Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” — owner of private library in Mary Swann
Dear friends and readers,
I found myself remembering Carol Shields’s Mary Swann the other day. On Sharp-l (a list-serv devoted to book history) someone asked for the titles of novels which contain our favorite fictional libraries. After several citations of Eco’s Name of the Rose, people began to cite all sorts of books and I thought of Mary Swann.
In brief, Sarah Mahoney is a feminist professor English who discovers
an obscure Canadian woman writer named Mary Swann. Swan nbecomes a cult figure for other careerist women, feminists, her texts sought by book collectors. Inside the novel (as in A. S. Byatt’s Possession or Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You) the real story of Swann emerges, quite different from what the 20th century readers are imagining for her. A mystery or gothic patterning emerges. All Swann’s papers were slowly disappearing throughout the book and they have to be tracked down and put together to make sense again.
Could it be her murderous husband come back to life to destroy them? What happened to Mary Swann is she was brutally hacked to death by a dull dense exploitative husband after she tried to give a bag of her poems to someone; he then shot himself through the head. She had been a badly abused housewife. We are left without being quite sure, but I think (without giving this away too much) instead of this we are given hints it’s someone who could make money out of creating a mystery over these books in a nasty sordid sort of way. This someone is someone we meet early, someone the heroine goes to back with (faute de mieux), a bookseller, bookstore owner, semi-publishing type.
Along the way we read an inset epistolary novel. And it there we encounter this library. An elderly man who has accumulated an enormous library over the course of his life gets a letter where a book publishers offers to buy some of it or has someone who will buy a portion. It’s obvious to the writer books = money. The character writes back: “Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” The man has no room for them in his house. He is near retirement and soon will have a much smaller income. He must sell. He has of course the disillusioning experience of discovering the books are in money worth so much less than he had thought.
To him his books had been a sanctuary, they protect, surround, reassure. So too to me. They shut you off and bring you in. Chantal Thomas in Soufrir captures the atmosphere of this section: “Aussi triste que soit un livre, il n’est jamais aussi triste que la vie.” As sad as a book may be, it’s never as sad as life.”
The story then seems suddenly simply to cease. In a way it’s Radcliffian & Nancy Drew stuff: a supernatural explained away so we are after all safe. The real threat of the unknown is shut off. Quiet is the tone of the whole book. Laid back, understated.
The same techniques are found in other of her (once you think about them) devastating novels. I’ve not read them all, only Unless, The Stone Diaries, and her life of Jane Austen, which I admit I was disappointed by. Let me confine myself to Unless (less well-known than Stone Diaries)
Rita Winters’s 19 year old daughter, Nora, has taken to spending her days sitting as a beggar on the corner of a sidewalk with a sign on her which says “goodness.” Winters tries not to think what the girl does at night to get along, where she sleeps, who might hurt her or how she lives on the streets. In a subjective monologue Rita is tells of her life as a writer (the back story) and mother of 3 daughters, wife of a physician (front story) in a lovely old house in Ontario. We learn everything but what led to this shock — her daughter’s life choice — except she keeps saying something terrible happened, some loss, which has completely alter her life from one of shallow happiness to this one of grief. We learn how she came to be a major translator of the memoirs of a French scholar-poet-academic whom Rita knew at college.
More interesting than this story matter are Rita’s meditations. These are superb: on for example the history of a house we move into and whose previous residents left traces. In a quiet unassuming way Shields writes of depths of feeling with sharp insights and categories whose value one feels in retrospect. She had a wonderful monologue on living in an old house and the meaning of lived-in occupied-with-memories space. She thinks about how she experiences sex and produces a modern graphic account that makes me uncomfortable but is sadly-comic spot on.
On the word on her daughter’s sign. Rita claims “Unless is almost untranslatable. It can be a pain in the neck to translate in French or Italian, especially in older texts. For French it’s a construction: “a moins que.” The difficulty is similar to translating “I like.” In French one does not say “I like;” one says “it pleases me. But you can translate it. In demotic modern French “unless” is “sauf,” “sinon,” and “excepte” (accent on that e), except that these are not as close equivalents: “sinon” means “if not,” “sauf” really means “except” or something (not sure) “lest,” and “excepte” is except.
