Lies and the lying liars who tell them

Nope, not talking about the Senator from Minnesota (that’s weird, right? The lines between entertainment and politics are weirdly thin these days. Was it always thus?). I am talking about the books I have been reading lately, which have been full of people who lack integrity. Now I am ready to read about Betsy and Tacy, whose biggest deceptions involved reading Lady Audley’s Secret on the sly (I just wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That would be legitimately inappropriate for a twelve-year-old).

The Sealed Letter, Emma Donohue

After I read Room (yeah, yeah, I read it), I thought it might be fun to read more books by Emma Donohue, especially after I discovered that she wrote about Sapphic love in Victorian London. I got The Sealed Letter for under two dollars at Bongs & Noodles, and I thought it would be great because it’s about Sapphic love and a scandalous divorce case. In Victorian London! What could ever be bad about that?

The problem is this: Sarah Waters has already sort of nailed Sapphic love in Victorian London. You know how when you have one specific type of book connected in your head with one specific GOD of that type of book, and then you can’t read any other book of that type without comparing it to the GOD of that type of book. This is why I have a hard time with dual timeframe books, because of AS Byatt and Tom Stoppard nailing it so hard in Possession and Arcadia, respectively. Or why I didn’t enjoy The Hunger Games as much as I could have because Patrick Ness was out there writing Chaos Walking.

Anyway, The Sealed Letter is about a lying liar called Helen who tells lies to her friend Fido, and she does adulterous behaviors and eventually she and Fido both become imbroiled in a scandalous divorce case (that Robert Browning weighed in on in a letter to a friend – he thought the two women were carrying on Sapphic relations). There wasn’t nearly as much Sapphic love as I was anticipating. I just wanted to go read Fingersmith. Actually I still do. Fingersmith. Hearts.

What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt

So in the first half of this book, events occurred. One event, then another event, then another event. I couldn’t figure out what the point of all the events was! Subsequently, in the second half of this book, stuff was happening that all seemed related (that was a nice change), but it made me feel all weak and depressed and miserable. Like when Milo and Tock end up in the Doldrums in The Phantom Tollbooth but it’s really hard to leave because the Doldrums have gotten into their brains. That’s exactly what reading this book was like. Bother.

I will say, the descriptions of the art were really cool. I love ekphrasis as much as the next person who knows what it’s called (yeah. Latin class. USEFUL.), and it was so interesting to read all the different art things that the characters were making. I wish I could do art. Artists are cool. I’d refer you to this chick, except that the full awesomeness of her art doesn’t come out until you can see her pieces in real life, because they’re mixed media, and mixed media do not always photograph to best advantage.

Oh, yeah, what it was about: It was about these two families. They were all very smart and each family had a son, and there was art and hysteria and psychopathy. It sounds like it should have been great but it just didn’t work for me. Psychopaths are lying liars. You heard it here first. (Well, probably not.)

The Small Room, May Sarton

My favorite of these three books. Litlove and Jodie of Book Gazing both read this recently and spoke of it very persuasively. It’s about a woman called Lucy who goes to work as a professor at a private women’s college; there she discovers that the pet student of a particularly impressive and well-respected professor at the college has plagiarized an article on the Iliad. Questions of psychology and individualism and integrity go flying around, and the characters answer them differently than Dorothy Sayers does.

Speaking of Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night is one of my favorite books in all the land, and it has to be said that I am more in sympathy with her characters’ unflinching demand for integrity in academia, than with The Small Room‘s professors’ desires to worry about the human element (the girl they would be destroying if her plagiarism was revealed). The thing is, people have to be responsible for the research they do. If they plagiarize, you can’t trust them again, surely, and even if they do some really good research, how could you trust that what they were writing was original?

