Ishiguro and Keane occupy different stylistic universes. Frank Kermode once wrote that Ishiguro’s “characters do a lot of deferring and apologising, and even when they aren’t expressly said to be bowing gently to one another you can easily imagine they are.” They speak calmly and quietly; they qualify and hedge, so much so that they court readerly boredom. Here, for instance, is the opening of The Remains of the Day:

It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days. An expedition, I should say, which I will undertake alone, in the comfort of Mr. Farraday’s Ford; an expedition which, as I foresee it, will take me through much of the finest countryside of England to the West Country, and may keep me away from Darlington Hall for as much as five or six days.

By contrast, here is the first paragraph of Good Behaviour:

Rose smelt the air, considering what she smelt; a miasma of unspoken criticism and disparagement fogged the distance between us. I knew she ached to censure my cooking, but through the years I have subdued her. Those wide shoulders and swinging hips were once parts of a winged quality she had—a quality reduced and corrected now, I am glad to say.

Ishiguro’s narrative repressions are all gentleness, Keane’s all ferocity; Ishiguro removes us from the world into the protective realm of the imagination, while Keane presents us with the bodily mess that her characters will seek to evade. Rose smells, and only then does she consider what she smells. The body—its pains, its pleasures, its messes—comes first, and it’s only through the most brutal discipline that it can be made to behave well, which is to say, to make itself scarce. Ishiguro’s prose displays a brilliant affectlessness; Keane’s prose roils with affect denied but persistently, pungently alive.

There’s one other crucial difference. Stevens changes over the course of The Remains of the Day: he knows things about himself and the world at the end that he didn’t know in the beginning. By contrast, Keane isn’t much interested in Aroon’s growth—moral, psychological, or otherwise. She ends largely how and where she began: in a big house, filled with a spite that dare not speak its name. The reader still has room to wonder at what Aroon doesn’t know.

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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