Saturday 2 January 2021

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Edmund de Waal, and Anne Enright

Happy New Year!  I'm still here, still reading, still writing long boring reviews that no one reads!  But what the hell, I'm enjoying it.  This time round, it's The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Hare With the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal, and The Green Road by Anne Enright.

I started off absolutely hating this book, and ended up thinking that actually I liked it in spite of myself.  I hated it because it seems to be about a miserable woman, married to a horrible man, and without any will to change her situation.  A long time ago, I had a period when I became disaffected with books and gave up reading altogether.  At about the same time, I was becoming aware of feminist critiques of fiction, which saw something amiss and prejudicial in books that were about 'miserable women, married to horrible men', blah-blah-blah - so I tend now to connect the two.  I associate my negative memories of reading with this terrible (and boring) fictional paradigm about women hurt by men.

In many respects, I stand by that first impression.  There' s a long speech that the husband makes when, on their honeymoon, Antonia asks him why he married her.  'I married you... because you are going to be extremely beautiful, which means for me that you will be a pleasure to see, a delight to be with, and because, possessing you, I shall be envied by others... I married you because you are not a fool, because you have innate good taste, because you have a vast capacity for enjoyment, and because, if I was to marry at all, I wanted at least the possibility of perfection.  You will not be perfect: but the amount that you fall short will be my fault - not yours - and that responsibility is more desirable to me than anything else.  Being what you are, you have also the potentiality of utter failure: of being tragically destructive.  You require a certain amount of protection not to become that.  You are fortunate to have found somebody to take you as seriously as I have been doing... ' (p.278-79) 

This sounds terribly controlling, even psychopathic, and I had high hopes that she would slap him smartly over both cheeks and tell him that she didn't need his protection, and she didn't need him to take responsibility for her failures and imperfections, thank you very much; that she was not perfect, and had no interest in trying to be, and that she didn't appreciate for being married for something so shallow as the way she looked.  Instead, rather disappointingly, she says, 'But what do you want me to do... If only you would tell me what you want me to do, I would do it!' (p.279)

At the beginning of the book, you see the way their marriage pans out (it is a marriage told backwards): she is the perfect hostess, distant from her children, unable to communicate with her husband; he is bored, having affairs.  None of that seems particularly surprising or, indeed, original.

However, the final part of the book looks at Antonia's life before she meets her husband.  It moves to the Sussex countryside where she lives with her parents, who rub along reasonably pleasantly together but, as she finds, live very disparate lives.  I love Howard's descriptions of the countryside.  One evening, Antonia is late for one of her mother's dinner parties: 'she had changed hurriedly, knowing by the silence upstairs that everyone else had gone down.  It was an early summer evening - the sun had just set, and the air was fraught with the gently evening grumble of birds.  Bats leered about with amazing silence; and when she opened her window, she let in an indiscriminate flitter of moths.  Daisies lay faintly on the lawn, still staring upwards to the end of the light - floating on the dark turf - extinguished, drowned out, one by one, as the mushroom shadows grew mounting out of the ground.  It was the last time alone in her life.' (p.326)  Not physically alone of course, but that evening she meets a man who is to misrepresent himself to her, bringing her love and desire and self-doubt, so after that night she does not experience solitude in the same peaceful, selfish way.

The man she meets that night isn't her husband; he's a young Irishmen for whom she seems to fall for a lot of good reasons.  He's charming and personable and attractive, they have similar interests, she can talk to him, he expands her horizons and offers her an opportunity for doing something with her life (which is currently set in a very Victorian, nursury-to-marriage course).  Then, near the end (spoiler alert), he turns out to be married - again, hardly a surprise for any heroine of Victorian melodrama.  She endures further shocking revelations about her parents' relationship, then she meets her cloyingly dastardly husband, effectively on the rebound from her first 'disappointment in love'.

Is there something sensitive and perceptive in all this that I am completely failing to see?  The book certainly comes with great reviews; perhaps I am not the right person to appreciate it fully.  As I said, I really enjoyed the last section, but then I did not particularly connect the girl she was then to the way she is described at later stages of her life.  I do wish there had been something better in store for her - something happier, or at least more self-determined.

