Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ruinously Good: Reflections on Brideshead Revisited

Sometimes in the course of my reading life I come across a novel so good it ruins me. Whatever I start reading next seems gray in comparison. And yet for however curse-like that might sound, it is in fact a sign of one of the rarest and best pleasures I know—that lingering in the spell of a particular text. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited has ruined me for more than a month now, so much so that I turned to reading memoirs for a time instead of fiction. (The memoirs were great in their own way; stay tuned for future posts on those.)  

Perhaps the best description of Brideshead Revisited I can give is that you can almost imagine E.M. Forster had this novel in mind when he lamented, “Yes—oh, dear, yes—the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different—melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.”

Which is to say that if you like plot-driven novels, Brideshead Revisited is not for you because Waugh manages to create a book powered entirely by theme, character, and impression, not by any of the usual machinations of plot. There is, of course, the requisite (at least to Forster’s mind) shape of a story and a sense of time progressing to a climax. The first-person narrator, Charles, speaks to us from the “present” (World War II) as a disenchanted soldier whose regiment encamps near an English estate. Charles knows the place well—though he doesn’t let on to his compatriots—and the novel launches into a retrospective retelling of Charles’s involvement with the Brideshead family: his close friendship with Sebastian; Sebastian’s succumbing to alcoholism; Charles’s eventual affair with Sebastian’s sister, Julia; and finally his confrontation with the family’s Catholicism. The novel closes with an epilogue in the present, completing the frame with a twist I won’t spoil for you.

Sounds simple enough, you might think—so what about this novel cast such a spell?

You can’t go far in reading Brideshead without noticing that the writing itself is beautiful. Waugh is adept at descriptions with nothing elaborate or laborious to his pitch-perfect lyricism. Here, for example, he sets the mood of the narrator’s return to Oxford for his sophomore year, the exuberance of the first year already faded:

Everywhere, on cobble and gravel and lawn, the leaves were falling and in the college gardens the smoke of the bonfires joined the wet river mist, drifting across the grey walls; the flags were oily underfoot and as, one by one, the lamps were lit in the windows round the quad, the golden lights were diffuse and remote, like those of a foreign village seen from the slopes outside; new figures in new gowns wandered through the twilight under the arches and the familiar bells now spoke of a year’s memories.
            The autumnal mood possessed us both as though the riotous exuberance of June had 
died with the gillyflowers, whose scent at my windows now yielded to the damp leaves, smouldering in a corner of the quad.

Other times, the observations are sharp and amusing, though not in the biting satirical manner of Waugh’s other works (Brideshead is, I understand, atypical of his style). Here the wealthy Lady Marchmain pontificates in response to the narrator:

I said something about a camel and the eye of a needle and she rose happily to the point. “But of course,” she said, “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all part of the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.”


On a similar note, the characters are all precisely rendered, even relatively unimportant ones like Mr. Samgrass, a hanger-on to the Brideshead family. Notice how the particularities of the character build to the narrator’s spot-on overall assessment of Samgrass as a Victorian tourist:

Mr. Samgrass was a genealogist and a legitimist; he loved dispossessed royalty and knew the exact validity of the rival claims of the pretenders to many thrones; he was not a man of religious habit, but he knew more than most Catholics about their Church; he had friends in the Vatican and, could talk at length of policy and appointments, saying which contemporary ecclesiastics were in good favour, which in bad, what recent theological hypothesis was suspect, and how this or that Jesuit or Dominican had skated on thin ice or sailed near the wind in his Lenten discourses; he had everything except the Faith, and later liked to attend benediction in the chapel at Brideshead and see the ladies of the family with their necks arched in devotion under their black lace mantillas; he loved forgotten scandals in high life and was an expert on putative parentage; he claimed to love the past, but I always felt that he thought all the splendid company, living or dead, with whom he associated, slightly absurd; it was Mr. Samgrass who was real, the rest were an insubstantial pageant. He was the Victorian tourist, solid and patronizing, for whose amusement these foreign things were paraded.


