Three Good Books
Elizabeth Lowry: The Chosen
Elizabeth Lowry’s third novel, The Chosen (riverrun, 2022), is a neo-Victorian biographical fiction about the end of a long marriage. That marriage ended in bitterness and division. The husband is the writer Thomas Hardy. The wife is Emma Gifford, his first wife, and the book begins with a frightening and graphic description of her death. The subject of this novel is not only bereavement, but literary creation. The elegies Hardy wrote for Emma, The Poems of 1912-1913, are among the most powerful poems of love, loss and mourning ever written in English. The writing represented in this book is not only by Hardy. Lowry gives Emma a voice, and reproduces her diaries and her recollections of their early courtship in Cornwall, often the subject of Hardy’s elegies. Emma is also represented as a valued literary collaborator in the composition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a process that reappears in flashback. Hardy’s memories recreate Emma. She haunts the entire book. This is not only a grief narrative, but also a ghost story. Hardy eventually excluded Emma from his writing practice and largely from his life. For this was Emma’s tragedy. She believed in Hardy as a writer from the first and longed to create his work alongside him. They both suffered from his rejection of her and the destruction of the marriage. But who paid the higher price?
The hardback edition of The Chosen has a very odd, contradictory cover. It appears to be marketed as an historical romance, but with the late Hilary Mantel’s bracing literary credentials fortifying the shout line. I recognised the portrait of Emma and I wondered how the book would speak to a reader who knew nothing whatever about Thomas Hardy, Emma Gifford, or the ubiquitous Florence Dugdale, that persistent young interloper who eventually became the second Mrs Hardy. For Hardy’s life is a riveting story, replete with Victorian snobbery, class struggle, rural hierarchies, London society, his family that Emma forced him to keep at arm’s length, the scandals surrounding his final novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Does this book choose its own readers? And are they Hardy’s readers?
The turning points in the book are the key moments in the marriage. Lowry draws on the available literary evidence and the numerous excellent biographies. She even includes the rejection letter from Mowbray Morris who decided that the succulent maiden Tess was not suitable for serialisation in a family magazine ‘read by the daughters of respectable men’ (p.135). Emma’s diary is written in first-person narrative and Lowry uses free indirect speech on occasions to give the reader Hardy’s most inward thoughts. The forward action of the narrative describes the weeks during the aftermath of Emma’s sudden death and records the process through which Emma becomes Hardy’s Muse.
The Muse is usually a thankless role for a woman as she is imagined, controlled and manipulated by the writer. But in this case Lowry writes Hardy with great sympathy. Emma is a subversive, unsettling ghost: wayward, present, voluble, potent. She has far more power over Hardy now that she is dead than she ever did in the last years of her life. And this is psychologically true of grief. The person once loved and much missed can no longer be cut down to size. They have entered the dream world of the imagination. Memory and imagination are closely linked. Emma’s unruly turbulence haunts Hardy in the exquisite final chapters of Lowry’s novel. Lowry has given us a map of a particular grief that draws on the common grief we will all endure one day. She has also given us a glossary with which to make sense of what is unendurable. She writes with terrifying authority.
How important is it to remain ruthlessly faithful to the known facts of a writer’s life? What can a novelist add to a biography? And should they even try to re-imagine a real life?
There is a problem with biographical fiction if the subject has a powerful presence in the public space – which Hardy has: the facts of his life are known and owned. He is the subject of many biographies. I decided to read Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy: The Time-torn Man (Penguin Viking, 2006) to find out. I had given the book to my mother who was, at that time, reading her way steadily through all Hardy’s novels. To my surprise, the opening Prologue recounts Emma’s death in her attic room using exactly the same details that appear in The Chosen. Was this Lowry’s starting point? But after that Tomalin’s portrait of the marriage could not be more different. Hardy emerges as a lecherous old goat who chased after young pretty women, leaving his aging wife enraged in the attic. When he started his clandestine affair with Florence Dugdale she was twenty-six and he was sixty-five. Hardy put his work first. Fair enough. But he was not a wise man. He managed to marry two talentless, ambitious, sexually attractive women who seemed to pass their pointless, futile lives in a tormented rage of frustration and jealousy. And he married them one after the other: Emma Gifford, Florence Dugdale. Of the two, Dugdale was the more poisonous and dishonest.
