When I drafted yesterday’s blog I began with this phrase, ‘Elizabeth Smither’s heroine, Lola.’ I stopped and started again, deleting ‘heroine’ and substituting ‘character’. I was wrong. Lola is the heroine. Too many block-busters Harvey. Too much narrative based on cause and consequence. There are other ways of looking at reality. .Poet Louis McNeice summed it up, ‘things being various’. The novelist, biographer, historian, scientist craft to make it containable. But life is bigger than any container humans can devise.
I had fallen victim to a mindset. Lola is indeed the central figure of the novel. Around her the other characters revolve. In fact, the novel is even named after her. She is the heroine. It is my definition, or rather ideal, of heroine that is at fault. Too much ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in my youth. Girls, and boys as well, do not need to be all action. Things happen. We reflect and respond. That is part of life as well as marriage and duels. Sex is not necessarily just action. It’s reaction and inaction..
After a circumscribed life, Lola decides to be more adventurous. But by her nature this exploration of herself is reflective and responsive. For the novel reflects the author, an intellectual poet, greatly skilled with words and a lyric view of the world, a lover of classical music, interested in those unseasonal topics, death and aging, and a humane capacity to appreciate and understand ordinary life.
I was thinking about Chesteron’s prose before I began writing this piece. In contrast with Smither’s it would be easy to label his ‘masculine’ and hers as ‘feminine’. These are both in this context and in many other, pejorative terms. Both these writers embrace paradox but they approach it in completely different styles. Smither, like Russian novelist Turgenev sees the random nature of life’s happenings. But unlike him she doesn’t rail against the injustice and unfairness of life. Rather, it’s something to be analysed, smiled about and appreciated.
Smither’s description of Flannery breastfeeding her child is the best account of this particular human activity I’ve read since Steinbeck’s 'Grapes of Wrath'. That was heroic. This is human, personal, normal. .
Death, grief, mourning, unrequited love and unsatisfactory relationships are essential components of human existence. 'Lola' as a novel puts them up front. But the heroine moves gracefully, if with effort, through them. Most novelists emphasise the bliss, joyous, challenge side of existence, massive events and world-shattering challenges. . Smither finds them in the unexpected coincidences of interaction. A spoilt socialite’s car breaks down. She’s rescued by a playboy-reading truckie. Briefly, the spotlight’s on a lilting unexpected development The successful poet, the master short-story teller shine through.
Lola’s efforts to break free, lead, via the renting of a long-term hotel room, to a change of life-style. That’s heroine territory. It’s not the usual way. Rather than a hurtling plot we are given a series of densely packed occurrences and emotions. They build to a cumulative picture. I feel the richer for having read them. I’m not so much moved as aware that I’ve been given glimpses of deeper perceptions.
It is not a novel about grandeur or brutality. There are no depths of despair. Luigi may look for maxims but they are never adequate. There is eccentricity in the midst of normality. And love, not as maximum passion but as that soothing ingredient that gives spice to daily life which takes place against the back-drop of death.
As you can see I enjoyed 'Lola'. The descriptions of the quartet and their music will linger long. And I've been given a picture of behind the scenes at a funeral parlour that was nearly non-existent before. Cheers, Elizabeth!
I appreciated 'Lola' even more, when my next read was food writer Anna Del Conti’s memoir, 'Risotto with Nettles'. Pedstrian prose with mouth-watering recipes. Comfortably off parents. Italian childhood under Mussolini’s regime. English marriage. Successful career. All Europe to explore. A Portuguese lover. Widowed grandmother now, living with her Dorset daughter and the grandchildren. A full life. But after Smither’s prose, pallid stuff. An account, not an experience.