The Senator’s Wife

As some of you may already know, I really like Sue Miller. There aren’t so very many literary writers out there who are able, or indeed prepared, to take on the deeply entrenched ideologies that govern a woman’s life. But Miller’s territory, at least in the novels by her that I’ve read so far, has been firmly grounded in the vexed question of what it means for a woman to be ‘good’. Being a good girl is one of the great guiding principles for women, one they either have to submit to or rebel against, but Sue Miller’s characters are interesting for the way they eschew either end of the spectrum to settle for awkward negotiations in the grey area in between, trying to follow their authentic desires in a way that doesn’t overturn the rules or hurt anybody. And what’s always interesting and provocative about Miller’s writing is that she suggests such a pathway simply isn’t possible.

The Senator’s Wife is a story that juxtaposes two marriages, one at its hesitant beginning, the other at its more philosophical end. Meri and her new husband, Nathan, happen to move next door to an elderly woman, Delia, who is married to the one-time famous senator, Tom Naughton. Being a professor of history and politics at the nearby college, Nathan is starry eyed about the neighbours, but it’s Meri who strikes up a close friendship with Delia, charmed and soothed by the older woman’s good humour, her generosity, her welcoming nature. Meri is one of Miller’s young women scarred by a loveless childhood, and she is, by contrast, uneasy with just about everything in her life. Prickly, insecure and just a teeny bit vindictive, Meri’s worst qualities have been brought to the surface by the upheaval of a move and a marriage, both of which have compromised her autonomy. She is drawn to Delia for the older woman’s ability to make sense of life, and to find the inner resources to respond with grace to all it brings.

We find out from the start of the novel that Delia has had plenty of practice in making compromises. Tom Naughton, who is suspiciously absent from her home, has been separated from her for years, after a string of infidelities. But Delia, with her gentle, forgiving nature, loves him still, and over the years they have remained friends and lovers, much to the chagrin of her children. When Delia is away in her second home in France, Meri checks the house in her absence and commits the indiscretion of reading Delia’s private correspondence, and the story of their marriage falls into her lap. She isn’t appalled by it, but fascinated. It seems to Meri that Delia has somehow managed a life that’s been vivid and engaged and full of romance. Everything about Delia’s world, from her errant but charismatic husband to her beautifully arranged house looks like it might contain a lesson for Meri, if she only knew how to emulate.

But then both women have to face up to significant challenges, Meri with motherhood, and Delia with caring for a sick husband, and what has been a supportive relationship between the women takes an unexpected and destructive turn.

It would be too easy to see this novel in black and white as a clash between the good and loving Delia and the needy, insecure Meri. I think it’s more accurate to see Miller suggesting that both women are perverse in their desires. Meri doesn’t want what she is supposed to want – the lovely house, the new baby, the ambitious husband all turn her into a ghost of herself, over-extended, frightened and closed-up. Delia, by contrast, wants what she shouldn’t want, the husband who has wronged her so many times that in the eyes of the world he no longer deserves her. I think the story only works when the reader has some sympathy for Meri in her plight, bewildered and isolated in new motherhood, and when we see something oddly possessive about Delia’s behaviour towards her ill husband. Then the women’s fates can be understood to be finely balanced. By the end of the story, Miller has us troubled in our sympathy for both women; it seems wrong that culture should reproach them for their authentic feelings and force them into adopting orthodox responses, and yet those feelings lead them into some decidedly dodgy situations.

For we can also see this novel as a tale of fine women made messy by their need for male attention, by their imperious desires. The sexual instinct is often pronounced in Miller’s characters; she presents it as what is most genuine and often most rewarding in relationships. But it is also the need that leads women to commit their worst errors. Miller is obdurate: the erotic is a girl’s best friend, but it can make her behave like a demon. And the attachment to the man is repeatedly what comes first in her women’s lives, beyond their relationship with their children, and well beyond their friendships with one another.

The back of my book’s cover suggests this is a good book for a book club discussion, but I’m not so sure it wouldn’t lead to a fraught evening. I’d still recommend it, though. I really enjoyed it, as an intriguing and challenging book that asks uncomfortable questions, and as a narrative that is consistently well-written, engaging and elegant.