The book is a collection of impressions—of moods at different periods of the narrator’s life, as in the Oxford passage above; of people; and of an overall sense that what truly matters is being lost. The very structure of the novel is based on impression as it moves through several phases of the narrator’s life. And so we get the wonderful, nostalgic sense of life passing, of the world changing, and through it all, the real subject of the book—religious faith—is handled as one more strand of the shifting impressions. Ultimately, this novel has a message, but that message is never put directly. It is this lingering among impressions and lives and meanings that has left me pondering the novel for weeks, a month now, and--though I will go on reading other novels--for years to come.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ellipses of Wonderment: Reflections on Christopher Beha's What Happened to Sophie Wilder

A friend in my writing group recently mentioned that at the end of each year she makes a list of all the books she read, and then she stars the ones that she really enjoyed—a simple discipline, but one that got me thinking about the many books I read in 2013 that I never
blogged about.

One in particular came to mind: What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. I read it a full year ago now, but sometimes what we remember about a book is almost more valuable than anything we might say of it at the time.

I was eager to read What Happened to Sophie Wilder because I knew it had a Christian angle to it, and as a writer and Christian myself, I have long been interested in portrayals of faith in literature. Around the same time that I started reading Sophie Wilder, Paul Elie’s article “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” appeared in the New York Times, describing Christian belief in contemporary fiction “as something between a dead language and a hangover.” Clearly I’m not the only one who thinks good Christian literary fiction is a bit of a rarity these days, so I had high hopes for Sophie Wilder.

I found a lot to be admired. Beha structures the novel deliberately—alternating chapters contain alternating points of view—and with suspense, building from the start a sense of mystery around the titular character. It’s a book I found hard to put down, perhaps in part because the characters were familiar to me: Charlie, the first-person narrator, is an aspiring writer who falls in love with Sophie, also an aspiring writer but of the kind who has innate talent and who has a major publication early in her career. But then Sophie flounders, unable to dig into her next big writing project until a phone call from her husband’s father, whom she’d been told was dead. Despite her husband’s wishes, Sophie becomes involved in her father-in-law’s final days as he dies of cancer. I won’t say too much more because part of the fun of the book is the mystery it sets up and the unfolding of that mystery.

The novel is clean and economical in its presentation; it offers a scene of Sophie’s conversion to Catholicism at the very time of Paul Elie’s decrying the lack of the believer’s experience in fiction (in fact, a whole year later without the book in front of me I can remember that Sophie, in her moment of conversion, feels “occupied”); and it made me want to keep reading. So why, when I finished, did the novel bother me? Why have I not, in the intervening year, found myself recommending it at every turn?

Flannery O’Connor provides the best way I’ve found of articulating a quality of many contemporary works that provoke a negative reaction in me.  She writes in her 1963 essay “Novelist and Believer,” “At best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”  Of course I realize she was writing a half century ago, but when I pick up many New Yorker fiction selections, for example, I see the mood of “domesticated despair” dominating. A prime example is Donald Antrim’s short story “He Knew,” which follows an out-of-work actor who lives with a “normal daily load of terror” and his much younger, recently suicidal wife. They regulate themselves with medications, go shopping in New York, and delicately avoid things that upset them.  Their one dream is a road trip through the mountains to North Carolina, where both grew up but where neither have any family left; they are essentially rootless. 

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that literature shouldn’t reflect harsh realities.  The problem comes when such vacuous living is portrayed as something we’ve “learned to live with,” that this daily terror is “normal,” and there is no narrator or consciousness whose subtle shaping satirizes human folly (as we find in Evelyn Waugh or William Thackeray) or exposes the capacity for beauty and grace to arise from the grotesque and tragic (as in O’Connor).

Despite the Christian themes presented, What Happened to Sophie Wilder reads like a book that has domesticated despair. Both Charlie and Sophie are supposedly disenchanted with the artistic affectedness of their friend Max, but to me, they seemed equally affected, mooning around in disheveled apartments, drinking, dissatisfied, and in many ways, the agents of their own dissatisfaction.  I appreciated the reflections on prayer at Sophie’s father-in-law’s bedside; I appreciated the representation of suffering and the treatment of a character who takes damnation as a real possibility.  But I saw no sense of surprising grace or distant hope for redemption that even the most brutal O’Connor stories contain. Instead, the book seems to suggest that such redemption is possible only in our own fictitious refashioning of cruel realities (at least, that’s how I read the final sequence where Sophie’s ending gets re-written).  Faith, in this treatment, becomes merely a plot device that provides Sophie’s conflict.

