crap i have reread recently #3

time travelSPOILERS OF COURSE!

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A Wrinkle In Time (L’Engle, 1962):  In times long gone, this was one of my favorite books.  I don’t recall how old I was when I read it, but I’d guess pre- or early teens, barely.  When I found it in my local Little Free Library I grabbed it on a whim to see if it was as good as I remembered it.  The answer is yes and no.  I certainly can see why my younger self loved it as much as she did.  The heroine is one Meg Murry, a girl on the cusp of a difficult adolescence.  She still feels and acts like a kid but her friends are growing up around her and tease her for her rough and tumble ways.  Her scientist father has gone missing and most everyone assumes he’s run off with a woman and Meg has very conflicted feelings about that.  Her youngest brother Charles gives every appearance of being developmentally delayed and she is fiercely protective of him in the face of the usual sort of torment kids subject other kids to.   Meg’s problems seemed an awful lot like mine (minus the missing father and the unusual kid brother):  all gangly arms and legs, social disarray, and emotional immaturity.   Everything was confusing and everything became an enemy.  I retreated to books like this one; Meg blusters through by acting out her anger and fear.

One night, about a year after her father’s disappearance, she and Charles and their mother have a late night snack in their kitchen during a wild storm.  A new and very odd neighbor drops in (literally) and before leaving casually mentions that “there is such a thing as a tesseract,”  a statement that has a very profound effect on Mrs. Murry.  In very short order, Meg, Charles, a neighbor boy named Calvin (who sort of becomes Meg’s chaste love interest), and their three other-worldly neighbors are off on an adventure across time and space to rescue Meg’s dad and save the universe from a dark power.  Along the way Meg meets aliens both scary and kind, faces down implacable evil, and discovers, as all of us do, that there comes a time when we have to rely on ourselves instead of  others.

Will it appeal to kids today?  Hard to say.  Rereading it as an adult was a pleasant trip down memory lane but not much more and I suspect that today’s kids will want something a bit more mature and less simplistic.  On the other hand, there are some complicated themes here:  good vs. evil, conformity vs. individuality, prejudice, sacrifice, self-reliance, maturity.  There’s even a bit of theoretical physics, of the sort that makes the inquisitive child want to learn more (always a good thing).   Meg suffers growing pains, which I think is something all children do.  She’s not a kid anymore but she’s not grown up either.  She’s angry all the time without really being able to articulate why.   She is not always an admirable heroine; she’s self-centered and occasionally whiny and the snit fit she throws when she finally does find her father is classic teenager.   Still, by the end she’s less a child and more a woman and I remember looking forward to her further adventures  (there are four other books, none of which I remember as well as this one).  I’d be most pleased if today’s young women found the book as enjoyable as I did back in the day.

Score:  you can’t go home again.

Possession (Byant, 1990):  I remember reading this book and really liking it, once upon a long time ago.  I can’t really articulate why I decided to read it again.   It just seemed like time.  While it is still an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, I’m sad to say that the tale lost something in the retelling and many of things that captivated me the first time around seemed less magical.  Perhaps I’m just no longer the sort of person who enjoys this sort of thing.

There are four main characters in the novel.  Randolph Henry Ash is a prominent, respected Victorian poet, known for his allegorical nature and mythic poems.  Christabel LaMotte is a less well known poet and contemporary of Ash.  She is unmarried and writes mostly religious poems and children’s stories.  In present time (1980s) Roland Mitchell is an uninspired and not terribly interesting post-doc student working with the world’s foremost Ash scholar.  Both his career and his romantic prospects are dim.  Maud Bailey is a prominent feminist scholar and distant relative of LaMotte.   She spends her academic career writing detailed articles on obscure themes in LaMotte’s work.    One day Roland is sent off to the library to inspect an old volume believed to have belonged to Ash.  Inside its beat up covers he finds two incomplete letters in Ash’s hand, clearly of a more than platonic nature and clearly not addressed to Ash’s wife.   He steals the letters and begins an investigation that eventually leads him to believe that the letters were intended for Christabel LaMotte, a woman with whom Ash had no known connection.  This leads him to Maud and the two embark on a voyage that not only reveals what happened between Ash and LaMotte but also changes their own perspectives on literature, scholarship, and love.  The course of Roland and Maud’s growing affection for each other parallels the long ago romance between the two poets and the ending is sweetly sad, since we know that at least one of these stories cannot end happily.

