Sunday, December 13, 2009

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart

How often do you get a chance to read a novel set on the island of Corfu? If only libraries and bookstores, with all their so clever Dewey decimal systems and alphabetical orders, would arrange novels like this: all those set in Corfu, for example, or all those set in T'ang China, or all those that happen to have as a main character some extremely important person (now nearly forgotten) of a bygone age: Robert Grosseteste, say.

Mary Stewart's This Rough Magic (1964) is also a nice example of a certain kind of novel that I like to look for, that I'd like to see categorized officially somehow too, but whose characteristics I can't quite put my finger on: the mid-twentieth century women's novel which, in its depictions of men's and women's relations especially, throws off the safe comforting cloak of historical fiction, ignores what seems the careful prissiness of earlier, still-corseted decades, but hasn't yet descended to the monotonous, sentimental trauma memoirs that so many (women-governed) publishing firms and book clubs love now. I'm talking about novels of the 1950s and '60s in which, for one thing, the horrors of two world wars loom only a short time in the past; even though the plot line may have nothing to do with war, the characters tend to be sadder but wiser, about something. About everything. There will be no Aunt Jane in these novels, justly worried about chaperoning a man and woman on a buggy ride to the state fair. The smell of exhaust and the roar of an engine permeates the mid-century women's novel. Our heroine drives her own car, makes her own vacation plans, and talks frankly with sisters and friends about man, and in-laws, and bed. When she's distraught she doesn't whisper a corseted "profanity of no uncertain meaning" (Gone With The Wind), but rather says "Hell. Hell. Hell." And yet our heroine is literate, too. More modern (often women) novelists tend not only to be sub-literate, but to show a horrible inclination to that worst of (female) failings, the tendency to see everything as personal. I never joined another book discussion group again after having to read, in the long forgotten Ellen Foster (by Kaye Gibbons, the dernier cri in new fiction ten years ago), that the Civil War was "a war about how we should feel about each other."

Oh, really? Was it? The characters in This Rough Magic -- I dare say, the author of This Rough Magic -- are no such fools. As a matter of fact the finest scene comes toward the end, when the heroine, alone with the villain, gives him a dressing down and really psychologically nails what both sheer evil and interior twistedness are. She is aware that large chunks of life have nothing to do with how we all feel. And the author is -- should I say, because she is? -- literate. The plot of the novel actually hinges on what we would call a close reading of The Tempest, so close that every chapter opens with a pertinent quote from the play. The Tempest is set on Corfu. We learn why Prospero may have a lot in common with Corfu's patron saint, the similarly named Spiridion, and there's a great deal about Prospero drowning his books, and giving up the practice of "this rough magic," while the characters in the middle of a romantic suspense story also hunt for important documents hidden in undersea caves.

A few plot devices are a bit cheesy, to use the modern term. Let's just say they involve a friendly dolphin, and leave it at that. The romance is not terribly convincing. Once we figure out which man is good, the cheerful, good-looking blond or the dark brooding recluse, no further sparks fly. Our author's interest lies much more with the world-famous, elderly actor holed up in the castle, who serves as the source for all our information about The Tempest and who is also the link to the heroine's professional world (she's a struggling young actress, come to Corfu on holiday to visit her pregnant, rich sister and to forget her last flop).

If you have no head for inventing fiction (as I haven't), a book like This Rough Magic is at once awe inspiring and disappointing. I am awed to see the effort, the thought that has gone into planning this: no one described it all better than Jane Austen, in her famous "defense of the novel" paragraph from Northanger Abbey:

" 'Oh! it is only a novel!' " replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. 'It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda'; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language."
Indeed, it is "only" that, and yet, I'm disappointed too in that I can see the cranking machinery behind the scenes. How do you make a novel? Remember, a novel has to be a certain size in the hand, a certain thickness in pages. Partly, you achieve that size and fill up those pages by figuring out the plot, but partly, you achieve it by describing in unneeded detail a variety of scenes chosen almost at random -- a car trip, a walk to the beach on this day but not that (so that you can witness the actions of this suspicious character but not that one), a long, long near-drowning the precise nautical details of which, after all, no first person narrator could ever plausibly have been expected to remember. In one of his many books, the centenarian colossus-scholar Jacques Barzun acknowledged that any artist eventually has to make some decisions which perhaps are random, if he wants to carry on and finish any work of art at all. And the finished work of art is of course different from what it might have been if the artist had made other decisions. Let's skip the drowning scene, she might have said to herself, and cut the car-trip scene from five pages to two. The reader doesn't need to know precisely when the villain shifted from this gear to that. And that finished, different work of art is not necessarily better. Not necessarily perfect, utterly the best it could have been.

Is it only the greatest artists who are able to tell when they have done that, when they have made all the best decisions -- and then are able to stop? Are they the ones who produce art you want to go back to? "An artist cannot do anything slovenly," Jane Austen wrote in one of her letters. Shall I go back and re read This Rough Magic, or anything more by Mary Stewart?

Possibly. Austen further wrote that all novelists' "productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world," and she was right about that. This Rough Magic is pleasurable -- how often do you read smart, mid-'60s novels set in Corfu? -- even if it does not provide the "heavy lifting" that Professor Barzun says is needed to keep the intellect fully in shape. Perhaps we had better move on to The Tempest, actually.

Image from alternativeef.