And perhaps that’s all the more Beha meant to do with it. Still, I found a similar sense of disappointment circulating in the Christianity & Literature listserv. One of the contributors, a literature professor, agreed with my reading but suggested another possibility: it’s very difficult to write convincingly of faith and conversion if it’s not an integral part of who you are. An interview on Beha’s website reveals that Beha once took his Catholic faith seriously, but “lost the ability to sustain that belief.”

I’ll take it one farther—it’s very difficult to write convincingly of faith and conversion period, even if you are a practicing Christian. And so, a year out from reading the book, I wonder if my expectations for Beha were too high, if, in the dearth of books that are brave enough to explicitly address conversion, prayer, suffering, and life after death, we become so desperate for someone—anyone—to portray those very elements with the living fire we believers know they contain, that we foist the same expectation on anyone willing to attempt using that material at all.

Suffice it to say, Sophie Wilder gets more than a star on my list of books read in 2013. It gets a star, a question mark, and maybe a few ellipses of wonderment. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Novelist Housewives: Reflections on Shirley Jackson

Nobody can personify a house like Shirley Jackson.

“There was a door to an attic that preferred to stay latched, and would latch itself no matter who was inside; another door hung by custom slightly ajar, although it would close good-humoredly for a time when some special reason required it.”

“One bedroom chose the children. It was large and light and showed height marks on one wall, and seemed to mind not at all when crayon marks appeared on the wallpaper and paint got spilled on the floor.”

“Eleanor wandered along the veranda, thinking that she had never before known a house so completely surrounded. Like a very tight belt; she thought; would the house fly apart if the veranda came off?”

If you’re familiar with Shirley Jackson’s work, you will recognize Eleanor in that last quotation as the protagonist of Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and is considered one of the best horror novels of the twentieth century. More on Hill House in a minute, but where, you might ask, did those first two delightful quotations come from?

From Jackson’s short story “The House,” which I discovered in so interesting a way that it ultimately gave depth and interest to my reading of Hill House that I wouldn’t have otherwise reached.

Now, if you know me, you know that I’ve become a knitting enthusiast in the last couple years. I had heard that older knitting patterns tend not to be clear, technical guidelines like patterns are today, but more like suggestions. I’d been hankering to see one of these old patterns for myself, and so when my mother-in-law invited me to the Oberlin community garage sale over Labor Day weekend, I went with a goal of finding old knitting patterns. Sure enough, I found a Needlecraft magazine from 1967, but it was bundled with other old magazines, so I had to buy the stack. Not only was I rewarded with Woman’s Day issues from 1952 and 1954, which themselves include knitting patterns along with a slew of entertaining ads that made my $2 money well spent, but I had inadvertently purchased a “first edition” of Shirley Jackson’s “The House,” which was printed in the 1952 Woman’s Day.
 
At that point, I knew Shirley Jackson only from her much-anthologized “The Lottery.” But she was always an author I intended to read someday, and so it was a treat to sit out on the porch one warm September afternoon and enjoy the first-person story of a woman who rents an old house with her husband and young children. The titular house seems to have a mind of its own, the furniture settling just so and certain objects disappearing, sometimes to surface again later. Jackson even manages to have her first-person protagonist describe drying spoons and the spoons somehow disappearing in the midst of the act. You would think so obvious a thing would be dealt with in an overly-dramatic or unconvincing, too-detailed way—but you would only think that if you hadn’t read Shirley Jackson. She has a sort of nonchalance about supernatural phenomena that allows her to integrate these elements seamlessly and artfully into work that still manages to be fit for a woman’s magazine of its day. The end of the story is an encounter with a little old woman who the reader knows must be a ghost, although one gets the feeling its not really the ghost behind these household oddities, but the house itself.
First page spread of "The House"

“The House” was published in 1952; The Haunting of Hill House came out in 1959. Was the short story a warm up of sorts to Hill House? Would I learn something about the writing process in reading the two back to back?

