I read two novels as perfect as the novel can and should be: exhilaratingly intelligent, downright cerebral, and yet strangely knot-in-throat moving. They’re also as unlike as two novels can be and yet, both about turmoil and war, inner and outer, of the historical-literal variety and domestic-lethal one. You don’t have to read the rest of this post, but you should run, don’t linger, to read Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2009) and Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare (1954; reissued by Virago in 1983). Thanks to the Eiger Mönch Jungfrau blog for suggesting the former and the Backlisted podcast for the latter. Linked here, please check them out.
Binet’s HHhH is my favourite kind of novel: heavy on ideas, with a strong voice and compelling narrative. Surprisingly in a French novel, which I tend to associate with Proust’s meandering sentences. And I read it in French, a feat I haven’t attempted in years, but which felt like what I’ve heard people say about riding a bicycle: once you learn, you don’t forget and once you ride after many years away, it comes naturally. It took forever, of course, and Google Translate became my friend, but once I got the rhythm of the language, I could read and read and stop only for the occasional vocabulary word I needed to clarify (what something means in English, though it sounds similar, isn’t necessarily its French nuance). Binet’s novel is somewhat-history-somewhat-novel, at least according to the intrusive narrator, whom I loved, writing a book about the historical assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, SS-man and conceiver of the Final Solution, as vile and unredeemable a human being as ever walked the earth.
Jenkins’ novel as far from Binet’s as it’s possible to get is the story of the dissolution of a marriage, of beautiful, aims-to-please Imogen Gresham to barrister Evelyn, as Evelyn gives himself over to fall in love with their frumpy neighbour, Blanche Silcox. It reminded me of a French film, Trop Belle Pour Toi, where a husband, played by Gerard Depardieu, abandons his beautiful, accomplished wife, played by Depardieu’s real-life-then-wife (who would stay with this guy?) Carole Bouquet, for his homely secretary. Novel and film are quite different, with the French film depicting how messy and ludicrous the situation is, how beset and foolish Depardieu in particular appears. Jenkins’ novel, not that at all, cool, Apollonian to Trop Belle Pour Toi‘s Dionysian ethos, beautifully controlled prose and characters so nuanced, so compelling that it left me gasping thinking about “winners” and “losers,” “hares” and “tortoises” and, in the end, left only with the realization it’s a novel I’ll be thinking about for a long time. And possibly even rereading (something I do rarely).
Some of the details…
One of the things I loved about Binet’s novel is the narrator’s struggle between staying true to the “facts” of the story (not hard) and the literary techniques necessary to tell the story, which may and do “imagine” events and scenes and characters’ inner worlds without exacting access to them. The factual story was fascinating, but so was this Jacob-and-the-Angel struggle with the imagination as our sole recourse to recreating the past: even writing “straight” history necessitates this. We are, says Binet, the celebrators as well as the victims of the imagination in any act of embodiment of past, present, future, in writing.
Equally worthy was Binet’s account of horrific events making people and events come alive, at times, moving me to tears: the story of the Ukrainian soccer team who refused to “lose” the game to the Nazi team and was executed at Babi Yar, the families torn asunder, the horror and pity of swathes of Eastern European Jews killed so brutally. Finally, the traitor, with echoes of Judas, who betrays the Czech and Slovak soldiers who, in the end, succeed in assassinating Heydrich; the final word goes to those who helped them and suffered the worst of the Nazi reprisals. The voice is at times elegiac and at others, ironically, sharply, bitterly condemnatory and the two merge to give a clear and important picture:
Ceux qui les ont aidés directement ou indirectement ne sont pas aussi connus et, extenué par les efforts désordonnés que j’aurai produits pour rendre hommage à tous ces gens, je tremble de culpabilité en songeant aux centaines, aux milliers de ceux que j’ai laissés mourir anonymes, mais je veux penser que les gens existent même si on n’en parle pas.
There is a kind of relief in this voice, that we don’t have to utter every name of the innocent and brave; they exist, he says, beyond words, in their virtue and sacrifice, in their choices. Others, in ironic infamy: “De juillet 1942 à octobre 1943, plus de 2 millions de Juifs et près de 50 000 Roms vont périr dans le cadre de ce programme. Le nom de code donné au programme est Aktion Reinhard.” Words, says Binet’s narrator, aren’t necessary to the innocent and sacrificed, but words can ironically condemn evil, forever. And, Heydrich, as one who doesn’t take his place in infamy as much as others, Binet’s novel-history ensures.
