Mata Hari, We Hardly Knew You

Mata Hari must be one of the very few women in history whose name has turned into common terminology, as the spy who seduces to gain knowledge. Though as usual, for every feminist cheer, there’s an eye roll for the patriarchy, as the story surrounding this woman who found transcendent fame remains inseparable from the usual fascination with female sexuality. That Mata Hari was a prostitute with a cause, doesn’t really strike much of a blow for women’s empowerment and emancipation. How then, to tell her story in a 21st century way that honors the complexity of the woman without resorting to the creation of a false archetype of strength and agency as so many historical novels do? How to show both the force of the myth that surrounds her and the genuine desperation that created her? Richard Skinner’s novel, The Red Dancer, offers an intriguing strategy by presenting the reader with a mosaic of fictional witness accounts that all have a perspective on Mata Hari without ever solving her enigma.

The novel begins with the placement of a lonely hearts ad in an Amsterdam paper, purporting to come from one MacLeod, a captain in the Dutch army and a notorious womanizer, but really put there as a joke by his mate. The joke, typically, backfires. MacLeod finds himself taking the responses he receives seriously, especially one from a Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (whom he calls Gerda), a pretty, dark-haired woman of great charm and appeal. Macleod knows he’ll be sent out to Indonesia soon and that having a wife would be a good thing. And so they get engaged within six days of meeting, and marry within four months. Then things go horribly wrong. MacLeod is keen on drink and violence, Gerda is a flirt who wants to spend all his money on dresses. They have two children, move to the Dutch East Indies, and drive each other a little bit insane. On their return to Europe, MacLeod deserts Gerda, who heads to Paris and then to Pigalle, the red-light district, recommended to her as a woman with no money and no choices. She finds work as an artist’s model and then as an exotic dancer, a move that will make her name.

From this point on, Mata Hari – self-christened, meaning ‘Eye of the Dawn’ – is in this account as complicit in the myth-making as the journalists and writers who spread over-excited reports of her. Basically, Mata Hari made her name by dancing naked, but coupling it with the notion that her movements were sacred Brahman dances lent a veneer of, well, not respectability exactly, but something more poetic and pure. Colette (who had herself danced strip-teases of a kind on the Parisian stage) watched her with clear, cold eyes, and produced this account:

She hardly danced in the real sense at all. She arrived fairly naked at her recitals, and with graceful movements and downcast eyes shed her clothes, and would then disappear enveloped in her veils… Her skin amber by night, seemed mauve by daylight, but patchy from artificial dyeing. She moved her long, thin and proud body as Paris has never seen one moved before. Paris swallowed her, and raved about her chaste nudity, retelling anecdotes that Mata Hari had uttered about her hot Asiatic past. She was invited everywhere, men fought to pay her way.’

She claimed to have been born in India, to be related to royalty (both Indian and British), to have studied her dances by way of cults and sacred ritual, to have performed before rajahs, all of which was so much nonsense. But her position, both financially and within society, was a precarious one. Her dancing began to receive poor reviews and, as the First World War loomed, Mata Hari was taken on by the Berlin police intelligence services and used her talents the way she always had. It was, in short, another rackety career, with even less security than she had achieved before, and it ended the way these things inevitably will – in front of a firing squad for treason.

It’s a story that changes with the light. In one direction, you can read the masterful ascent of a woman out of poverty and into the annals of history. In another direction you can read the doomed descent of a woman used and abused by men who cared not a jot for her happiness, her health, or her safety. In the middle there’s Gerda herself, whose consciousness we rarely enter in this novel, and who accounts for her actions with only one justification: ‘once she had an impulse, she acted on it quickly.’ Was she a woman of loose morals who believed her own lies? Or a gutsy survivor using the only resource that society cared to place at her disposal – the uncontrollable lust of men? The beautifully written narrative passes through numerous viewpoints, including her bitter husband, the impresario who made her, the journalist who interviews her, her loyal maid, the Russian officer who fell in love with her, the prison doctor, the youngest member of the firing squad. Each account tantalises but cannot solve the mystery.

Interspersed with these fictional accounts are the most divisive feature of the narrative: brief non-fiction chapters that explain and describe an extraordinary hotch-potch of cultural artefacts, including the gamelan (a Javanese musical instrument), lithography, absinthe, the Orient Express and the start of the First World War. It’s an audacious strategy that I think is intended to remind the reader of the inescapable history behind the story, and to anchor the fictional accounts in the relics of the times. They add a real taste of the cultural era to the narrative, and accent the dizzying perspective that moves us rapidly between the carapace of Mata Hari’s myth and the reality of the Belle Epoque. But some readers are going to find themselves uncomfortably jarred out of the story when they appear.