The novel is cleverly constructed and dense with allusions and references but a bit slow in the beginning.  Byatt possibly indulges overmuch in academic tropes and symbolic names.  Roland’s employer, Dr. Blackadder, is an unpleasant, humorless scholar who has lived and breathed Ash for 30+ years.  His students go on to positions very similar to his own and no doubt produce dour unimaginative students of their own in turn.  Blackadder’s arch rival is a crass American scholar named Mortimer Cropper who curates an Ash collection in the States. He’s personally wealthy, not dependent on grant money or university bean-counters, and rather enjoys flaunting his various pieces of Ash-related bling. Maud’s friend and fellow LaMotte scholar Leonora Stern is a colorful and forthright lesbian who is convinced that LaMotte had a romantic relationship with Blanche Glover.  Beatrice Nest spends her entire academic career editing the journals of Ellen Ash, trying to present her as she was and not as the feminists and modernists wish her to be and gets nothing but ridicule for her pains.  Fergus Wolff, an attractive and dynamic academic rival of Roland’s sleeps his way through his female colleagues (including Maud).  A crotchety landowner is in possession of a trove of newly discovered letters between Ash and LaMotte and the interested parties descend on him like flies on potato salad.  If you’ve spent any time at all in academia of any sort all of these people will seem very familiar to you, as will the stultifying environment in which young scholars try to make their own way without pissing off anyone they need for job references.  The protagonists and supporting characters spend a lot of time talking in sterile academic jargon and imposing their own world views on people long dead.  It is refreshing when the story switches to the flowing poetry and barely restrained passion of the Ash-LaMotte correspondence.

Aside from the complementary (and really obvious) themes of possession and obsession, the novel turns on the consequences of passion, both restrained and free.  In their own time the married Randolph Ash and the quiet spinster Christabel LaMotte could never have any sort of relationship that would not end in scandal and ruin.  We see their romance almost entirely through their letters, which start innocently enough after the two meet at a breakfast party.  They write about poetry, share opinions on literary things, and address each other as friends.  But the tone of the letters soon changes.  Ash begins to write poems for LaMotte, some of which are later recognized as among his finest works, and she breathlessly awaits each installment and frets when she doesn’t hear from him.   She gains the courage to complete her own sensual and strange epic poem.  Eventually we learn that although Ash loves and respects his wife, their marriage is more of a professional partnership and has never been consummated.   We also come to suspect that Blanche Glover, a painter and LaMotte’s long time live-in companion, is desperately in love with LaMotte.   Among these four, every relationship is constrained in some way.  Ash and LaMotte cannot openly love one another and are afraid to even speak the words (their correspondence is masterful in the way it says so little while meaning so much).  Ellen is so guilty over her inability to sleep with her husband that she makes herself into his servant.  Blanche and LaMotte live in a quiet house that fairly seethes with things that will never be said.  When Ash and LaMotte finally allow themselves to express their love it is disastrous for nearly everyone involved.

Roland is the sort of student who thrills to see his hero’s handwriting in the margins of an old book but he is gradually having his deep love for the poetic works of Randolph Henry Ash beaten out of him by the realities of academic life.  He lives with a long-term girlfriend, Val, but they stay together primarily because it is easier than breaking up.  The end of his post-doc is looming and his prospects are bleak.  Maud is a successful and respected LaMotte scholar but her personal life is wrapped up as tight as her golden (and painfully symbolic) hair is in its scarves.   She is in danger of being swallowed up in Leonora’s passionate embrace of the feminine and appears well on her way to spinsterhood.  Maud and Roland’s romance is no less constrained than that of the Victorians, afflicted as they are with the modern belief that love doesn’t exist and that smart people don’t fall into it anyways.  There is no doubt they will eventually fall into bed together; the question is whether they will allow themselves to do more with it than deconstruct it on their way back to their separate lives.

What struck me most about Possession this time through is how badly nearly everyone behaves.  Roland steals primary source material and hides it from his mentor.  Blackadder is a petty tyrant who treats his post-docs abysmally.  George Bailey (this has to be some kind of joke), owner of the family estate where LaMotte lived the last years of her life, is a blustering curmudgeon who threatens people with guns and tries to sell the LaMotte/Ash letters to the highest bidder.  Cropper is a caricature of the ugly American, driving expensive cars, throwing money around, and generally being loud and assertive no matter the situation. Leonora Stern apparently symbolizes the sort of scholar who wrestles the facts of her subjects’  lives into shapes that mirror her own personal and political agendas.   Ash more or less bullies LaMotte into an affair and LaMotte conceals their child from him.  Blanche reads Christabel’s mail and rats her out to Ash’s wife.   Insofar as Roland and Maud are the heroes of the book, rescuing Ash’s and LaMotte’s love from history and thwarting the various mercenary designs held on it by Blackadder, Cropper, Stern, et al., we root for them but beyond that I found myself not caring all that much about their romance.

In the end it was rather sad.  The cleverness, the literary gymnastics, the academic in-jokes, the poetry, the occasional slapstick, the complex interweaving and juxtaposition of past and present, the haggling over letters and persons and narratives, all lead to one fairly obvious conclusion.  None of these people seem even remotely happy, even when they get what they want.  And that’s kind of a bummer.

Score: you can’t go home again.

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~ by gun street girl on December 31, 2013.

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