Well, these were the things I was thinking about. I also loved thinking about the questions Sarton raises about the appropriate amount of distance between teachers and students. When I was in high school there were, let us say, certain teachers who behaved inappropriately with students. When I was watching In Treatment (had to stop because the therapist was being shady), I asked my father how, as a therapist or a teacher or anything, you head off people getting too attached. He said you have to have the boundaries clear in your head, and communicate them clearly (this far and no farther). May Sarton does a great job of exploring where the lines get drawn, and why.

Yeah. Good times. I love reading about jobs I will never have.

Review: Promises of Love, Mary Renault

Obligatory pre-gushing blurb: Vivian, a nurse in between-the-wars England, meets Mic, a pathologist and the latest in a string of close friends of her flighty, unreliable brother. Though Mic initially seems interested in Vivian because of her resemblance to her brother, they soon become good friends and then lovers.

I am experimenting with keeping a reading journal. I have not decided exactly what sort of thing you write down in a reading journal, but one thing it is definitely good for is saving anecdotes and quotations that I like. Then when I am done reading, I can go back and see if I want to copy any of them out for y’all, or copy them into my commonplace book to keep forever. When I was reading Promises of Love, I wrote down about fifty trillion quotations from it, and I’d have written down more had I not been perpetually weighing the relative merits of using the time to write things down (thereby expressing in pen and ink my not inconsiderable delight with Mary Renault) or to read more pages. Mary Renault’s modern novels are flawed, but I love the way she writes her characters’ interactions:

“Look.” He twirled the [paint] into an ascending spiral. “There’s a lyric of Catullus exactly that shape. No, it’s gone.” The viscous mass had settled, leaving only a few concentric rings. “Landor,” he said. “One of those terse quatrains. See, Mic?”

“You and your patterns.” Mic got up. “Get yourself a microscope. You’ve a vicious taste for illusive syntheses.”

“Of course they’re elusive. So’s everything worth bothering with.”

They talked–in this alone like her expectations–of indifferent things: town-planning, Swedish architecture, the sick staff-nurse, whose blood-cultures as it happened had been in Mic’s charge. Yet Vivian did not feel that they were taking shelter or concealing themselves in these things: they were a background, an accompaniment to what was really being said, for which words were instruments too harsh and shrill.

Renault’s modern novels deal in an incredibly interesting way with communication, how both successes and failures in communication can mean profound things about and have profound impacts on the relationships of the characters. I love the feeling I get, when I’m reading her books, that every word is considered. A character may say something by accident, but Renault never will.

The flip side of that is I never know what she’s thinking. Mary Renault is one of the most self-concealing authors you ever saw. I suppose this would thrill Roland Barthes, but it bewilders me. Her characters do and say and think such peculiar things. I just do not know what to make of them. I want to go back in time and shake Mary Renault and demand she explain to me what she exactly thinks about gender and creativity and sexuality. But of course trying to figure out what statements her books are making is part of the reason they interest me.

In spite (or because) of this bewilderment, I spent the whole of Promises of Love in a state of euphoria. It smelled old and delicious, and I kept lowering my nose into it and inhaling. More than that, I was overwhelmed with love for this book just because of its utter MaryRenaultiness. I wouldn’t recommend it for a Mary Renault novice, as I don’t think she’s at her radiant Fire from Heaven best in it, but I am so happy I got to read it. Lovely university library.

Some other bits I liked:

The flat…was beginning to take on the mannerisms of educated poverty–the streaky stained floor, whose string rugs were already present to her mind’s eye; the amateurish paintwork, in cheeky but successful colour-combinations; the aura of half-dry distemper from the walls; a little oil-stove in a corner giving out more smell than warmth.

It was like seeing someone off by train; the clock crawling through the last minutes, the futility of one’s remarks increasing with the last-minute effort to be significant.

She was quite well aware that she was talking, not to him, but to a suit of well-cut conversational clothes tailored, like his material ones, by a craftsman to whom fit and finish had become second nature. His pretences at self-revelation–the lightly deprecated indiscretion, the note of emotion suppressed a second too late–were merely the touches that distinguished Savile Row from the Strand.