On Penelope Fitzgerald

I wasn’t in the most fabulous mood already when I arrived at the university library yesterday morning to find that half the car park had been cordoned off with newly laid bollards and cycle lanes. Only a thin strip of parking spaces remains, wholly insufficient for a space that was not sufficient to begin with. As it was Saturday morning outside of term time, I found the only space left, but when I went to check my books in I couldn’t resist (although I knew better, really) asking the staff about it.

‘People used to park all over the place. In front of the steps and alongside the flower beds. It was terrible.’

‘That’s because there’ve never been enough parking spaces.’

‘Ooh no, but the people who parked here weren’t proper library users. We had people leave their cars here and go shopping in town all day.’

‘We used to have a barrier system, and we collected tokens when we left the library that raised the barrier.’

‘That was years ago now.’

‘Yes, but it meant that only library users could park here.’

‘We had problems with the barrier system also. People got stuck at the barrier because they hadn’t used the library and couldn’t get out.’

‘Surely then you could embarrass them and fine them and that would solve the problem? Why can’t we have the barrier back?’

‘Oh no, we had no option to do what we did. We’ve no legal obligation to provide parking. The Bodleian in Oxford doesn’t have any parking at all. Really, you should have seen it, so dangerous with cars parked everywhere. And people who’d leave them here all day and go into town.’

‘You’re hardly going to prevent those people still parking here. You’re just reducing the number of spaces further for genuine library customers. Why can’t we have the barrier back?’

‘Really, we couldn’t have done anything else…’

The younger man who hadn’t spoken til now added ‘They did look into a barrier but it was a bit expensive.’

More expensive than a fancy tarmac job and at least fifteen cast iron bollards? I wouldn’t mind so much if we’re all supposed to be going green, but out the back of the library there’s a huge car park for staff. With a very forbidding barrier. I wondered about asking whether they’d like to give up some of their spaces to library users, but it wasn’t worth it. I went and collected my books in a very dark frame of mind, lightened only by thinking which of my blogging librarian friends I would like to see over in the UK, giving our staff a lesson in customer service, and by the thought that Cambridge might be turning into an outlying state of pre-revolutionary Russia, as described by Penelope Fitzgerald in her utterly brilliant novel, The Beginning of Spring.

It’s Penelope Fitzgerald I really want to talk about. Fitzgerald is one of those authors who hide on people’s bookshelves, looking shy and insubstantial, but she is arguably one of the great contemporary stylists. She was a late starter in writing, producing a biography of painter Edward Burne Jones as her first book when she was 58, followed by her first novel two years later, The Golden Child, supposedly written to entertain her dying husband. The next four novels drew heavily on her own life experiences – working in a book shop, living on a house boat, teaching at a drama school, working for the BBC in wartime – exquisitely written novels, often steeped in melancholy, demonstrating her powers of concision and her incomparable sentence-making. But it was the next four novels, her so-called historical works that demonstrate her at the height of her formidable creativity: Innocence (Italy in the 1950s), The Beginning of Spring (Russia in 1913), The Gate of Angels (Cambridge in 1912), and The Blue Flower (18th century Germany).

Her public persona was shy, distrait and scatty; she felt guilty towards her publishers when her books didn’t sell very well (she was 80 before she made any real money from writing) and when she won the Booker prize, it was made rather unkindly clear to her that many felt she didn’t deserve it but had been a compromise choice. Fitzgerald’s novels are not showily clever in any way; much like their author they do not draw attention to themselves, but her intelligent imagination rings clear through them all. And intelligence is something that she has in bucket loads; apparently her finals examination papers at Oxford were so brilliant that the examiner asked if he could keep them, and later bound them in vellum as if they were an objet d’art. This stellar start was belied by her later mundane, and somewhat chaotic, married life. Her son-in-law described Penelope and soldier husband Desmond as “two kind, intelligent and funny people who simply couldn’t manage the world”. And perhaps for me, this sense of sentient, sympathetic characters, pitted against a crazy world that is bound to have the upper hand over them, is something that pervades all her fiction.

