Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Private Life

Two early 21st century snippets to precede a blog about the early 20th century. Anne’s bought a bunch of Iceland poppies – such delicate flowers and colours. A touch of grace in our lounge. On today’s walk – in full sunshine – I was sitting on the seat outside the dairy when two young mothers – they looked hardly out of school – went past pushing babies in their prams/strollers, (whatever is the correct word). One said, ‘I’m off to New York tomorrow.’ ‘For how long?’ the other queried. ‘A week’. The tone was blasé.

An unusual courtship followed by a unusual marriage - the material of many a novel. I finished Jane Smiley’s ‘Private Life’ yesterday. There are books I burn through. This was one - intimacy made inclusive, rejection made ridiculous, loss made limitless. Involved in the various adventures of Margaret Early I was vicariously involved in her life, angry at her husband’s treatment of her, delighted at her odd show of spirit, pleased when she found solace in nature; and when that failed her, the power and longevity of art. In a loveless world art promised longevity.

San Francisco took on more literary shape for me. Like Dickens' London, various parts of it’s location became fixed in my mental landscape. And the events in which the novel took place are a chronicle of the time. The earthquake, the first world war, the Spanish flu, the Russian Revolution, the great depression, the Japanese invasion of China and Pearl Harbour backdrop the narrative. .

It’s the ‘Middlemarch’ theme. Apparent intellectual husband turns out shallow and sad – in this case though ‘bad’ and ‘mad’ as well, an egomaniacal and obsessive paranoid. The ultimate betrayal of Margaret caught me completely by surprise. This was an act beyond comprehension. Yet, it rang true – it was in character. Absolutely frightening such cruelty and injustice.

Part of the appeal of the novel was the lack of sentimentality. Reassurance isn’t available. Yet Margatet’s essential wholesomeness and goodness shine through. She’s entitled to be bitter. I longed for her to round on her husband but she left it too late. And that’s how it would have been given the portrayal of her character and circumstance.

And so I come to my niggle. The ending! The novel has one scene too many. I’ve re-read the last few pages several times. Was I missing something? Probably. But it seems to me to add nothing. I don’t mind a tapering off. I don’t mind loose ends. But in this case the tale and the tension had closed on the previous scene. If it had been my book I’d have put the beginning sequence at the end. It revealed the consequences of her husband’s actions.

In those times if you were a woman you married and then you made the best you could of the bargain you’d bought. Marriage was a lottery. A divorce was possible for adultery, but not for unhappiness. Things happen to Margaret - like the young coots she watches with pleasure - but she is at the mercy of events. Sensitivity and docility are not enough. The account of the death of her baby I found incredibly moving – on a par with Tess’s. That’s high praise from me.

If my comments put you off reading the book I’ll have done it a disservice. It’s a great read. I’d commend it as one of the best recent novels. It’s deeply moving and the central character is a vivid depiction of a certain type of ‘everywoman’. I have a yardstick for a book. Am I richer for the read? In this case, miles so.

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