Edward T. Wheeler
Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.
By this author
Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life comes as something of a surprise. Her earlier books featuring a feckless Scottish detective, Jackson Brodie, were inventive in plot and quirky in characterization. There was little to suggest the rather heavy themes signaled in the epigraphs from Nietzsche and Plato that appear in Life after Life; they focus, appropriately enough, on reincarnation. The plan of the novel is simple: follow a character, Ursula Todd, through her lives. The plural, “lives,” offers the plot mechanism: Ursula is born once, but her days follow multiple sequences, the first being her still born birth. She survives more successfully in following permutations. We return to her birthday in February 1910 and accompany her as she, after two fatal sidesteps, finally arrives at adulthood and again we experience her different life courses. Chance, yes, is the impartial determiner.
The novel is a fictional experiment of sorts: how consistent is Ursula’s character when subjected to various conflicts? And indeed what are the responses of her family as she challenges them with different life experiences? There is the close sister Pammy, the cherished younger brother Teddie, the risqué and sophisticated Aunt Izzy, and a host of boyfriends, suitors, husbands and lovers. Ursula is consistently “rather pretty,” but various in her sexual precocity and fidelity. She is well-read enough to quote appropriately from the classics and to correct the pretentious in their misquotations.
A friend reminded me of the artistry of Middlemarch when he mentioned how much he enjoyed listening to an audio book of the novel on his way to work. I had to reflect that I had read Eliot first fifty years ago, under a magnolia tree in Fordham’s Rose Hill in the Bronx, caught up in Dorothea’s story but equally aware that I had yet another novel to read that week for Dr. Santaniello’s English Fiction course. So taking up the book again, I was surprised and humbled by the number of times I had to read the following passage, Edward Casaubon’s proposal of marriage (in letter form) to Dorothea.
I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you. For in the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need (connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate); and each succeeding opportunity for observation has given the impression an added depth by convincing me more emphatically of that fitness which I had preconceived, and thus evoking more decisively those affections to which I have but now referred.
The knottiness of this passage, reminiscent of the frustrating Latin of Cicero, whose periods made me weep in the frustration of incomprehension, works in veritable counterpoint to the fluency of composition – and the ease of the prose rhythms. Casaubon’s self-regard, rendered in the subordination of the clauses and in the parenthetical notes to his own assertions are all too great warnings against the very proposal that Dorothea accepts. The weight of the words simply and ironically crushes any hope of realizing the “affections” that he mentions but are somehow buried in the qualifications that he has laid out earlier.
Perhaps it is too easy to comment that novelists do not write like this anymore. But I have to ask if that also means that our contemporaries do not make the demands upon us that the great Victorian writers did?
As we were tidying away the Christmas decorations, marking Twelfth Night in this somewhat tedious, somewhat reflective manner, I could not put by for the season the poem that follows. Southwell, as you probably are aware, was an English Jesuit Martyr, executed in 1595 as a traitor for his missionary work among English Catholics in the reign of Elizabeth I. How the times seem to frame the meaning of the Incarnation.
THE BURNING BABE.
By Robert Southwell
The setting of Robert Stone’s new book, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is the vale of tears. This campus novel transcends genre largely through the psychological effect of place. Not so much as a New England college town but as the trial ground where acts of faith, betrayal, retributive justice, and redemption take place, and where, of course, evil constantly threatens.
The plot centers on the adulterous affair that Professor Steven Brookman has with his beautiful, brilliant and possessive student, Maud Stack. The title leaves no doubt as to the outcome of the affair. Vehicular homicide ends their parting quarrel. Her death is at the center of Stone’s meditations on love, the sanctity of life, abortion, vengeance, and fate – providence if you will, in the Divine Economy. Some critics have mentioned that they find the central relationship between Brookman and Maud insufficiently developed. But frankly I found myself too bound up in the peripheral characters who form a virtual chorus of speculation and assertion on deep matters of conscience, to be too concerned with the affair. The moral geography of the novel is never less than that of a battlefield, with real weapons and fatal or near fatal encounters.
The sense that the horizontal events of earthly life intersect with the verticals of the spiritual radiates throughout the book.
As would be clear to anyone who read the review in Commonweal of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel The Childhood of Jesus, the work is not a biblical narrative concerning the Holy Family. Serious playfulness to the point of obscurity challenges a reader of any of Coetzee’s works. It is as if one sits across from a great chess master in part in awe, in part in frustration as he moves his pieces in ways that both befuddle and illuminate. I find his prose and his unique insight compelling, if not compulsive, reading. The plot suggests some sort of parable in that the story concerns a young boy who in the course of the novel emerges as demanding, gifted, visionary, and troubling. He is accompanied by an adult who assumes responsibility for his well-being. When on the ship that transports them and unspecified others to a new life, the boy loses the papers that should establish his identity. The frame of the story involves a journey to a new beginning (Novilla is the city where Simón, the adult, and David, the boy, arrive.) They receive new names. [There are no surnames.] Simón reflects that they have been washed clean of their memories: their identities, adult and child, are fluid, unfixed by parentage or nation. The novel ends in a journey to another new beginning: the impulse grounded in escape from the society to which that have been inducted, one, although benign in intent, threatens the uniqueness of the child David.
