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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Terrifyingly Friendly

The terror of Compton-Burnett’s Manservant and Maidservant is not the terror of tyranny, as the blurb by Edward Sackville-West supposes, and the cover photographs of Rachel Whiteread’s negative casts of internal spaces are much too simplistic metaphors for the content of Ivy’s novels. The tyrannical father presiding over the social space of the Victorian family unit may be the figure drawn by the novel, but it is drawn with mirrors, colored glass, and light, not rigid plaster casts, and the canvas is not framed by an era.

Months ago, a co-worker asked me what I’d been reading lately, and I mentioned Muriel and Ivy. Recently, the same coworker asked me again. She said she’d read a few pages of one of them—couldn’t remember which—and found it much too confusing, that she’d had to reread those two or so pages to understand what was even happening. Ah; Ivy, I said, it must be Ivy. She should try Muriel, I said. Muriel goes down much easier. But Ivy! Yes, she can be obtuse—I told the anecdote of the editor who, nonplussed, explained to the novelist that she had forgotten to indicate that a character was talking on the telephone, to which she reacted by adding a ‘, he said.’

It is the terror and the comfort of relationships. The title of this book is mostly puzzling, until the last chapter. Until the last chapter, the servants, while prominent, do not reveal much.

The guest seemed uncertain of her purpose in coming, and he [Bullivant] resolved her doubt.
“You bethought yourself of our situation, Miss Buchanan, and came to say the word of a friend.”
“And so did the action of one,” said Cook.
Miss Buchanan sat down, as if doing so meant consent, and in her case it did.

The terror is balanced by its comforts, our submission to it, and the weight it takes from us. Bullivant has served for decades, as has Cook, and each tries to teach, respectively, the young George and Miriam the way of servitude. George gags on his medicine, and Miriam seems not ever to have had to think about swallowing.

There is a one-star review of this book on Amazon. The disappointed customer’s most specific complaint, as I remember, is that the children do not speak at all like children. But the adults, for that matter, do not speak like adults. No one speaks like this. The characters operate only in their relationship to each other, and their speech reflects this. Every word (and every silence) affects the social setting, and so explaining what a character meant, or describing their reactions, when they are the expected ones, is pointless. This is the foundation of the strangeness of the children’s language. The common is common and assumed; the expected reactions of children are expected, and so Ivy need not bother with telling you of them. It is the uncommon that Ivy deals in, and the extremity of her setups—the introduction by Diane Johnson is right about Horace’s superior villainy, if not much else—produces such uncommonness with frightening ease (but so do most situations we face, and we rely on social standards to pass over it). When George, late in the novel, makes a desperate, direct assertion of hypocrisy on his superior’s part, the response is laughter unexpected by all present (even by the two laughing, I believe). Where most novelists would give at least a sentence, if not a paragraph or a page, to the feeling of shameful inconsequence such a reaction would prompt in the accuser, Ivy does not even mention George. He does not reappear until the moment has passed and the topic changed.

Cousin Mortimer may be the funniest character I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

‘You told me not to write you, but I am never so malicious as to take people at their word. It is almost like telling them that they have made their bed and must lie on it. Thank you very much for your letter. It has broken my heart, but that is the natural result of the use of words. When human speech developed, it was a foregone thing. It allowed people to communicate their thoughts, and what else could come of that? And putting them on paper renders it a certainty. People can keep on returning to them.’

The “made their bed” bit is piquant  because Mortimer has been excommunicated, if you will, and resides in a room in a boarding house arranged for him by Bullivant. A middle-aged bachelor, older than his brother Horace, Mortimer is dependent, and yet Horace would be nothing to depend on were it not for his money by marriage. Mortimer, unlike most,  responds to his situation with wry acceptance (‘Thank you for your letter; it has broken my heart’). He cannot go anywhere but where he is put, so he do not go anywhere, and so he is amused by where he is.

It is one type of tyranny to expect all should act like George. It is another to expect all should act like Miriam. It is another to expect all should to act like Bullivant. It is another to expect all should act like Mortimer.

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A Woman and Her Narrator

I have not withered out and blown away.  For the past few months, I have been indulging a visual life, and after brief strife to say it, began to indulge the averbal nature of it.  Let it suffice for now to say that it involves, in roughly this chain of order, painting and its texture, representations of the clothed (or un-clothed) body, Edouard Vuillard’s women and their dresses, fashion, sight and touch, Blanchot’s notion of the immediate and the prevalence of sight and light in metaphors for knowledge and thought, the comparable ubiquity of language and dress in human culture and their evaluation based on utility and/or appeal, as well as their unavoidable influence, and is a spider-legged, sprawling mess that resists all modulation into writing.  Aren’t I the bee’s oh-so-intellectual knees.

I am only this week toeing the waters of words again, both as writer and reader.  Having been keeping my eye out for any Ivy Compton-Burnett book, I finally found one in Green Apple Books: A House and Its Head, published in the NYRB Classics series.  It is a densely beautiful book, and refreshing to read someone for whom every word counts because every word cannot but count and therefore might as well not; they cannot possibly be counted.  I have never read anything which so successfully conjures the half-meanings that crowd the edges of dialogue, and admirably so in that Compton-Burnett does so without recourse to narration.  Whereas most narrators, it seems, attempt to shade shadows into the rough outline of dialogue, this narrator does not clarify what her characters could not convey in their spoken words.  After all, one cannot narrate without needing a narrator, so instead, the speech and its narration end up being wry comments on each other: what little narration there is, beyond speech tags, often mockingly doubles the line of dialogue it frames.  This calls attention to either the mundanity of speech or the fecklessness and absurdity of narration:

“It has been so terrible to be able to do nothing: I have felt so helpless,” said Mrs. Bode, in some consternation at having been unable to prevent Ellen’s death.

Each line of dialogue strikes its antecedent, and shale flints scatter from both stones. (Yes, I am aware of the oxymoron.)  I am too lazy to type it out, but you should know that the the book begins with a quarrel over breakfast, and then read from “Yes” to “no reply,” across the page break from 67 to 68.  Of course, the careful weight one must apply to wring out all the inferences (that are often only revealed by a response to the statement) is balanced by levity: this is also one of the funniest books I’ve read in a while, in that delightfully understated English style of humor:

“There will be a great blank in our midst [now that Ellen is dead],” said Mrs. Bode.
“Yes, Mother dear, but that goes without saying.”
“And like many things that go without saying,” said Florence, “may truly be said.”
“That is so, Mrs. Smollett: I feel duly snubbed.”

Even the simple “said Florence,” placed so awkwardly as to interrupt the flow of the sentence and flush the mental pronoun from the palate, forcing the reader to summon again the thing which need not be said, works double duty.  Or there is:

“Ellen’s family! What a beautiful and intimate sound! That is how I shall think of them.  I shall not feel it presumptuous [to use her Christian name], kept to the confines of my own mind.”
“It will be narrowly restricted,” agreed her brother.

The polite Southerner in me has a deep and abiding love for the obliging insult.

Between Muriel Spark, Clarice Lispector, and Ivy Compton-Burnett, all of whom I have read only in the past few months, this looks to be the year of seriously humorous writers.

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