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.