I emerged from Tomalin’s biography with more respect for Hardy’s writing, especially his poetry, which I have always loved, but with far less respect for him. Fiction softens the edges of a life because it reveals and explores feelings, motives, memories, fears, despair. Fiction explains, understands, sympathises, forgives. And this happens because fiction moves closer to inner, imagined realities, the psychic drama of marriage, the tension of literary creation, far closer than biography ever can without collapsing into unfounded speculation. Fiction can legitimately ask the question – what if…? And then suggest an answer. Fiction dramatizes difficulty and complexity, and thus earns the reader’s sympathy and attention. We, the readers, are witnesses, there to feel the sadness of The Chosen, which arises from the chances missed, the words not spoken.
James Cahill: Tiepolo Blue
James Cahill avoids all the obvious traps. He creates a subtle, full-length, multi-layered novel that addresses the German novella in oblique and clever ways. The novel begins as a tale of two dons, and sets out from a Cambridge College, Peterhouse, known to be old-fashioned, conservative and dominated by men. Our main protagonist is actually called Don - Don Lamb, an art historian, who is introduced to the reader at the beginning of the novel when he gives a lecture in the Fitzwilliam Museum on his main field of research, the fabulous blue skies of Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770). The meeting is chaired by the mysterious, suave and charming Valentine Black, known as Val, Don’s former doctoral supervisor. Don’s Olympian lecture on the eighteenth-century artist establishes his values and beliefs about aesthetics, art and beauty. Art must stand aloof from politics, society, psychology. Don asserts the timeless classical values: form, proportion, light, balance. But the subversive process of corruption has already begun. A heap of rubbish has arrived in the centre of the college lawn: an artwork entitled SICK BED. This bizarre installation, described in detail, is clearly inspired by Tracey Emin’s notorious work, My Bed, created in 1998 and shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999, a deliberately provocative anti-artwork which generated similar reactions of outrage, fury and disgust. The stage is set for the struggle between a conventional understanding of beauty and the grim, murky unpleasantness revealed and celebrated by contemporary art.
Don is the Gustav von Aschenbach figure in this version of Death in Venice. Mann’s Aschenbach embarked on a dangerous “spätes Abenteuer des Gefühls”- a late adventure in sensibility. Don Lamb is so self-absorbed he cannot see what is obvious to the reader. He hides from life and the beauty before him in the imaginary infinity of Tiepolo’s heavens. He turns away from erotic experience. And, this is the fatal mistake he makes, he rejects Val’s offered love.
Val is in many ways the most interesting figure in the novel. He assumes his homosexuality calmly, cheerfully, and disparagingly, deflecting prejudice by adopting the slur - ‘I’m just an old poof” he likes to say…’(p. 18, Cahill’s emphasis). The figure that Val echoes in Death in Venice appears as the wanderer in the English Garden in Munich, the gondolier in Venice who rows Aschenbach to the Lido, and the strolling player who entertains and jeers at the guests in the expensive Hotel where Aschenbach, Tadzio, the boy beautiful, and his Polish family are staying. This is the figure of Death, shapeshifting, ubiquitous, uncanny and inexplicable. Thomas Mann fuses identity and role in this figure, who is mythic, eternal. Val too is a messenger, a fixer, a man of secrets, and frequent disappearances. Cahill’s echo chamber unleashes the original story into his own fiction. The effect is suggestive and unsettling. I am one of those readers whose concentration gravitates towards a character that cannot easily be read, accounted for or explained. I was, and remain, fascinated by Val.
Don Lamb is transparent, narrated and explicable. He is a character who ‘hath ever but slenderly known himself’. He has never consummated his homosexual desires. And desire that is denied always turns upon itself, many- headed and dangerous, like the hydra, and gains in power while bent on destruction. Cahill tracks Don Lamb’s descending spiral into destitution and alcoholism through a series of bizarre encounters and farcical scenes. A connected cast of peculiar but utterly plausible characters crosses his uncomfortable path. Don misses or bungles every opportunity he is ever given to escape into a different life, or to find love with a beautiful boy - the art student Ben, safely old enough to be a consenting adult. Don Lamb’s descent is mostly of his own making. He is inflexible, obtuse and doomed.