I’ve just read The Beginning of Spring which certainly upholds the formula. The story revolves around Frank Reid, an English printer who inherited his business in Moscow from his parents, and who is neither completely at home in Russia nor completely alien to it. Instead he has ‘gone native’, learning to accept the sheer madness and the internal contradictions of his country with humourous grace. But when the book begins, Frank has been dealt a blow not from external circumstances, but internal, domestic ones. His wife, Nellie, has left him, but suffering a change of heart en route to England, she has returned their three children who now pose a problem of supervision. Why Nellie has gone is a mystery that the narrative places delicately to one side almost until its end, in order to focus on the arrangements Frank must now make in order to cope – pragmatically as well as emotionally – with her absence. The problem is that Russian friends seem indistinguishable from enemies, for instance the wife of his business associate, Kuriatin, and her sister: ‘Out of sheer tenderness of heart, they liked every emergency to go on as long as possible.’ And then there’s Selwyn, the accountant in his printing firm, who has turned into some sort of saint-like figure, meddling in gnomic ways amongst the poor and unfortunate, who brings the beautiful Lisa Ivanova, supposedly a simple country girl, to Frank’s household with profound consequences. The abiding pleasure of the novel is the contrast between Frank’s good-natured stoicism, his intelligent, sympathetic handling of the people who surround him, and the exotic incoherence of Russia, so evocatively and poignantly described. But Frank’s weak spot is clearly woman, where simple acceptance will not quite do, and where his own desires will blind him to the stealthy cunning with which Mother Russia sorts out her problems.

I find Fitzgerald’s work difficult to talk about because on the one hand, it is so effective, making it hard for me to see how she achieves her effects, and on the other, it is so economical, packing a great amount into every well-crafted sentence. One short anecdote from the novel might sum it up:

His father had always held that the human mind is indefinitely elastic, and that by the very nature of things we were never called upon to undertake more than we could bear. Frank has always felt doubtful about this. During the past winter one of the machine men from the Press had gone by night to a spot a little way out of the Windau station, and lain down on the tracks. This was because his wife had brought her lover to live in their house. But the height of the train’s wheelbase meant that it passed right over him, leaving him unhurt, like a drunken peasant. After four trains had passed he got up and took the tram back to his home, and had worked regularly ever since. This left the question of endurance open.’

And this is how her novels work – they show you something, undoubtedly something happens and of a plotted nature – but what we are to make of it is always left elegantly ambiguous. You can’t manhandle Fitzgerald’s novels into a tidy shape; instead she tells us an ordinary story that revels in the rich extraordinariness, the intransigent strangeness of life, and that brings the reader to a state of intense awareness. She uses language in a way that crystallizes and intensifies the world, and yet she also uses it with charm, wit and insight. I find it easy to forget between novels how very good she is, but it only takes the opening page of one to remind me.


I spent all of yesterday afternoon in an introductory session for conflict mediation and now simply cannot decide whether I should apply for one of the five volunteer posts the university is advertising to fill. Let me fill you in a bit. Several weeks ago now, I noticed the call for volunteers come round on the email. It said that accredited training was being offered, and those chosen would not have to give more than six days in any year to mediation projects. Well, that sounded not too bad, and my reclusive tendencies are balanced out by a fascination with people problems. I tend to think of myself as being permanently involved in conflict management ever since I started doing study support; the daily conflict being between students and their work, which has transformed into the enemy for them. I step in as peace-keeper, negotiator, intermediary, etc, repackaging the demands of work in a way that makes them look less unreasonable, and easing students out of their victim status. Well, on a good day that’s more or less what happens. So I thought that proper conflict mediation wouldn’t be too far out of my comfort zone, and that the useful training could be applied to a number of areas of my job, as well as in the mediation situation itself.

So, I signed up for an introductory meeting and took myself along to the university center, a rather dreary concrete building that’s an odd mixture of conference rooms and restaurants, so that the entire place is pervaded by the lingering aroma of whatever was on the menu for lunch. But it is well located, with lovely views over the river and the backs of college buildings. There were about twenty people there, and two presenters; one young woman from the university administration who was blonde and childlike with an overbite. The other, the training representative from a firm of mediators, was a dead ringer for Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City; she was even wearing a black suit with geometric white trim that would not have been out of place on her television counterpart, although her shoes were unfortunately not up to Sarah Jessica Parker’s exacting standards. She was professionally bubbly and energetic and took us through a power point presentation explaining the five steps of mediation (the main hurdle being to get the parties involved to meet at all), the characteristics needed in mediators (impartiality and communication skills naturally riding high) and an outline of the training course.

