hope against hope (3)
The problem with The Counterplot is all the things it isn’t. It isn’t philosophic, it isn’t religious, it isn’t dramatic, it isn’t comic, it isn’t tragic, it isn’t feminist, and as a whole it isn’t interesting. Published in 1926, it is the sort of book forever about to be ‘rediscovered’, gushed over by earnest friends of friends with obscure interests and dubious taste – forgotten, perhaps deservedly so.
Teresa Lane, fading into spinsterhood, is waspish and unpleasant to her family, particularly to her flirtatious younger sister Concha. Rejecting one suitable young man,1 ignored by another (who later marries Concha), Teresa becomes infatuated with a business associate of her father’s. Somehow this becomes material for a mock-Spanish play, which is supposed to reveal great truths about the family’s inner lives, but only makes the reader feel almost as embarrassed and uncomfortable as the audience at its first performance. The end of the novel settles the mantle of spinsterhood more firmly upon Teresa’s unappealing shoulders, suggesting a future rich in every sort of emotional stultification and disappointment.
Perhaps that is the primary difficulty of The Counterplot: the main character has neither the luck to be interesting, nor the good grace to suffer from extraordinary circumstances. She earns her reputation for cleverness through her silence, and when she does finally gather courage to say something with her play it is irrelevant, false, and embarrassing. Her inactivity brings her irritation and pettiness, but her activity brings (minor) humiliation and disappointment.2
If Mirrlees’ heroine lacks the spark of life, the novel shines in the secret lives of its minor characters. The mother is a masterpiece; from her annoyance at her husband’s infidelity, to her scheming to get her unappealing eldest daughter off her hands, Mirrlees manages to convey her stifling dominance while talking very little about her. The father is lightly comic, with his dreams of a running away to a yacht, either with his mistress or, on days when women seem more impossible than usual, alone. Mirrlees gives more flesh to these characters in two paragraphs than she can give to Teresa in an entire novel.3 Concha, for example:
She had the tremendous pride of generation of the post-War adolescent; she and her friends she felt as a brilliant, insolent, triumphant sodality, free, wise, invincible, who, having tasted of the fruit of the seven symbolic trees of Paradise, and having found their flavour insipid, had chosen, with their bold, rather weary eyes wide open, to expend their magnificent talents on fox-trots, revues, and dalliance, to turn life and its treacherous possibilities into a Platonic kermis – oh, it was maddening of Teresa not to see this, to persist in thinking of them as frivolous, commonplace, rather vulgar mediocrities! She should just hear some of the midnight talks between Concha and her friend, Elfrida Penn … the passion, the satire, the profundity! As a matter of fact, these talks were mainly of young men, chiffons, the doings of their other schoolfellows, what their head mistress had said to them on such and such an occasion at school (73)
‘The passion, the satire, the profundity’ indeed – Mirrlees punctures Concha’s conceit neatly, but without rancor. Would that she had been as kind to Teresa. Ultimately, an anonymous contemporary reviewer said as much as can be said for the novel:
In Miss Mirrlees’s last novel ‘The Counterplot’, one detected a curious individual flavour, more subtly and completely individual than that of any modern writer I remember to have read. It is not accounted for by her conception of character or her approach to realism, and yet it informs both these; its tangible expression is, I think, her style, which in its elaborate yet clear-cut and deeply coloured nature suggests a series of pictures in mosaic. The inward feeling it gives is of a bitter sweet taste left upon the tongue, or of one of those scents, harsh and infinitely strange which one sometimes smells in filigree bottles in a curiosity shop [….] to my mind the drawback to ‘The Counterplot’ was that all-embracing pedantry, extending to every walk of life from the mediaeval Spanish convent to the naval smoke-room. One wearied of being told so much and so often what one either knew, or, not knowing, did not wish to know.4
- This character, whose name I’ve forgotten, falls squarely into the Cecil Vyse school of modern suitor: cultured, urbane, constantly seeking approval, and probably homosexual. [↩]
- Here I suppose is where one could make a case for The Counterplot being a feminist novel and say that Teresa’s unhappiness is the result of the limited opportunities available for women at the time; is is true in a sense, but ignores the probability that a character such as Teresa would be unhappy no matter how many opportunities she possessed. Teresa’s mother and sister, less clever but more sensible, seem to have no such difficulties in finding opportunities to manipulate their circumstances. [↩]
- At times the shorthand seems forced: the business associate, David, is diffident and dull at first and second glance; his amazing ability to tango is supposed to make the reader believe he is capable of great feeling. One hesitates to disagree with his author, but his passion seems improbable. [↩]
- An anonymous review of Lud-in-the-Mist in Newnham College’s magazine, Thersites (1927), quoted in Sandeep Parmar, ed. Hope Mirrlees: Collected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet, 2011, pp. xxivf. [↩]
I was almost exactly halfway through Céleste Albaret’s recollections of Monsieur Proust when I realized I had erred in the matter of genre. I had supposed it was merely a servant’s memoir of her eccentric employer. Given the pains she takes to clarify her stances on her employer (not crazy, not malingering, not a bit eater, might be gay), this is an easy assumption. It is, however, no such thing – it is hagiography pure and simple. One would have thought, since I had lately been reading Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert, I would have grasped this distinction before reaching page 185. The sentences that tipped me off were:
He realized very early that he would make demands which, together with those imposed by his health, would be difficult to ask of people. I am sure that when he saw that for me every demand made was a pleasure and easy to accomplish, he became attached to me (185, emphasis mine).