But behind it all lurks the Mephistophelian figure of Val.
Val appears vulnerable, disarmingly human, and yet sinister. All the clues are planted right from the beginning of the novel. In the second chapter Don overhears a conversation across the infamous SICK BED. The speaker recalls the summer of 1967.
‘I remember that date because Joe Orton had just been murdered.’
Don walks faster.
‘Such a shock, I’ll never forget it. Bludgeoned to death by his boyfriend with a clawhammer. A case of jealousy, the master turning on his protégé…’ (p.21).
Never underestimate the jealous rage of a lover who is rejected and discarded. Don rejected Val, but accepted everything else his former teacher offered, as if every generous gift was his natural right. Is Val the master, turning on his protégé? But I will not forget the date of Orton’s death either: 9th August 1967. I saw the first production of Orton’s Loot on the London stage. When he came on at the end in his role as the author, to be applauded with energetic appreciation, Orton was of course alone. His lover and mentor, Kenneth Halliwell, was nowhere to be seen. Throughout Tiepolo Blue Cahill recreates a homosexual cultural history that illuminates the 20th century. Orton is part of that history. Tiepolo Blue is a novel aware of its own sources, traditions and origins.
This is a fiction dense with ideas and debates, filled with wit, broad humour and disturbingly charged erotic emotions. Yet the writing is threaded through with a dream-like instability. How much of this is real? The parks, the Lido, the incriminating photographs which may or may not exist? The hallucinatory quality of the writing infects the reader. Cahill has created a world that is self-contained and obeys its own rules. Connections that were not at first apparent gradually become clearer, only to vanish and blur, to slither into uncertainty. Tiepolo Blue is not a lightweight novel but a complex work of art. One of the minor characters says: ‘In art … everything is theoretical. And everything is possible. Anything that’s conceivable is real, in art’ (p.263).
The colour Blue has special meanings in British gay culture. For more discussion of the significance of Blue I suggest Carol Mavor, Blue Mythologies: Reflections on a Colour (London: Reaktion Books, 2013). Mavor ‘s Chapter 19 discusses the metaphor of ‘Blue’ in relation to Venice and does of course discuss Death in Venice. Derek Jarman’s last film, Blue (1993), created when he knew he was dying of AIDS, is evoked in the novel’s epigraph. Blue is the colour of homosexual desire. Blue signifies nothingness, and the infinite. Blue is the colour of death.
Percival Everett: The Trees
Writing in the TLS earlier this year (2022), the Australian author and critic Beejay Silcox, pointed out that in her role as a fiction critic, she reads many agreeable, amiable, acceptable novels that would never offend anyone. She called these productions ‘defanged fiction’ - and she longed for fiction with fangs.
Every one of my Three Good Books is fanged fiction. I suspect that this, apart from a masterly command of style, register and genre, is the only thing they have in common. This is fiction that offends and frightens and is intended to do so. This is fiction that does what all good books should do.
And here I must declare an interest. I have been banging on about the wonders of Percival Everett’s writing since 2003 when I first read one of his many masterpieces, Erasure (Faber, 2003). This novel was first published in the USA in 2001 (University Press of New England). This year I felt vindicated in my enthusiasm. Everett’s most recent novel, The Trees, published by a tiny Art House Press, Influx, went onto the Booker Prize long list and then the short list. He didn’t win. Of course, I think he should have done, but I am minded to remember Julian Barnes’s description of the Booker Prize as Posh Bingo. By the time you get to the short list, it’s a game of chance.
Everett has now published more than 30 books. The Trees is written by a mature, experienced writer, who knows exactly what he is doing and how to pull it off. This is a book about lynching black people or indeed any person belonging to an ethnic minority that happens to look slightly different, or to enjoy a different style of cooking from the white majority. It is also about the white people who do it. The books behind this book are all the books Everett has ever written. He is a man with a mission. Black Lives Matter. Everett’s passionate demand for justice is evident on every page. He loathes wilful ignorance as much as he loathes racial prejudice. And this is what he had to say about the source of The Trees.
The Trees had been stirring in me for most of my life.