There’s more material behind those questions than can fit in this blog post, so suffice it to say that despite some obvious echoes and surface parallels between the two—the cryptic, distant landlord in “The House” and housekeepers in Hill House; the strong personification of a house to the point that it has some form of consciousness and a will of its own—I wouldn’t base a dissertation on proving “The House” as a source for Hill House. What was more fascinating to me was my new appreciation for the novelist housewife that seeing “The House” in its original context inspired. If you take the time to go through 1950s issues of Woman’s Day as I did, you’ll see that the word homemaker once meant exactly that—that a woman made her home in the most literal sense. An entire section of the magazine was categorized as “Needlework” and featured articles like (in the Shirley Jackson 1952 issue) “Make an Heirloom Bedspread,” “Three Embroidered Tablecloths,” and my favorite, “Modern Tatting Is in Color.” Modern tatting? An oxymoron today!
One of the entertaining ads in the 1952 issue

And it’s not just needlework. There’s the “Home Workshop” category that includes how to make headboards and luggage covers and how to press things to preserve them. There’s the monthly menu, a typical weekday of which reads (and this is from 1966) “Ham Biscuit Roll with Cheese Sauce; Orange-glazed Sweet Potatoes; Jellied Vegetable Salad; Boston Cream Pie,” or another day, “Chicken Livers (wrap in bacon; broil); Rice Pilaf; Dandelion Greens with Hard-cooked Egg; Radishes, Ripe Olives; Baked Custard.”

I’m not so na├»ve as to think these magazines perfectly represent what life was like in those decades. This is no history lesson, and it would be awfully gullible to ignore that magazines show ideal versions of the lives of their readers think they want. Still, these magazines show we shouldn’t discount just how much housewives of these decades made their home. And Shirley Jackson was a housewife. That much is clear from reading her essay on how she had the idea for “The Lottery” while pushing her children home in the stroller with the groceries.

This ad is opposite a page of Jackson's "The
House." Gotta love the title "Skirts Ahoy"
Suddenly a house with consciousness and will seems both more understandable and, somehow, more subversive. Of course a home has personality, if only from the invested time and talent projected by its inmates—and yet, how terrifying when a person does not make the home but the home, of its own accord, insists on impressing itself upon the person. Is Eleanor—who daydreams of a little house with lace curtains and stone lions, and who can’t bear to clear the table after a meal—susceptible to Hill House’s lure precisely because she is a homemaker, while the less conventional Theodora is not and does not suffer the house in the same way?


Another question: Can we 21st-century readers who tend to inhabit our homes in evenings and on weekends understand the intense relationship between a home and its “maker”? Leave me a comment with your thoughts. As for me, I’m off to knit an heirloom bedspread. I am a novelist housewife, after all. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Reflections from the Tuba....

Update: My McSweeney's column is now up! Check it out here.



Can you identify this picture? 

If you said, "Oh, sure, that's Elizabeth taking a picture of herself and her brother reflected in her tuba at a Tubachristmas performance," leave me a comment. I'll be impressed. I just might send you a prize.

They say you don't really know what you think about something until you write about it. Well, I seem to have discovered that one of the major reasons I play the tuba is because I love watching reflections in the tubing. I realized this while writing a sample column for McSweeney's annual column contest. I titled my proposed column "I Like Big Brass and I Cannot Lie: Confessions from the Tuba World," and the first installment was a brief, lighthearted look at the why and the who: Why play the tuba? and Who is crazy enough to do it?

My inner critic decided to give me a last minute lecture on all the reasons why my column wouldn't get picked. I almost didn't submit it. My husband told me to submit it anyway. And guess what?

I got an honorable mention! And more, I get to write the column regularly for the next year for McSweeney's Internet Tendency! The first installment, which is that sample column, comes out this Friday, September 27. Be sure to swing by McSweeney's on Friday and check it out. And, if you have some time now, surf on over to see the winners and other honorable mentions that have already started to appear. You'll find columns demystifying Apple stores, analyzing pop culture with Christianity and humorreviewing athlete self-help books, and rewriting Russian classics, to name just a few. Soon there will be tubas involved...See you Friday! 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Theme and Variations: Reflections on Margot Livesey's The House on Fortune Street

This summer, a friend of mine attended the Kenyon Review Novel Workshop. She told me that The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey was on the list of prep reading and was an interesting study in structure. With such a recommendation, I couldn’t wait to read it.