Overall this is a fascinating account of a historical figure whom we all know without knowing about in the least. The Red Dancer refuses to resolve this problem, preferring to magnify it instead, which is perhaps the truest way of approaching the story of woman who worked myth for all it was worth, until it finally destroyed her.

 

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Hot Milk or What Kind of Critic Am I?

When I began this blog way back in the mists of 2006, I was a proper academic literary critic, which meant that I read books according to a number of non-negotiable rules. I still think they’re pretty good ones, if you want to get the most out of the reading experience. I accepted everything that happened within a story as being necessary to that story. I understood that every scrap of information available about the story was contained within the words of the text, so that in consequence, what the book meant had to be consistent with all I’d been told – there was no place for wild speculations, misplaced prejudices or readings that failed to take account of key elements of the narrative. And I was humble in the face of the story: it was not my place to say, effectively, I wish you were something other/different than you are. My job was to hold the story up to the light to show others all the internal workings, and to mine it for the most interesting things it had to say.

Over the course of the blogging years, this process has changed. Slowly, and almost imperceptibly, but to notable effect. Questions that had made no sense to me before – such as ‘Do you like this book?’ and ‘Are you enjoying it?’ – now became much more urgent. I not only recognised that I had certain quirky tastes and hopes for a book, I also gave into them and began to consider them something I should satisfy. And I began to read stories more literally, more superficially, with questions of motivation and plausibility paramount in my mind. In short, the culture of goodreads began to get under my skin, and I let it.

All of which brings us to Deborah Levy’s latest novel, Hot Milk, a book for which I had high (probably unreasonably high) expectations. A few years ago, I read Levy’s short memoir, Things I Don’t Want To Know, which was her response to George Orwell’s essay about why he became a writer. I was absolutely blown away by this memoir, which was one of the finest pieces of autobiographical writing I had ever come across, as well as an affecting and sophisticated account of the creative impulse. I hadn’t read any of Levy’s fiction before, and I thought the premise of Hot Milk sounded intriguing.

It’s essentially the story of a twisted mother-daughter relationship that has kept Sofia Papastergiadis a slave to her mother’s hypochondriac needs. Rose – whose Greek husband left her long ago – is a stubborn, proud Yorkshire woman who has developed a perplexing condition. Sometimes she can walk, and sometimes she can’t. Having exhausted all other routes of medical inquiry, she and Sofia have come to Southern Spain to the clinic of alternative guru, Dr Gomez, to whom they have paid an astronomical fee in the hope of finding a diagnosis and a cure. Of course, in this land beyond the boundaries of tried and trusted medical science, all might not be as it seems. Dr Gomez is a mercurial trickster, kind and attentive to Rose at one moment, taunting and testing her the next. His approach to Rose’s condition is certainly directed as much towards her controlling nature and her fantasies of victimhood as it is towards laboratory testing.

In the meantime, whilst Rose is occupied at the clinic, chronic under-achiever, Sofia, is left to her own devices. Inattentive to her own needs and safety, Sofia manages to get repeatedly stung by jellyfish in the sea and to hook up with a strange couple who live nearby, the potent Ingrid and her boyfriend, Matthew. Through a slightly torturous friendship, Sofia is made to understand her own unquestioning submissiveness and to explore her desires (which include sleeping with both Ingrid and the beach hut attendant who deals with jellyfish stings, Juan). She flies to Athens to meet up with her estranged father and his new wife and child (which doesn’t go particularly well), and she starts to disobey rules and conventions, stealing a fish from the local market and obliging the diving-school owner to unchain his howling dogs. And all of this takes place in a jagged and discontinuous narrative, spiky and surprising in its emotional ups and downs, and often ascerbic in its humour.

More than any book I’ve read in a long time, it challenged and complicated the way I was reading and made me wonder what kind of critic I am these days. I found myself looking at it with a kind of odd double vision that was not comfortable. So, for instance, on one of their earlier meetings, Sofia, who has just bought herself a pizza, offers the box to Ingrid. Ingrid frowns at it with contempt, picks up the pizza and throws it on the ground. No one comments on this.

Critical reading: Sofia is so downtrodden by her mother that she simply takes this kind of bullying behaviour without batting an eyelid. In fact, she is hypnotized by it, partly because her mother has kept her in place this way for years, partly because such behaviour inevitably contains a repressed part of her self that she can no longer access any other way.

Ordinary reading: Who even does that? It is so incredibly rude and impolite and why on earth does Sofia stand for it? Oh no, you are not going to make friends with this person are  you, Sofia? For crying out loud, run, run to the hills and never look back!