Another family history book, like Homegoing, but this time structured around a valuable collection of netsuke - small, intricately-carved, Japanese objects.  The netsuke are fascinating in themselves.  De Waal relates a story told by Edmond de Goncourt about Japan.  'Amid this manually gifted populace,' he said, 'there would be amateur netsuke sculptors, who amuse themselves by sculpting a little masterpiece for themselves.  One day, Mr Philippe Sichel approached a Japanese man sitting on his threshold, notching a netsuke that was in its last stages of completion.  Mr Sichel asked him if he would like to sell it... when it was completed.  The Japanese man started laughing, and ending up telling him that it would take approximately a further eighteen months'. (p.58)  The creation of such detailed miniatures, apparently with little regard for time or profit, seems like the purest form of artistic expression.

De Waal traces the path of this collection through his family.  And it is an incredibly illustrious family.  The Ephrussi, like the Rothschild family, were unbelievably, stonkingly rich: bankers by profession, Russian and Jewish in origin, but they had moved out to Vienna and Paris in the nineteenth century where they were, at one and the same time, both the most uppercrust of society, and often subject to the bitterest racial prejudice.

Reading about them, there is both predictability - in their archness, their lavishness, their dynastic sentiment - and, inevitably, some unexpected scenes.  Researching the life of his great-grandmother, who's family had an estate in Czechoslovakia, de Waal writes, 'as I struggle to bring the two parts of her life together, I am also slightly aghast.  My picture of Jewish life in fin-de-siecle Vienna is perfectly burnished, mostly consisting of Freud and vignettes of acerbic and intellectual talk in the cafes.  I'm rather in love with my 'Vienna as crucible of the twentieth century' motif, as are man curators and academics... My image of the period certainly doesn't stretch to include Jewish deer-stalking or Jewish discussion of the merits of different gun-dogs for different game.' (p.141-42)

I was so distracted by such social and intellectual elevation that I took my eye off the timeline.  Suddenly, shockingly, Anschluss occurs, and de Waal describes it chillingly.  His great-grandparents sit in the dark in their enormous palace in central Vienna, listening to the sounds of the brownshirts outside, screaming violent, anti-Jewish threats.  The Jewish people in Austria have the ground rapidly cut away from beneath them: they are accused of political malfeasance, stripped of their rights, beaten and humiliated in the streets, their shops and houses smashed and looted.  It seems like a city where suddenly every official is a Jobsworth, out to prove himself the most effective at unmanning the Jewish people.  It becomes impossible to leave the city - impossible to do anything; you're not even allowed to sit on a park bench if you're Jewish.

De Waal's great-grandparents are frozen with indecision, not wanting to leave their home, not knowing what to do.  Their palace is taken from them, his business interests signed away, their huge quantities of antiques, books, and artworks catalogued, valued, crated up and shipped out.  Eventually, they manage to get to Czechoslovakia, but of course they're not safe there either, and again search in vain for escape.  De Waal's great-grandmother dies suddenly.  No one uses the word 'suicide' but it seems clear to De Waal that this is what it was.  On Kristallnacht, he says, 'a night of terror: 680 Jews commit suicide in Vienna: twenty-seven are murdered'. (p.267)

At such a terrible time, the fate of the netsuke of course slips your mind but - without giving any spoilers - they are later discovered in the warmest, most wonderful circumstances.  In spite of their monetary value, they clearly had great sentimental importance for the family, and although I can't say I was entirely sympathetic to the efforts of de Waal's grandmother to reclaim her family's enormous fortune after the war, it's clear that many of the lost items were mourned because of the memories they held of Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi.  I guess I should add - after that last sentence - that it goes without saying that the forcible removal of people's property, treating them as though they had no rights, is a most despicable form of humiliation.  De Waal writes of Jewish people during the Anschluss that 'they are beaten, of course; but they are also forbidden to shave or wash so that they look even more degenerate... it is important to address the old affront of Jews not looking like Jews.  The process of stripping away your respectability, taking away your watch chain, or your shoes or your belt, so that you stumble to hold up your trousers with one hand, is a way of returning everyone to the shtetl, stripping you back to your essential character - wandering, unshaven, bowed with your possessions on your back.' (p.250-51) Apparently, unbelievably, in 1948, the new Austrian Republic gave an amnesty to 90% of Nazi Party members - 'nobody was called to account'. (p.284)

I think, after that - and despite the fascinating beginning - it sort of became a book about the war and the Holocaust for me.  The next instalment of the story, where de Waal's great-uncle Iggie takes the netsuke back to Japan, is a bit of an anticlimax.  However, right at the very end, de Waal visits Odessa in Russia, where the Ephrussi name apparently began, and this was intensely nostalgic.  I suppose the central - certainly the most emotive - characters in this story were his great-grandparents, Viktor and Emmy, and Odessa threw light on Viktor's roots.

