The Nun – Denis Diderot (French)
Suzanne is sent to a convent as a postulant; though she’s a devout Catholic, she has no religious vocation, so for her the place is a prison. She resists taking her vows, but is forced to do so by her parents. Later she resorts to legal means to be released. Her actions make her a pariah, and the Mother Superior and her minions inflict punishments that would warm the heart of any sadist. Later Suzanne is transferred to a different convent, where the new Mother Superior is a flaming lesbian. Innocent Suzanne doesn’t understand the overtures being made to her, nor the raptures that the Mother Superior goes into during their “petting” sessions. At this point a polemic had shifted into a lurid potboiler, and I quit reading. I had also begun to question Diderot’s motives. The novel is in the form of a letter Suzanne writes to a Marquis (in order to enlist his help). She states in the opening paragraph that she writes “with neither skill nor artifice, but with the naivety of a young person . . .” Actually, she writes like an intelligent and sophisticated man named Diderot; Suzanne is little more than a victim of the deprivations and tortures he inflicts on her. I don’t know of the conditions in convents in the mid-1700s; maybe they did twist women into monsters. Maybe Diderot was passionately opposed to repression. He states that “I do not think a more terrifying satire of convents has ever been written.” But satire uses irony, sarcasm and wit; this novel is devoid of any of those qualities (unless you find the lesbian Mother Superior’s swooning to be funny). It’s interesting to note that in order to avoid trouble with the authorities Diderot didn’t attempt to publish the book in his lifetime. So where’s the dedication to a cause? In the mid-1960s it was made into a film, which was promptly banned by the French government; in the ensuing scandal, those Catholics who found it blasphemous were pitted against free thinkers. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m sure the sensationalism of Diderot’s novel was fully exploited. Lastly, regarding the “new translation” by Russell Goulbourne. Shouldn’t prose written nearly two hundred years ago retain an archaic tone? Only the overly-pure heroine’s overwrought emotions give the book a dated aspect. That and the gothic cruelties.
A Web of Lace – Pascal Laine (French)
A choppy style: “There was a square in that village. Where the roads crossed. The main road had the right of way. The church was in the square. The war memorial and benches for sitting.” Authorial intrusion: “They can’t surface from that deep silence. And a novel’s shallow, not like them. So, they flit across the page, Pomme and her mother.” The butterfly of elusiveness is what Laine tries to capture. Aimery, a young student, falls in love with Pomme, and she with him; but, like the author, Aimery is unable to comprehend her innermost nature. She’s one of those beings who submit to life without words; since she doesn’t express what she feels, Aimery begins to wonder if she feels at all. When he breaks with her (she’s cleaning the room they share – she’s comfortable with objects, with doing things) she puts down her Ajax and says “Good. I suppose I knew it.” Then he observes as “She squeezed out the sponge and wiped her hands. She didn’t object, she didn’t cry. It wasn’t what he imagined, exactly. He’d hoped to get a bang out of it, sort of. Into the bargain, as it were. Instead, the resentment came back, even greater. The girl was some sort of brute.” Of course, there’s nothing brutish about Pomme, and though they part she will remain a presence that forever stays with Aimery. As for the title of the English edition, I prefer the French one: The Lacemaker. “Pomme’s short hands raced like crazy when she knitted. But the knitting didn’t detach itself from her. It didn’t break that unity she’d got. Whatever she did she was part of it.”
The Rainbow and the Rose – Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute is commonly classified (or dismissed) as a “master storyteller.” He’s that, and more. In this novel, as in others by him that I’ve read, he gets his people right, and the subject that he’s most interested in is the many-faceted concept known as love. His approach is solid, matter-of-fact, but he can be innovative; in Rainbow he pulls off a remarkable switch in first person narrators. Ronnie Clark is trying to fly a doctor to the site where a pilot named Johnnie Pascoe crashed his plane while on a rescue mission. Ronnie’s first attempts to land fail due to the rough terrain and bad weather, but he’s determined to try again the next day. Since there’s no place for him to spend the night, Ronnie stays at Johnnie’s house – he wears Johnnie’s pajamas, sleeps in his bed. And he dreams. In his dreams we morph into a new narrator: Johnnie Pascoe. This switch is not done with a touch of the supernatural, nor is it explained. Nor did I question it (I merely noted how close the two men’s first names were). We’re in Johnnie’s mind, experiencing his relationships with three women when he was twenty, thirty-five and fifty-nine. That lasting love eludes Johnnie makes this the story of a man who never got life’s tender blessings, but whose back was never bowed. Because of its wistful, meditative quality, the book struck me as a kind of summing up. And, indeed, it was written in 1958 (Shute died in 1960, at age sixty). I haven’t yet read his last novel – Trustee from the Toolroom. I have read On the Beach, which came out just before Rainbow; in that book Shute handled intimate relationships with more restraint. Though he knew that it’s better to evoke feelings rather than state them, he sometimes says too much when dealing with Johnnie. He can be forgiven for this misstep, for it arises out of his attachment to the man. If Ronnie becomes Johnnie, Nevil was Johnnie.