When I was perhaps 11 years old, not much older than that, I was with my father as we drove at night through rural South Carolina. We slowed to a crawl, and it turned out there was some sort of checkpoint. It turned out, as well, that this checkpoint was manned by hooded members of that esteemed American social club, the Ku Klux Klan. A large cross burned in the meadow. My father, a dentist, an agnostic, a quiet man, became even quieter. I observed that in his lap he now held a pistol that I had never seen before, a .32 I discovered as I went through his things many years later after his death. The gravity of the world was present to me at once. When our turn at the checkpoint came my father pressed the accelerator to the floor and we sped away.
My father was an articulate man, but we often spoke to each other in metaphor. We said nothing about the incident. Nothing, directly. The lessons were obvious. There were white people in the world who would kill us for our appearance. Why? If we could understand, we might be as morally and intellectually deficient as them, there was no reason to waste energy considering motives. The other lesson was that in this world we needed to be prepared and that preparation should rather be real and private than obvious and advertised.
Perhaps this novel is the pistol in my lap. More likely it is the understanding that the checkpoint is not a place to stop. My father, the quiet dentist, drove me and my sister the one block to school for a while because when he ran for public office he received telephone threats concerning the safety of his children. I didn’t know why I wasn’t allowed to walk that block to school until many years later. But I knew, this is not a safe world (The Guardian “Saturday”, 8th October 2022, p. 64).
The book is structured in a sequence of very short cinematic scenes that rely on voices, regional dialects and dialogue. You have to be an excellent writer to write good fictional dialogue. It’s extremely difficult not to reproduce the appalling banality of naturalistic, written-down television, and still represent absolutely recognisable, individual characters. Fictional dialogue is radically different from cinematic dialogue, for it has to do at least three things at once:
- advance the action, that is, move the narrative forwards,
- reveal something to the reader that they don’t know, and that they need to know,
- tell the reader something about the speaker and the person whom they address which they may not know, or haven’t yet guessed.
Good dialogue conceals and reveals character and motive in almost equal measure. As a reader, you can’t skim-read good dialogue. The sign of good dialogue is that it forces you to think, pause and think again.
Everett’s dialogue sets the scene, reveals the characters, complicates the plot, and produces endless, startling surprises. His fictional voices give a perfect illusion of speech. But it is an illusion. The implications can be obscene, hilarious, tender, subversive, sinister, outrageous – he can create every mood, sometimes all at once. Some of the exchanges are unforgettable.
Here is a passage from the end of the book. Jim, one of the Black cops investigating the murders of the Whites, is interrogating one of the avengers, Gertrude, who works as a waitress in the town bar. Gertrude is speaking.
“Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices. Where there are no mass graves, no one notices. American outrage is always for show. It has a shelf life. If that Griffin book had been Lynched Like Me, America might have looked up from dinner or baseball or whatever they do now. Twitter?”
“You’ve been sitting here rehearsing that speech?”
“Did you kill people?”
“Depends on what you mean when you say people” (p.318).
Conventional morality and righteous justice part company in Gertrude’s comment and throughout The Trees. Everett doesn’t deal in amiable compromise.
The end of the book is superb. The hapless academic, Damon Thruff, who once wrote defanged studies of racial violence, is confronted with Mama Z’s archive of lynch victims throughout America. He is shocked into consciousness and begins typing their names, one at a time. As he types each name, that victim is called to avenge their murder.
‘Outside, in the distance through the night air, the muffled cry came through, Rise. Rise’ (p. 335).
Mama Z demands, twice, ‘Shall I stop him?’ And that wonderful cry passes to the reader and ends the book. No, I shouted, Rise, Rise.
The call to Rise, Rise, does of course have a double meaning. It is the call to resurrection, and to be recalled to life. But it is also a rallying cry for vengeance and a call to arms, Rise, Rise, – Uprising.
Everett’s novel is about rage. Fiction is the ideal medium in which to express both outrage at unimaginable cruelty and to demand justice, simply because fiction moves from the particular individual, the actors in each story, to the general righteous demand for vengeance and justice. Read on, and then Rise, Rise.
December 1st 2022
All Rights Reserved. Patricia Duncker 2023