I’m not quite sure, though, who is supposed to be the saint: Albaret or Proust. For all his ‘goodness’ and attention to the people in his life, Proust seems more of a capricious deity – one who swoops down on a family and forces them to get their adolescent daughter out of bed just so he can look at her, then goes away with nary a word of thanks. Albaret, on the other hand, is ever ready, able to anticipate his every need, once she has learnt the appropriate rituals: bring in so much coffee, prepared in such a way, at such a time, with so much milk, boiled for this amount of time, no touching please, but leave the hot water bottle there. Perhaps the clue is that Albaret no longer goes to mass once she starts working for Proust: she doesn’t need to.
One could call Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx a post-apocalyptic dystopia – perhaps compare it to similar novels (1984, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, &c.) – and one would not err in one’s assessment or criticism. That is certainly how it starts, and the details are amusing enough: the ‘Blast’ that destroyed civilization as one knew it, the genetic mutations, the semi-immortal ‘Oldeners’ (survivors of the Blast), mice as primary food source and currency – all written up in malaprop-ish dialect. Left there it would be an amusing criticism of (post-)Soviet Russia, and no one would think the worse of it.
To me, though, The Slynx really begins and ends with the love of books. Benedikt, the main character, begins as a scribe, copying out old books (Pushkin & co.1 ) ascribed to the reigning petty ruler, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. Benedikt is curious about these poems, but not obsessed – unlike one of his coworkers who really tries to understand what she is copying: what is a steed? she wonders (Benedikt imagines it must be some kind of mouse and is irritated by her curiosity). After his marriage to the wealthiest and loveliest of his co-workers, after he has his tail removed, after he begins living a life of comfort, of buttery biscuits and pancakes instead of mouse stew, Benedikt begins to read in earnest: he has nothing better to do, no real job, no occupation beyond canoodling with his oversexed wife.
After the marriage Benedikt didn’t need anything at first. For about two weeks, maybe three. Well … four. Maybe five. While he got used to things, had a look around at this and that. But then – it felt like there was something – and it was gone. […] He thought and thought. What was missing? Suddenly he realized. It hit him. Books! He hadn’t read any books for a long time, or copied them, or held them in his hands! Since May!(157–164)
With a limited supply of books before his marriage, reading sparked his imagination. Benedikt day-dreamt of the past, of women, of the unseeable, terrible Slynx haunting the shadows beyond the pale. After his marriage. Benedikt suffers a surfeit of books; these bring back his ‘visions’ but also become an appetite of their own. He is helped (enabled would perhaps be a better word) by his father-in-law, the Head Saniturion. Books, you see, bring Illness – which seems to be related to freedom of thought.2 The Head Saniturion works to prevent and eradicate this Illness; he confiscates books, and disposes of people who seem to have read them. As a result of his work, he has a fine library of material, which he puts at Benedikt’s disposal. Benedikt begins by looking at pictures, but then devours adventure novels, knitting manuals, and philosophy; he reads everything, until there is nothing new left to read:
Afraid of guessing, Benedikt went through the treasures with shaking hands; he was no longer thinking about issue number eight. It’s not here, I’ll live. But book after book, journal after journal – he’s already seen this, read this, this, this, this, this … So what did this mean? Had he already read everything? Now what was he going to read? And tomorrow? A year from now? His mouth went dry and his legs felt weak. He lifted the candle high; its bluish light parted the darkness and danced on the shelves along the books’ covers … maybe, up on the top … (192)
Nothing good comes of this appetite for books, except an appetite for answers, for the one book which will answer everything. He doesn’t find it, of course, and wanders, slynx-like, on the periphery of the settlement, searching. The search is all that remains.
- The NYRB edition has a handy index of who wrote what in the back. [↩]
- At first books contained radiation and caused actual illness, but after two hundred years of confiscating books, it became a habit (170–174). [↩]
At Passau the traveller feels that the flowing of the river is a yearning for the sea. That sense of life-to-the-full, that gift of the blood pressure, or of some acid benevolently secreted by the brain, was something I really felt in the alleys and on the river-banks of Passau; or do I just think I felt it because I am now trying to describe it a table at the Caffè San Marco? On paper one probably pretends, one invents every kind of happiness. Writing may not really be able to give a voice to utter desolation, to the nullity of life, to those moments when it is simply a void, privation and horror. The mere fact of writing in some way fills the void, gives it form, makes the horror of it communicable and therefore, even if minimally, triumphs over it. There are in existence many sublimely tragic pages, but for someone who is dying or wants to die even those wondrous pages of sorrow would sound trumped up, terrifyingly inadequate to the sorrow of the instant.
Absolute privation cannot speak. Literature speaks of it and to some extent exorcizes it, overcomes it, transforms it into something else, converts its unyielding, unapproachable otherness into current coinage. The hesitant traveller, who in his travels does not know what line to pursue, on re-reading his own notes discovers with some surprise that he was a little happier and more at ease, and above all more resolute and decisive, than he thought he was while actually on the road. He finds that he has given clean, clear answers to the questions that pester him, in the hope of one day being able to believe those answers himself.
– Claudio Magris (Danube, p. 118)