And, indeed, the structure is “interesting.” The book consists of four sections, each one focusing on a different character—first, Sean, a Keats scholar who quits his marriage in order to be with Abigail (stay tuned) and then his dissertation work in favor of writing a book on euthanasia; next, Cameron, a man with pedophiliac urges he doesn’t act on; then on to Dara (Cameron’s daughter), a sensitive psychologist and would-be Jane Eyre who falls in love with an already married father-figure; and finally Abigail, Dara’s fiercely independent best friend. The book is ultimately about Abigail and Dara and the way that their father-figures, or lack thereof, shape the course of their adult relationship patterns.

The idea of dividing a book into sections and allowing each section to follow a different character is itself not a unique or especially interesting structure. Where the structure gains interest is in how indirectly the sections interlock, but as a reader, I walked away feeling ambivalent. There were moments, especially when it was clear how a father-figure had impacted one or the other of our intelligent heroines, that the indirect links provided delicious space to ruminate on why one person’s actions had resulted in another’s motives. But at other times, I didn’t feel attached enough to any character to care enough to sit down and parse it out.

I think the New York Times reviewer Liesl Schillinger felt the same way but put it less bluntly:

It’s strange that this novel, essentially an exploration of how and why two grown women have remained single, begins with the stories of two men. …The book’s last two sections, in which Dara and Abigail get their turns, coordinate and cohere better as linked narratives, for obvious reasons. This raises the question: why leave them for last? Did [Livesey] want to show Abigail and Dara in the context of their menfolk so readers wouldn’t find them uninteresting, wouldn’t make the mistake of regarding these unmarried women as women entirely without men? Was she trying to place the blame for their solo status outside the female realm? Did she think they couldn’t carry the story on their own?

Schillinger leaves these questions unanswered, but you get the sense from them—as indeed from the novel itself—that this narrative offers pleasures more cerebral than passionate. The structure makes demands on you to put the puzzle together, but it does so at the expense of immersing the reader in really feeling any one character. This is a problem in a book that has love relationships at its core. For example, we are to understand that Dara gives herself wholly to her romances, but this information is delivered via conscious and explicitly acknowledged parallels between Dara and Jane Eyre. Perhaps my own passionate devotion to Jane Eyre made me judge this move more harshly than other readers might, but to me, the parallel only illuminated how little experience I was getting of what it was like for Dara to be in love. Jane Eyre (in which, as Harold Bloom has argued, the genius is the exceeding passion driving the narrative) so expertly and abundantly records the dialogues and little moments that make up Jane and Rochester’s love for each other that calling upon it in House on Fortune Street only makes the latter novel seem chilly by comparison.

Still, there was one character whose experiences made me feel moved on his behalf, and that was Sean, the character of the first section. There are some lovely lyrical moments in which Sean is drawn deeper into his research of euthanasia and surviving family members—moments in which compassion and yearning surprise him—but this thread proves a red herring. As Schillinger puts it, “In spite of his kickoff position, Sean is somewhat irrelevant to the story, a pale moon in Abigail’s solipsistic universe, slipping into ever remoter orbit.”


So what then to make of House on Fortune Street? I didn’t feel attached, and yet it would be a mistake to too easily dismiss it. In the end, its concerns are primarily and unapologetically thematic, which is not only a quality to admire for the demands it places on the intellect—too many books hit upon an engaging voice and think that’s enough—but one necessary to spark discourse. If you take the time to visit Schillinger’s review, you’ll see that she starts with a long rumination on unmarried women, their place in literature, and the reactions they spur. But, as I’ve said, I read the book as being about how paternal relationships impact romantic ones. These are just two of the several themes Livesey manages in a spectrum from which, no doubt, your own angle will determine a new refraction.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In the Valley of the Shadow of Books: Reflections on George Gissing's New Grub Street

“Just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me,” says Jasper Milvain of his novelist friend in George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street. “He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won’t make concessions, or rather, he can’t make them; he can’t supply the market. I—well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that’s a great mistake, I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesmen. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetizing.”