Another instance: Ingrid, who earns money from sewing, gives Sofia a suntop she has made for her, on which is stitched the word Beloved. Sofia gets a certain amount of thrill from this and her low self-esteem is briefly boosted. Until she puts the top in the wash and realises that the word embroidered on it is not as she thought Beloved, but instead, Beheaded.

Critical reading: Sofia is so desperate for affection that she projects her need for it out onto the world in an indiscriminate way. What she gets back from the world, however, is emotional violence and hostility, which she often fails to recognise for what it is.

Ordinary reading: Why would anyone stitch a word like Beheaded onto an orange silk suntop? (Is Ingrid psychotic?) And how could anyone make such a mistake when reading it? At the very least, our heroine most certainly should have gone to Specsavers.

I intended to finish this book, but at some point about the three-quarter mark I put it down and failed to pick it up again. As you may imagine, my feelings about it are conflicted. I think there’s much to be said in its favour. There’s clearly a profound exploration of the mother-daughter relationship going on here, and I also enjoyed straightforwardly the scenes with Rose and Dr Gomez in the clinic. But it just strained my credibility too far in places, and stylistically was too choppy for my personal tastes. Given that my favourite writers are Colette and Willa Cather, everything else is going to have to be perfect for me to put up with choppy prose. But if you can read this book through the lens of artistic critique, then I salute you wholeheartedly and think you’ve got the best chance of making the most of an often intriguing story.

 

 

In Which We Consider Moominmamma Closely

In a bid to remind myself that I still know how to read a book, I recently picked up Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson. It was short and easy, with pictures. I’m pretty sure I read the Moomin books as a child but I had retained no memory of their intrinsic style, though I was aware that their supporters really love them.

I’d only read a few pages in – Moomintroll and Sniff go exploring and find a strange sign, a star with a tail, carved all over the forest – when I became very curious about Moominmamma. When Moomintroll and Sniff finally return from their adventuring, it’s late and past their supper. Moominmamma does not say, ‘Where the hell have you been?’. She does not say ‘I’ve been out of my mind with worry,’ she just says they should help themselves to something to eat before bed. That night when everyone is sleeping, Moominpappa hears a strange noise outside and finds the philosopher Muskrat in the garden in the rain, complaining that the family’s bridge-building activities have destroyed his habitat. Moominpappa invites him in to stay and tries to provide some hospitality by lumbering about in the kitchen without turning the light on. Naturally, he creates a commotion and some breakages.

Moominmamma came running downstairs with a candle in her paw.

‘Oh! It’s you,’ she said. ‘I thought someone must have broken in.’

‘I wanted to get the palm-tree wine down,’ said Moominpappa, ‘and some silly fool had put that stupid vegetable dish right on the edge of the shelf.’

‘Never mind,’ said Moominmamma. ‘it’s really a good thing it’s broken – it was so ugly. Climb up on a stool, dear – it will be easier.'”

I was so struck by this exchange that I read it out loud to Mr Litlove. ‘Tell me what’s wrong with this scenario,’ I invited him.

He shot me the sly side-eye. ‘They don’t make wives like they used to?’

‘No one makes wives like that,’ I said. ‘The real Moominmamma would say, “What in the world did you think you were playing at, rummaging in the cupboard without turning the light on? Now you’ve broken my best dish and ruined tomorrow’s dinner to boot.” I’m trying to decide whether it’s dangerous to mislead children this way.’

When on the following day, Moomintroll and Sniff come running in at the sound of the lunch gong, only to demand sandwiches to eat out, and Moominmamma does not say, ‘What? Are you crazy? Go and sit down and eat what I’ve cooked for you,’ but simply complies, I began to believe she was operating under the influence of some powerful sedatives.

No, I’m messing with you. I didn’t really believe that, but I was intrigued by this image of overly perfect motherhood, and Moominmamma as this serene, loving, centre of the world whose presence assures comfort, certainty and security.

But of course, it’s just as well that she does, because what follows is a delightful tale of environmental apocalypse. The Muskrat informs Moomintroll that the strange signs they keep seeing are indications of the imminent arrival of a comet, an event which will probably destroy the world they live in. And so Moomintroll decides to take a long and perilous trip to the distant Observatory on the Lonely Mountains where he might get some better information. This being an age in which experts are still respected for their knowledge and no one is running counter-interference on the comet rumour as idle speculation or myth. He and Sniff set out with bags lovingly packed by Moominmamma (whose insistence on including woolen trousers will prove fortuitous) and begin a dangerous, adventure-packed journey, that will find them close to death on many occasions. But the journey will also present all kinds of developmental possibilities – Moomintroll falls in love with the Snork Maiden and rescues her, Sniff comes a cropper on a couple of occasions over his desire for all that twinkles, but learns nothing, alas – and will bring them a number of useful travelling companions. They will team up with the experienced and wise Snuffkin, with the analytical Snork, and the sweet, courageous Snork Maiden.