Jenkins is, above all, a prose stylist: every word, every sentence, every paragraph flows, naturally and beautifully. It is the first thing I noticed about her novel, but not the only; secondly, the brilliant characterization; and, thirdly, the juxtaposition of society and nature. Unlike Binet’s obviously clear lines of good and evil, Jenkins doesn’t portray villains and victims: instead, Imogen, the wife betrayed, exhibits flaws which render her culpable; and Evelyn, though feminists would see him as a symbol of toxic masculinity (indeed, Callil’s “Afterwords” argues so), appeared if not sympathetic, at the very least, sensible, forthright, vibrant. Blanche is an interesting character in that she is uninteresting. Imogen is thoughtful, hesitant in her actions, because she “overthinks” them, in our pop-psych parlance, but Blanche, well, she forges ahead, a woman of action to Imogen’s woman of sensibility.
We are never privy to anyone’s thoughts but Imogen’s; we are also never privy to Blanche, not even her dialogue, which tends to be halting and monosyllabic. (There are interesting secondary characters: the doctor, Paul, who’s in love with Imogen, but married to another; Evelyn and Imogen’s precocious, mulish, brilliant young son, Gavin and his needy, pasty, likeable best friend, neighbour Tim Leeper; even the maid, Mrs Malpas is fully formed and compelling.) In the end, amidst the disparate characters and the turn their lives take as Evelyn and Blanche fall in love, I was left with the thought this is a novel about how everyone is wrong, wrong in their choice of life-partner, wrong in their choices period; and, more importantly, except for the dowdily irrepressible Blanche, always end up with the wrong person. The fluidity of desire and attachment is fickle and can and does change momentarily, but its power is destructive and the quietist Paul and Imogen, who, as Paul exhorts Imogen, must “endure,” are going to be swept up, under, and over the force of an Evelyn and Blanche. One perfect instance that merges character, nature, and sensibilities is:
When they looked at buildings and works of art she and Evelyn were of one mind but their attitude to nature, in particular to the countryside, was not the same. Evelyn was deeply moved by natural beauty; one of his reasons for choosing a house in Berkshire was that he loved the landscape with its chalk uplands, bare except for the groups of beech trees that stood like sacred groves; but he looked at the scene not only as a devotee but as an economist. He scolded Imogen for any admiration of natural beauty which disregarded usefulness and sense, for admiring dead trees that raised their arms spectre-like against dark woods, or poppies or cornflowers among wheat, or broad verges and overhanging hedgerows that took up space which should have been under cultivation; he was irritated by her sympathy with the travelling deer that ate the young shoots in plantations and with the rabbits and squirrels that every sensible person regarded as pestilent.
This passage comes early, foreshadowing the rift that will grow and grow. It’s perfect when, a few paragraphs later, Evelyn and Imogen hear far-off shots and Evelyn comments, ” ‘Blanche Silcox is shooting something,’ said Evelyn. ‘I hope it’s squirrels.’ ” Now, as someone who has a LOT of squirrels and considers them vermin, I can’t help but agree with Evelyn and the absent squirrel-murderess. More importantly, here we have, in miniature, Jenkins utterly brilliant ability to illustrate everything that separates Evelyn and Imogen and everything that will join him to Blanche, dumpy, frumpy, homely to Imogen’s elegance, grace, and beauty.
It’s a novel about the clash of sensibility against judiciousness (it’s not “accidental” that Evelyn is a barrister) and, please note, neither has any negative connotations; they are, as Evelyn notes, “differently” “orientated”, but they do NOT a good marriage make. Jenkins adds evocative ripples to the scene by having Imogen remember the retreating German soldiers’ message to the Allies (of course still vibrant in 1954) “we’ll be back”. So Blanche’s squirrel shooting: she’ll be back and the reader’s final view of Blanche, which I thought brilliant, was of her popping a “marron glacé” into her mouth as Evelyn, now free of Imogen, enters the room where she sits. On every page, the “sound and fury” of the characters’ lives gives way to nature’s abiding presence, serene, beautiful, and indifferent.
Hey everyone, on a personal note, I noticed this is my 700th post. Thank you for reading the blog and for whatever “gods may be” for my “unconquerable” blogging “soul.”