For all of us trying to “make it” as writers today, diligently building our “platforms,” accruing followers on Twitter and on our blogs, carefully networking at summer workshops and writers conferences, weighing whether to self-publish and make money directly or go the traditional route and gain more credibility with the establishment—for us, the “literary man of 1882” does not sound so different from the “literary person of 2013.” And I have to tell you, it’s both a consolation and a frightful thing, because as much as novelists today might try to go about their work without thinking about the marketplace (and this is especially true of MFA writers; at least in the program I went through we were encouraged to focus on the manuscript and worry about selling it later), in the end, a manuscript sells or it doesn’t. A book does well sales-wise or becomes a black mark on the author’s record. And, as New Grub Street poignantly illustrates, even a novelist of the highest ideals is ultimately human and under the same need of money and of career success as anyone else in modern society. The consolation, I suppose, is that where the contemporary literary world tends to see itself as uniquely hard-pressed by economic forces, New Grub Street serves as a reminder that, though the details may have changed, the overall picture has long been the same.

Great.

In terms of the prose itself, the structure, and even much of the characterization, New Grub Street is not a brilliant novel. But if you’re a writer or somehow involved in the publishing world, New Grub Street is a must-read, guilty pleasure kind of book. Who among us will not sympathize with Reardon suffering a series of bad writing days and lamenting, “I am at the mercy of my brain; it is dry and powerless. How I envy those clerks who go by to their offices in the morning! There’s the day’s work cut out for them; no question of mood and feeling; they have just to work at something, and when the evening comes, they have earned their wages, they are free to rest and enjoy themselves”? Even when the most melodramatic scene arrives—in which the novelist Biffen plunges into a burning building to save the novel manuscript he has just that day finished—even if it’s eye-rollingly sensational, if you have written a novel, I guarantee you will nevertheless feel an awful suspense and desire for the hapless Biffen to be successful in his ridiculous rescue attempt.

The fun doesn’t stop there; the brilliance of New Grub Street lies in how many views of both literature itself and the business of literature it presents. There’s Milvain, the enterprising writer of the markets; Reardon, the “midlist” (if I may borrow a contemporary term) novelist; Yule, the man whose unfulfilled literary ambitions embitter his life; Marian, the woman of substance with a look about her as if she hails from “the valley of the shadow of books”; Amy, the beautiful, materialistic woman who ultimately likes authors because of their shot at reputation and fame; Biffen, the Realist writer whose work will never sell but who nonetheless gives his all to his masterwork; Quarmby and Fadge, the warring critics with sharp tongues; and—get ready to laugh—Whelpdale, perhaps the very first literary agent. Aside from his Dickensian name (whelp=carnivorous mammal), Whelpdale is described as “a man who can’t get anyone to publish his own books [but] makes a living by telling other people how to write!” Hm, sounds like Gissing had some beef.
George Gissing

In fact, Gissing has a beef that’s not strikingly original but one that always takes courage to represent: the sobering truth that those who pursue an ideal with honest effort aren’t always rewarded and that more likely than not, considerations of money and influence will win out over the purer of heart. New Grub Street ultimately succeeds because although its message is relatively transparent at the end, the key to it—Jasper Milvain—is ambiguous throughout the story. I couldn’t decide for much of the book whether he was “likable” or not; whether to sympathize him or, as he outright claimed anyone should, to abhor his shallow principles. Without giving too much of a plot spoiler, let me just say that the final image of him unequivocally answers the question in a way you won’t soon forget.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Unsettling Contrasts: Reflections on Tolstoy's Family Happiness

“A truly great book,” wrote Robertson Davies, “should be read in youth, again in maturity
and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.” I’m sure I could pull countless other quotations from writers on the joys—and sometimes disappointments—of returning to novels one has read at a previous point in life. But I recently had such an interesting experience re-reading Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness that I couldn’t resist analyzing what made it so.