The prize-winning Irish novelist, John Banville, leads a double authorial life writing detective mysteries under the penname, Benjamin Black. I have a friend who refuses to read Banville’s Dr. Quirke detective stories because he, my friend, ruined a summer holiday by starting an early novel in the series. Quirke’s character simply depressed him too much to finish the book, and by extension, he spoiled his vacation. I must admit that Quirke as a pathologist and canny Watson to a dour Holmesean DI Hackett affects me in the opposite manner. Banville creates, with an admittedly dismal joy, a neurotic near-alcoholic sorting out the dingier crimes of Dublin in the nineteen fifties. With a nod to that other Dubliner, James Joyce, Banville offers an array of characters that populate an equally broad array of watering holes. And the patter of the speakers might mix happily with that of those who accompany the journeys of Leopold Bloom. We know of the childhood darkness that feeds the melancholy root of Dr. Quirke’s soul: his abusive upbringing at Carricklea, a Christian Brothers’ orphanage, and his subsequent adoption by Judge Garret Griffin who with his natural children simply complicate the primal scene of Quirke’s upbringing. Quirke suffers yet another blow, the loss of his wife, and then the aching burden of discovering his daughter, who had believed she was the child of Quirke’s step brother. No wonder the man has hands shaped to fit a glass that holds the spirits that will lift his own – or not.
The latest novel in the series, Holy Orders, offers us an apparently inexplicable murder, a Gypsy “tinker” encampment, threats to Quirke’s daughter, an avenging sibling, and a pedophile priest. Yet the real heart of the work is Banville’s development of Quirke.
“Consonance” echoes in my head: reading Edward Williams’ 1968 novel Stoner I felt I was hearing my own thoughts. There is more than wishful thinking here. The prose is enviably compelling, but, hubris apart, I find that the narrator’s voice mimicked the inner monologist that, for want of a better phrase, talks my thoughts to me. I know that I am not alone in this. The book’s reissue some years ago occasioned remarkable reviews. A brief look at the Amazon web page that features Stoner will more than confirm that.
The plot of the novel is devoid of grand incident: the title character, a poor farm boy, manages to work his way through the University of Missouri. He develops a great love for literature and has a clear aptitude for analysis and criticism. His mentor, a senior professor, guides him through his dissertation and also manages to divert him from enlisting to fight in the First War. Stoner becomes a brilliant teacher, a hen-pecked, nay pathologically dominated husband, and ultimately a victim of his wife’s malice. She estranges their daughter from her doting father. Stoner’s passionate and liberating love affair with a graduate student collapses, despite great depth of affection, before the pressures of university politics and the threat of scandal. Stoical acceptance balances the support of literature and scholarship as Stoner unselfconsciously finds his way to eccentricity – yet all within the compass of his small university classrooms.
I had been looking forward to reading Colum McCann’s Transatlantic since I first saw notice of its publication. His earlier Let the Great World Spin, which won a National Book Award, and Zoli I had found remarkable works.
Some novels take us where we had rather not go. The strength of the narrative voice beckons onwards despite a sense that there will be moments of selective page-skipping, a blanking out of what is too unpleasant for the inner ear or eye. Yet we read on to take ourselves to places and experiences that we can never have. How often do our notions of aberrant states, criminal worlds, political tyranny or the stark shock of alien customs derive from fictional accounts? We rely on the author, make an unspoken contract with her or him, to represent honestly what we do not know. There is a complicity of acceptance – unless we feel misled through lack of authenticity or the poverty of style or the falsity of emotion.
I almost put down The Panopticon by the Scottish writer Jenni Fagan. The language was rife with Scottish dialect slang, and the more familiar Anglo-Saxon expletives; the setting was dark, and the young people represented formed a nightmare group of adolescents. I shuddered, imagining them as students in a class I had to teach. The novel presents a first person narrator, a Scottish orphan who has been the ward of the state for her entire fifteen years. Her language matches the abuse she suffers, driven by her drug use, and she records her deepest conviction and fear: that she is the subject of some “experiment” designed by the authorities to control her – hence the Panopticon of the title. Ms. Fagan writes from her own experience; she was an orphan in the care of institutions all her early life and, as she asserts in interviews, is determined not to cheapen or sensationalize the difficulties of such a life. The author’s success in transcending what might have maimed or even killed her, tempers the telling but certainly does not slacken the tension. Life for Anais Hendricks is constant dissembling, a defensive tactic she has to adopt if she is to retain her self-esteem and her freedom. The story opens with the threat of a criminal charge pending against her: assault and battery of a policewoman. Anais remembers nothing of the incident (her drugged state displaced her consciousness) but she is too aware of the consequences of conviction: incarceration in a “secure unit.” For the time being she is housed with other teenagers in the Panopticon, a circular prison with its central tower lodging guards who can inspect her at their choosing.
The unreliable or limited narrator filters experience; to represent this, a tortured or puzzling use of language embodying the speaker’s voice pushes towards incomprehension. I am thinking of the opening of Joyce’s Portrait; Stephen’s infant consciousness defies easy recognition of sounds, shapes, environment. The language Joyce employs in its incompleteness carries the meaning through denying it – on first glance. Faulkner does something similar in the opening of The Sound and the Fury – and we can name many more.
Rereading Jonathon Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn forced a consideration of narrative limitation to mind. Lethem’s Lionel, if you remember, suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. Unlike Joyce’s Stephen, he will not mature to leave behind the prose that offers us infant sensibilities, and unlike Benjy in Faulkner’s novel, Lionel possesses a critical intelligence and verbal sophistication. As a narrator then, Lionel both speaks out of his Tourette’s plagued consciousness and reflects on its workings. He understands himself to be “twitch” or “tic” governed and, in his interior monologue that carries the narration, he reflects upon this state.