Anyway, as you might have guessed, I really enjoyed this book.  It was interesting and funny and unexpected, and sometimes awful and terrifying as well.

I really enjoyed reading this.  Anne Enright has a wonderful funny, frank, colloquial voice.  The bit that really astounded me was the leap from 1980s Ireland, where the protagonist is Hanna, a young girl growing up with her siblings and her rather erratic mother (father present but keeps to himself), to New York in the early 90s, where young gay men are having sex with each other and dying of AIDs.  That second chapter reminded my of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, because it covers similar ground.  The contrast between the first two chapters was quite a shock though; a sort of violent swerve in direction.  What promises to be a wry, but steely, Irish family drama is suddenly, not.  Part of the dislocatory feeling, I think, comes from the fact that, although chapter two is about Hanna's brother, Dan, he is not the protagonist - he's a shadowy figure on the edge of the action - so there's no evidence of that small-town Irish outlook.

It's one of those books where you can switch back and forward between characters fairly easily - there's no strong lead character, and no one unequivocally holding the moral high ground.  There were still some I warmed to more than others, but I liked the way the characters appeared slightly different through each others' eyes.  With Dan, obviously, it seems unlikely that his family would have recognised him from a description given by the people he hung out with in New York.  With Constance also, she seems like a cheerful, capable woman with a genuinely happy marriage and affectionate children - but to her brothers she comes across as almost ridiculous, with her uncontrolled eating, 'her deliberate stupidity and her supermarket hair'.  When Dan contemplates taking his boyfriend home for Christmas, his sister's reaction is part of what stops him.  'The problem, Dan realised, was that Constance would not love Ludo, as he loved Ludo.  She just couldn't.  She would not have the room.' (p.173) This foxed me for a while: was she so small-minded?  Would I find her ridiculous?  But I don't think so - I think it comes down to perspective, and it's always useful to be reminded that your own impressions of someone (or something) aren't universal.

The way the book is set out, Enright talks about each of the characters individually, and then brings them together for Christmas at the end.  It's a feat that I often wondered how she was going to marriage - given the disparity of the characters.  In the event, its elegantly done; there are no signs of authorial wrestling.  In some respects, the characters revert to their childhood selves, which seems fairly true to life, but with an added distance created by time passed and their other lives away from home.  There is a notable lack of contact between some of the characters (Constance and Emmet, for example, or Constance and Hanna) and an almost complete lack of reminiscing about their childhood relationships, which I would have thought would be key.  Perhaps this lack of in-depth analysis is what makes the reunion seem so natural though; to have mapped out every angle would have been ruinous.

Finally, it's worth saying that it is quite a funny book.  I probably place far too much emphasis on the importance of humour, but I find it a sort of instantaneous conduit of empathy in circumstances which otherwise may seem very alien.  There's a rather epic description of Constance's Christmas supermarket dash (p.228-232) and I, somewhat callously, laughed at the description of their mother sobbing at the dinner table in chapter one (p.11-12), and of the young Hanna picking up medication for her Granny, 'feeling marked, singled out by destiny to be the purveyor of old lady's bottom cream, whilst Emmet was not to know their granny had a bottom, because Emmet was a boy.' (p.23)

I felt that the humour was reserved mostly for the Irish sections of the book, or at least, for those which took place in County Clare.  Both Dan's and Emmet's sections were rather grim - partly due to circumstances - but they're also tragic characters.  As an adult, Hanna - alcoholic and unenviably partnered - is also tragic and therefore unfunny.  I found myself, as I read this book, linking humour with emotional connection and essential stability.  Constance seemed to have this happy triumvirate; her siblings did not.  Another character that did was Ludo, Dan's boyfriend.  At one point, they have a discussion where Dan says that Ludo has no idea what his family have put him through.  'Ludo said that getting insulted was a full-time job.  He said that he'd love to do it himself, but he didn't have a gap in his schedule, he needed his sleep, he loved his sleep, he did not want to spend the delicious hours of the night lying there, hating.' (p.174-75)  Sage advice - and another reason why I enjoyed this book: it repeatedly reflected back on me and made me think about the question of how to live, and how to be happy.


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