Now Italian hasn’t this demotic alternative (which come from English — Franglais is a living language): unless you have to reconstruct the sentence: “a meno che,” “salvo che,” except that “salvo que” means except, and there’s this negative that is necessary. So “Unless he comes” is “A meno che egli non venga ….” There’s also “eccetto que ..” — I think all these require the “non” and present subjunctive tense. Slightly archaic you see.
In Latin there does not seem to be this difficulty as “unless” is “nisi” or “nisi forte,” except I have no good feel for this language anymore (never did) so don’t know how accurate or close “nisi” is.
In my thesaurus (I use a thesaurus to understand words rather than a
dictionary — I have a French thesaurus. “unless” is given phrase equivalents not a single word. So we have either stilted words like “conditionally” & “provided that” or “if — so be,” and ” in such a contingency.” There is also the use of the phrase, “except that,” & older feeling words like “save” (“save that”) and “barring.” Probably at one time an English speaker might use the subjunctive.
The theme is then “conditionally.” Nothing absolute exists in the world and the daughter can’t understand that. Do not all people promise things conditionally. I know some vows are expressed absolutely, but (as Sondheim says about getting married), it’s a pretty lie (in that song, “I’m not getting married today …”) Parents say they love unconditionally and try to tell themselves they do and act that way insofar as they understand perhaps, but if we really pay attention, we’ll find there’s no unconditional attachment there either. All relationships must be worked out continually too.
Each of the book’s chapters, like the novel itself, is titled with the sort of words or phrases that Reta calls “little chips of grammar (mostly adverbs or prepositions) that are hard to define, since they are abstractions of location or relative position, words like therefore, else, other, also, thereof, theretofore, instead, otherwise, despite, already and not yet.”
Linda Miller (from Salon):
Eventually, Reta comes to agree with the formidable French intellectual whose multi-volume memoir she has spent many years translating: “Norah has simply succumbed to the traditional refuge of women without power: she has accepted in its stead complete powerlessness, total passivity, a kind of impotent piety.”
Reta takes to writing letters complaining to all sorts of people that they never mention women writers or women achievers get angrier & angrier; she accuses them of helping to form a world her daughter can only reject, although she never loses a wry self-awareness about how badly she’s coming across. “Probably you will dismiss this as a crank letter from one of those women who go around begging to be offended,” she writes. (She never mails the letters, by the way.)
In the meantime, Reta’s life goes on, sometimes absurdly so. “My daughter is living like a vagabond on the streets of Toronto, but even so I had to have four yards of screened bark mulch delivered to the house this morning, $141.91, including haulage,” begins one chapter, an acute summation of the way existence indiscriminately combines the tragic and the mundane. Reta’s longtime editor dies; a preposterous new one is assigned to her second novel, a sequel, but she muddles along nevertheless, concocting the further romantic adventures for her characters.
As the crisis with Norah moves toward a resolution, Reta’s “loss” … turns out to be beside the point. When we finally learn why Norah became a beggar, the truth is not at all what her mother had thought. By then, though, Reta has already asked “How can [Norah] go on living her life knowing what she knows, that women are excluded from greatness, and most of the bloody time they choose to be excluded?” and the rage she allowed herself to feel only on behalf of her daughter can’t be tidily stowed away again.
Shields does suddenly account for Nora’s staged trauma with a specific incident. It’s not persuasive; a larger complaint is to produce this kind of accounting for Nora’s behavior is to diminish Shields’s paradigm and book. And so we have another version of the Radcliffian punt, but not before we have had a dark quiet but utterly believable journey.
Many-souled is a phrase that comes from Margaret Atwood’s obiturary and appreciation of Shields’s work. Like Anne Tyler, there’s been no movie made from them. Carol Shields’ novels remind me of Anne Tyler’s and Bobbie Anne Mason’s. Mason has had one novel filmed (In Country) for commercial theaters; Shields and Tyler have had only TV movies (or documentaries). I’ve blogged about Mason but I don’t remember talking about Tyler. Another time I’ll go over my favorite of hers, The Amateur Marriage. All are “under the sign of Austen.”