The news from the Observatory is bad: the comet is due to strike on the 8th October at 8.42pm and four seconds. The friends hurry back home to the Moomin Valley, but as they go, so the comet comes nearer and nearer, blocking out the sun, drying up the seas and rivers, and generally causing all kinds of climate change mayhem.

What matters is teamwork. The friends work together to overcome obstacles, evade dangers and make it back home. Their perspective is entirely inclusive – even the morose transgender Hemulen is rescued by them (though in all fairness, his bad temper is partly due to the fact they ruin his dress by using it as a balloon to out-fly a tornado). They make it back in time to warn the parents and pack up the home, taking their belongings to a nearby cave. Even Moominmamma wigs out a bit at this point, which shows you quite how stressful an approaching apocalypse must be. But as they await the end of the world together, the comet zooms through the valley, missing the earth by inches, and hurtles back out into the wilderness of space.

So what are we to learn from this story? The internal moral works this way: if you are close to a loving mother, you will be safe from harm. Moominmamma – or even just the thought of Moominmamma – looms large over this tale, the guarantor of peace and security. For it’s the generosity and affectionate, open inclusiveness of the Moomins that sees them through. Together they are stronger, and that togetherness is based on an explicit diversity of species. All those differences bring with them other essential forms of knowledge and resource. Compassion and wisdom avert oblivion.

It occurred to me that in our contemporary world we look to science and technology to save us, and to give us what fragile security we have. But is this wise? In the story, science is impressively informative. The comet really does pass the earth at 8.42pm and four seconds. But that all important sense of safety can only be gained from the community, and one founded on the ideal of the loving mother.

The story is a myth. Mothers don’t need to be as perfect in reality as Moominmamma is. But what we do need is that ideal of love in our hearts and minds, because it gives courage and it neutralises fear. It’s the only way to face whatever lies ahead and maybe, just maybe, avoid disaster.

Hilary Mantel and Elizabeth Strout

There was a moment, a few weeks back, when I was listening to four audio books (not simultaneously, obvs): Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Autumn by Ali Smith, Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout and They Came To Baghdad by Agatha Christie. And I thought to myself, wow, what a line-up. Does it get any better than this?

Alas, Autumn has fallen by the wayside. I love Ali Smith so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the novel. What I suspect is that her style doesn’t translate well to audio – so few styles do. I love her whimsicality on the page, but it doesn’t come across so well when you’re listening. I must get hold of the book. And the Agatha Christie was a delight, but you probably don’t need me to tell you anything about it. You will either love Agatha or not, as the case may be, but if you love her, it’s a really fun and clever outing on her part.

Which leaves me with two novels to talk about here, one of which I expect lots and lots of people have read, the other of which I expect lots and lots of people are intending to read. And what fine novels they both were.

Bring Up The Bodies will scarcely require a summary. The second of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels, we’re following Thomas Cromwell through the wreckage of Henry’s love life. Cromwell is mostly definitely Henry’s right-hand man, but this is rather like being the enforcer for the Godfather. Cromwell accepts this, in fact, he almost welcomes it. But you do sense that this is at least in part because he knows that a fall from grace at this stage will mean death; so doing Henry’s bidding, however crazy or daft it might be, is a no-brainer nevertheless. And it’s hardly as if Cromwell needed the mental focus that would ensure.

When the novel begins, Henry is falling in love with Jane Seymour. She’s described as quiet, whey-faced, retiring, prudish, submissive. All the things, in other words, that Anne Boleyn is not – and this is not a coincidence. But Anne is in the early stages of pregnancy and so her position on the throne is relatively safe. Jane Seymour’s brothers and her father are in no doubt about the upswing in their fortunes that Henry’s infatuation might bring them. Jane is primped ready to meet the king’s needs while Anne is with child. But this never happens. Anne loses the child and, already out of love with her, torn by the desire for a male heir and by the desire for Jane, Henry starts to whine. He decides that this abrupt u-turn in his feelings can only be accounted for if Anne actually bewitched him into loving her in the first place.

Honestly, men! It’s bad enough they come up with this nonsense, but to see a long, inevitable chain of events unspooling from this ridiculous notion that will lead to Anne’s death is quite another matter. If ever a reader were in any doubt as to why power should be controlled by law and divided by as many people as possible, this is the book to clarify the reasons.