This turned out to be more of a marathon than I was expecting. Three full days of training, mostly through role play, then a week off, then another three days with the final day spent assessing candidates. It is, apparently, exhausting and emotional. Great. After all this Carrie took two volunteers from the audience and enacted a role play to give us a feel for what it’s like. I have to say that the members of the audience were quite brilliant in their roles, the woman in particular bringing a certain raw bitterness to her lines that was completely plausible. I did begin to wonder what had brought these people to have an interest in conflict mediation at all, and in fact one of the first things we’d had to do was turn to our neighbour and discuss the role of conflict in our lives. Well, I do my level best to prevent conflict from having any sort of role in my life so instead I found out all kinds of interesting things about the woman sitting next to me. She had a twenty-two month old son, worked in the law faculty (although had been threatened with redundancy while pregnant) and had a partner who was a lecturer at another university and suffered from chronic fatigue. We’d just got to this bit when Carrie starting calling us to attention and I had to restrain myself from yelling out ‘Nooooo, need another five minutes over here, we’re not done!’ Still, I was all set for the next time we had to ‘discuss’ some aspect of mediation. He’s apparently struggling on, trying to hide his condition although he’s suffered from it since being a teenager. I sighed; there’s a lot of us out there.

Anyhow, I ended up leaving the meeting feeling pretty conflicted myself. On the plus side, being trained in mediation is a useful skill to have and it certainly fits in with the kind of things I do already. My college would probably be very glad for me to have it, and it would lead to more work as there are plenty of conflicts taking place every day, as one may imagine is the case in any large organization. However… there are a lot of negatives to balance out the positives. The first is that I was suspicious of how many people knew each other in the audience. Turns out that half the university’s human resources department was there, and of course, what would be more likely than that the university would be keen to train up administrators it already employs. When it came to leaving, I noticed that a core group of people stayed behind to chat and a certain fiesta-air replaced the neutrally attentive atmosphere of the session. I began at that point to seriously doubt how many places on this training scheme would be actually available to teaching staff rather than admin. It was notable that the training course runs over three weeks in Lent term, making it practically impossible for any lecturer to take part in it.

Then there’s the amount of energy that mediation evidently demands. I’m certainly better than I used to be as far as chronic fatigue is concerned, but six days of intensive training in the middle of a busy Lent term is a big ask. Then mediation itself is crammed into one single day, individual meetings with the parties concerned being followed up immediately by the joint meeting, which can last up to four or five hours. That’s a great deal more concentrated activity than I’ve done up to date. And finally, I’m not entirely convinced of my suitability for the work. Watching Carrie Bradshaw drone on in that particular way…. ‘if I can just take you back, Robert, to a statement you made earlier, in which you expressed a dislike of being called a ‘bully’. Might we take a moment for you to respond to that charge and to say a little more about how it made you feel…?’ I wasn’t completely sure my collected qualities of irony, impatience and straight-talking would stand up to being silenced for four or five hours at a stretch. If I’m interested in conflict resolution, it’s probably because I’m interested in getting it out the way as soon as possible, and that’s not what mediators really do. Instead they seek comprehensive expression by both parties of all that’s bugging them. I did ask the instructor whether she ever lost patience with her clients, and she made a face but toed the party line. There was a lot of frustration, for sure, but she never let it show, and she felt she was privileged to be part of this intensely emotional process. Well, I felt the uncomfortable grinding noise of awkward truth against hopeful ideal. One may well have to consider oneself a handmaiden of love, reconciliation and closure to go forward optimistically into these situations, but I’ll bet the reality is a lot of Herculean patience pitted against ugly, human stubbornness.

So I am in a complete quandary here. Should I apply for a volunteer post – remember none of this is paid work – that comprises a lot of tiring work where the odds are stacked against me getting a job anyway. Or should I apply in less cynical frame of mind, thinking how useful the training might be, what extra skills I might gain and hope that my health stands up to it? It’s a very tricky decision.

The Mysteries of Russian Love

Ivan Turgenev, one of Russia’s greatest novelists, fell in love with a married woman, the French opera singer Pauline Viadot, and loved her – by all accounts chastely – for the next forty years or so until he died.

