Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Week Fifty - Jeanette

 The Pursuit Of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)
Recommended by Katherine

When I moved into my present flat (helped by Katherine, as well as Sharron, Nik, Tim, Kathryn, Rupert and the still-to-come Anita) I didn’t have much furniture. What I need, I said to Katherine, is not really a bed or a table. It’s a lovely vintage writing bureau.

‘I’ve got one of those in my garage,’ she said. ‘You can have it if you want.’

Since that beauty took up residence in the corner of my lounge, I cannot imagine life without it. Not having separate sections for creamy high gsm envelopes and the pound-shop jobbies for sending off the council tax? Pure savagery. (That sounds sarcastic if you don’t know me, but if you do, you’ll know how absolutely in earnest I am.) But, more importantly than even the correct ordering of stationery, I cannot imagine life without Katherine as my friend.

Last time I saw her, for a Christmas drink, our natter flitted between the effect of topography upon memory and the pantos we have known and ‘loved’; literary stylings and how Jem and the Holograms dolls were overpriced compared to Sindys. (Plus her husband comes from Norfolk. She’s as wry about the place as I am.)

Katherine is only a bloody qualified librarian, too! That’s the Red Rum (winning horse not backwards prophecy) of literary suggestion, right there. That’s why I wasn’t worried when I picked up The Pursuit Of Love and it had a hot-pink, Sophie Kinsella reader-friendly cover and praise from the Daily Mail on the back. I also wasn’t worried because I knew that Nancy Mitford was big mates with one of my revelations of the year: the prickly prince EvelynWaugh. And I certainly wasn’t worried when I started reading her cut-glass prose.

Over the chimney-piece plainly visible in the photograph hangs an entrenching tool, with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out. It is still covered with blood and hairs, an object of fascination to us children.

The children include our narrator, Fanny, and her cousin (the book’s protagonist) Linda. A dramatic youngster, Linda attempted suicide by yew-berry at the age of ten (because of a dead dog). They both love Oscar Wilde and long for adulthood, because they presume it will be all social whirls and Grand Love.

While Fanny quickly gives up on the latter and settles for the up-down-four-square Alfred, Linda keeps her idealism and it, naturally, leads her to missteps. Seventy years ago, people generally married these missteps. First up for Linda is the Conservative MP, Tony Kroesig, son of the Governor of the Bank of England. I found the characterisation of the Kroesig family brilliant but extremely depressing, because it is exactly analogous to the Tory attitude of today.

The only mental qualities that they respected were those which produced money in substantial qualities, it was their one criterion of success, it was power and it was glory. To say that a man was poor was to label him as a rotter, bad at his job, idle, feckless, immoral.

It doesn’t work out with Tony.

Next, Linda throws herself into marriage with a Communist, Christian. His bad points are of a different hue.

‘I’m always saying to Christian how much I wish his buddies would either brighten up their parties a bit or else stop giving them, because I don’t see the point of sad parties, do you? And left-wing people are always sad because they mind dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly.’

It doesn’t work out with Christian.

Linda’s refusal to settle leads to Paris and to a man named Fabrice (‘she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love’); but, for some of her social circle, her swelling heart doesn’t matter. She should have stuck with Tony or, at a push, Christian. She’s judged as superficial, reckless and selfish, quick to bugger off at the first sign of trouble to look for a pipe dream. Yet, the reader is led to a far kinder conclusion. Linda is pursuing love, and second best is never enough: you’ll do much better, baby, on your own.

Since we’re quoting Madonna, I re-watched Who’s That Girl lately, and it popped into my head while reading The Pursuit Of Love.

Now, I’m making no claims for its cinematic qualities (it’s quite crap). I bring it up as a point of comparison that’s easy to forget when you largely live in a literary fiction and arty movie bubble. At the end of Who's That Girl, Griffin Dunne jilts his dullard fiancée for the unconventional Madge, which is a textbook example of a standard and extremely common dramatic device. From the breezy chimes of Busted’s ‘Crashed The Wedding’ to the more textured The Graduate, those who pursue love (especially by taking drastic action) are treated in one way and one way only. They are rewarded. In real life, they’re generally not. For a start, we usually take the hint that we’re not wanted when our darling gets married to someone else. In popular fiction, the heroes and heroines are so thick-skinned that they see the nuptials simply as another hurdle to leap, and no-one will be upset, or angry that the thousands spunked on a wedding is wasted.

What I really liked about The Pursuit Of Love was that, even while it uses some of the expected structure of romantic comedy, there’s a strong discomfort about happy-ever-after. For when Linda does find love with Fabrice, she is put off by his apparent commitment to someone else (a dead woman: how can anyone compete with that?). It is not at all clear that when Linda finally has her strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness that it will result in anything like a conventional relationship, or even a relationship at all. In this way, it is very similar to the other major work I’ve read on l’amour this year, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love In The Time Of Cholera. Unlike ...Cholera, though, The Pursuit Of Love’s épée to cut through love’s cliché is not philosophical intensity but sharp wit and brutal social observation. It has a light comedic touch and firm location in a contemporary setting.

I think I said all I wanted to say about love in relation to the Marquez work. When I wrote that – my favourite post of the year – I was in the eye of a perfect storm, and that book was my lightning rod. Now it’s Christmas Eve, I have three books left of Two Readers, and a real storm is raging outside, pulling trees from their roots and causing brick walls to tumble down.

            ‘He was the great love of her life, you know.’
            ‘Oh, dulling,’ said my mother, sadly. ‘One always thinks that. Every, every time.’