Ironically enough, Anne’s execution is facilitated by the death of the first queen, Katherine. While Katherine was alive, Henry had a reason to stick to his guns over Anne, out of stubborn contrariness if nothing else. But when she dies, then Henry starts to feel how lovely it would be if he and the Pope were on better terms again. Anne was an interloper, she put Henry in disfavour with the Catholic church, she has caused him problems without producing the required male child. Oh poor Anne; as spiky, egotistic and loveless a character as she is in Mantel’s version (and Mantel is brilliant in her portrayal), the sheer mendacity and corruption of the case that is brought against her is enough for outrage on her behalf.

Oh and lots of other things happen too: Cromwell is gearing up for his assault on the monasteries, an indication, I felt, of the general overreaching that is creeping into his management of the king’s affairs. Henry is often described as a big baby, and Cromwell, in that case, becomes his over-indulgent mother, giving him everything he really ought not to have. But in doing so, in the ever swifter dynamic of tending to the king’s needs with no hesitation and the experience of power it brings, he is starting to lose sight of the integrity he might once have possessed. If this book had been a movie, a sequel to Wolf Hall and a precursor of the final conclusion to Cromwell’s life, it would probably have been a mess of storylines without satisfying resolution. The kind of in-fill number that you are cynically made to watch if you want to follow the entire story. But in Mantel’s hands it’s all kinds of wonderful. Sharp, insightful, dramatic, gripping and exceptionally written. I expect you’ve heard other people say that, too.

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout is also a sequel of sorts to her huge hit, My Name Is Lucy Barton. In it, Strout returns to Lucy Barton’s home town of Amgash, Illinois, and tells the stories of a number of characters who received only brief mentions in the first novel. Do you remember all the local histories Lucy’s mother tells her about, all those failed or difficult marriages that she recounts while Lucy is in her hospital bed? Well, along with Lucy’s siblings, those lives now take centre stage.

It doesn’t really matter if you haven’t read the first novel, because the real beauty of this novel – comprised in a series of interconnecting stories – is how the dots are all joined up between the people who feature within it. There was a moment in every story, a gorgeous AHA! moment, when I realised who it was we were reading about, which of the characters who had made a short appearance or been referred to in an earlier story. As in Lucy Barton, it’s a way in which the structure of gossip is used so cleverly and given such unexpected depth. It’s a gossipy small town situation that we always find ourselves in, and if you feel inclined to find that insignificant in any way, there’s plenty of times when you’ll say: Oh, so that’s what happened to so-and-so! And you’ll realise that gossip is storytelling at its most compelling.

What Elizabeth Strout also does with supreme narrative efficiency is draw us into lives of quiet anguish and the unexpected compensations they contain. Strout’s characters suffer: they have trauma in their past, and poverty, and deep, abiding sadness. But these sorrows are balanced by the genuine rewards that sometimes enter their lives – and Strout knows exactly what a real, honest reward looks like. Patty Nicely, a counsellor at the local high school, is bruised by an encounter with an ugly-mouthed teenager, who lets it be known that Patty’s worst secrets are common knowledge. But Patty finds her equilibrium when she summons the strength to understand the young woman and actively help her. How does she find it? Well, in between these two moments, she reads the latest book by Lucy Barton, a warts-and-all memoir of her childhood, and it delivers the grace of insight. ‘The book had understood her’, Strout writes in one of her devastatingly simple sentences. And I wonder how many people feel understood now in their ordinary sadness by Strout’s luminous writing.

There are so many wonderful stories in this narrative that it’s tempting to go on too long about them. My favourite was probably the one about the artist who comes to town for a week’s conference and is lodged with a couple who seem very respectable on the surface. Until the guest goes to bed and the hosts go upstairs to watch her do this on the webcam they have planted in her room. And I did love the story where Lucy briefly returns (as part of her book tour) to Amgash and a reunion with the brother and sister she hasn’t seen in seventeen years. It goes as well and as dreadfully as you might expect.

It’s funny when I think back on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-prize-winning Olive Kitteridge and remember that I really didn’t like it. It was one of the very few books back at that time in my life that I didn’t finish. I’m not sure which one of us has changed. But I feel that Strout’s writing has more emotional balance to it now, and that it makes all the difference. Boy, does she know how to do anguish! And she can take you to places that are almost too painful to tolerate – such ordinary humiliations, such unspeakable losses. In Anything Is Possible, though, the title holds a clue. People can be so reliably surprising; life can be so unexpectedly, ironically generous. These are the touches of grace that we live for, and which Strout captures so beautifully on the page.