Family Happiness is written from the first-person point of view of a teenaged country girl whose parents have both died. The estate’s guardian, an old family friend and a man in his late thirties, comes to manage the household’s affairs and gradually he and the teenaged girl fall in love. At first, much is made of their age difference and difference of experience—that life is just opening to her, while he has had plenty of worldly experience. In fact, he tries to hide his love for her because he believes he’s not the right match for her, but their love prevails and they marry.

But the novella doesn’t end there. Instead, it follows through the first contented year of marriage and into the slightly more discontented period to follow. Sergey (the hero) believes Masha (the heroine) has grown bored, and so he takes them to St. Petersburg where Masha comes under the thrall of society life. Sergey is afraid all along that her pure, innocent ways will be corrupted by society life, and he is proven right—or so he believes—when they have a severe falling-out over a ball Masha wishes to attend over Sergey’s desire to leave Petersburg.  Then comes the painful ruin of their love and the bitter loneliness of an estranged couple. When Masha finally confronts Sergey over their estrangement, he tells her that he does still love her but that the first phase of romantic love can never last, so they might as well settle in to this new phase of steadier though more distant love. Masha sees that he’s right, sees that the intensity of romantic love would be a plague if it continued on and on, and she and Sergey unite in love for their child.  Family happiness indeed.

The novella is a love story, and in my first reading of it four years ago, I was along for the ride, even in the portions where love causes heartache and alienation. But this time around, all I could feel, even in the first part of the novella where there is indeed abundant happiness and love, was an overwhelming sense of menace—a sense of menace that makes the reading wonderfully painful. I suppose it’s partly because I knew more or less what was in store. But to attribute this second reading experience to knowing the plot would be to miss the novella’s genius, for in fact what I picked up on this time was Tolstoy’s use of what Joyce Carol Oates identifies in Jane Eyre as a “dialectic” approach.

Oates’s introduction to the Bantam Classics edition of Jane Eyre is a pithy but meaty introduction to that novel’s greatness. She points out that the book moves by setting up conventional ideas or statements and then almost immediately subverting them. Oates uses the book’s opening as an example. Jane Eyre begins with “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,” and goes on to describe the gloomy weather conditions. But where this seems like the usual childish lament that the rain should go away and come again some other day, we get instead Jane’s bold, straightforward statement, “I was glad of it.”

In a similar way, Tolstoy announces up front that this novella is about Family Happiness. And yet, look at the novella’s the first sentence: “We were in mourning for my mother, who had died in the autumn, and I spent all that winter alone in the country with Katya and Sonya.” Sounds a lot more like family unhappiness, especially since Masha falls into a broody adolescent depression. Granted, that unhappiness in many ways sets the stage for why Sergey’s entrance brings comparatively much happiness. But it’s hard to ignore that Masha’s initial feeling at the thought of Sergey as a potential husband is one of fear.

The trend continues throughout their courtship. Just as Masha begins to feel close to Sergey, he purposely keeps his affairs from her. “This hurt me at first,” narrator Masha says, “but I soon grew accustomed to confining our talk to my affairs, and felt this to be quite natural.” Huh. I’m not so convinced, especially given that the very next sentence is, “There was another thing which displeased me at first and then became pleasant to me. This was his complete indifference and even contempt for my personal appearance.”

So, even Masha recognizes that things are moving forward by contrasting elements—what first displeases her soon pleases her, or so she says. There are many more examples I could raise, but since this is a blog post and not a thesis paper, I’ll let you search them out for yourself when you read Family Happiness. The effect of these contrasts is to put the reader in a state of being constantly unsettled, to the point that even when Masha is declaring how happy she is, the reader is cringing at the contrast that is certainly to come. Even the title, Family Happiness, plays tricks on us—is it to be taken in good faith? Or is there a sly undertone? Family happiness. The book ends with the very picture of it, husband and wife at peace with their baby. And yet, the resolution comes quickly; the pain that preceded it is far more vivid and detailed, even simply in terms of the pages devoted to it; and we are left wondering, was the sacrifice too much? The only answer the novella seems to offer is that it is inevitable.