Robert Dessaix, an Australian writer, fell in love with the Russian language as an 11-year-old and then spent the next forty years of his life gaining an increasing intimacy with, and respect for, Turgenev’s work. So much so that, in his book, Twilight of Love; Travels with Turgenev, he sets out to follow in the author’s footsteps as he crisscrossed Europe, a native of Russia, but living in Germany and France as part of Viadot’s household for years at a time. Dessaix’s project here is to get as close to Turgenev as he can, to see where he lived, to think about the books he wrote, and to understand what love meant to him. Dessaix wants to gain insight into how he could have been not just satisfied, but often overwhelmed and inspired with what might seem so little real affection to our modern eyes.

It could be, Dessaix muses, that we simply don’t have the right word for what Pauline and Turgenev experienced, and therefore we lack the concept. A ‘love affair’ sounds too carnal, ‘passion’ sounds unsustainable, to be ‘deeply in love’ gives the relationship a turbulence that in reality it lacked. You might wonder why Dessaix cares, but he understands Turgenev’s life and writings to have marked a twilight zone between Romanticism and ‘something darker, more mercilessly reasoned and, of course, more recognizably modern on the other.’ In which case he deduces that what Turgenev could live and feel is impossible to us today, and an example of something extraordinary, unique and enigmatic. He approaches it with a historian’s interest but in the hope of conjuring it up in the present again, out of the contexts in which Turgenev lived and wrote.

What muddies the water a little bit is the fact that Turgenev seems to have been unable to love in any other kind of way. He had a daughter, the product of a fling that Dessaix is notably reluctant to talk about, and late in life he had another amour for a young actress who took on a role in his well-known play, A Month in the Country. At the time, Turgenev was 60 and Maria Savina was 25 and they managed an hour in a train together with Turgenev kissing her hands. That provided enough fantasy for him to live off for several years. Quite what occurred in the train carriage is open to speculation, and Dessaix ticks other writers off for speculating – notably Julian Barnes who wrote a short story about the encounter. Well, never one to miss a Barnes opportunity, I looked the short story up. It’s called ‘The Revival’ and you can find it in his collection, The Lemon Tree. After having been steeped in Robert Dessaix’s perspective on Turgenev, I was looking forward to this story enormously, thinking it would shed entirely different light on the author and his love affairs. And you know what? It was the oddest sensation, but I could have been reading a distilled version of Dessaix’s book, with the difference that Barnes displays always a fearless, explicit approach to the enigma of sex, whilst Dessaix is firmly on the side of idealizing romance. It occurred to me then that both men were quietly fascinated by the idea of a relationship that did not necessarily have the sexual component as its central point. In both cases this interest is dressed up – by Barnes in a postmodern, playful, speculative way, by Dessaix in a romantic, cultural, literary way, but that’s what it boils down to. Dessaix, you can tell, thinks Turgenev remarkable for his ability to love asexually; Barnes surreptitiously suggests he’s either scared or past it.

However, I would be doing Dessaix’s book an injustice if I suggested that Turgenev’s love affair was all he talked about. In fact, far from it. This book is just as much a travelogue of European literary haunts; it’s also an exploration of some of Turgenev’s works, and it is a great deal about Dessaix and his relationship to Russia and to literature. To be honest, the biggest character in the book is Dessaix himself, not least because he keeps appropriating Turgenev’s life to his own. Both come from a land beyond the reach of culture, Australia and Russia being viewed, he insists, as places that civilization has failed to touch, places that in each author’s contemporary life were understood as being able only to borrow the art of others. They both sought to get out, and stay out as far as possible, of their native lands. When it comes to the question of love, Dessaix becomes coy for the only time in the book. He had a wife, for a while, and there is also talk of a male lover, but that’s all we get to know. It might have been better if he had been more open about his own relationship to love, as a proper point of comparison, and allowed Turgenev to speak for himself occasionally. As an homage to Turgenev also, this is a touch baffling at times. ‘To be frank, Smoke is not a very good novel’ he tells us. And ‘[Turgenev] has never pierced me the way some writers can, I must admit, he’d never hurled me into some new dimension, but over the years I’d woven whole skeins of him into who I was.’ There is praise, but always of a qualified kind as if Turgenev, having had a whole book dedicated to him by Dessaix, must not expect to get swollen-headed about it. However, for all the quirks in the content, this is an exquisitely written book, continuously evocative and charming, and very witty, too. You can come to it (as I did) knowing nothing about Turgenev and go away informed and enlightened. But as for love, the reader must put the book down only further mystified, in a satisfying way, about the intricacies and intimacies of its myriad formations.