Today, Laura Cooper stops in at Bacon to dish on a troubled relationship – and her journey to happily ever after.
I’ve spent the year estranged from an old and dear friend. I’ve tried everything you’re supposed to do in such a case: time apart; time together in a fresh environment. I’ve tried mixing it up, seeking out surprise and even a little danger. I’ve revisited the sites and relics of my old attachment, tempting ardor to return. I’ve blown gently on the embers.
I’ve let my head be turned by other flames.
My old – my wavering – passion? Prose fiction.
This crisis cannot be exaggerated. I’ve known myself, fundamentally, as a fiction lover ever since my mother strong-armed the Staunton Public Library to issue me an underage library card.
If one’s essential life flashes by at the moment of death, my montage will show me on a rolling ladder-stool in the Staunton stacks, near a tall shady window, culling a heap of novels down to the (miserly) seven I could borrow at one time.
It will include still frames of me sunk deep in a story on sunny afternoons and late nights; on planes, trains, and subway rides. Me preaching to non-fiction fans – those lovers of the footnoted fact – on the richer study of human nature, of the human heart, that good prose fiction makes possible.
When the crisis began, I first thought my problem might simply be contemporary fiction, its nature and its preoccupations. Not all new books, of course. (Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs is a creepy masterpiece, and Marilyn Robinson’s every word a perfect jewel). Still, maybe my problem was the overall modern tilt towards themes and treatments that don’t especially speak to me. (#kidsthesedays #getoffmylawn).
But it didn’t stop there. I tried classic authors, familiar and not: Balzac, Henry Green, and William Dean Howells; J.G. Farrell and Sybille Bedford. In vain, I tried John Irving’s newest, Avenue of Mysteries, and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor, his World War I trilogy (I’m holding back Brideshead to reread in a true emergency).
The months passed, and my disaffection grew. My usually tidy bedside book stack now spilled over with novels abandoned, left open, at page thirty, sixty, one hundred. For the first time, I discarded books without finishing them – without even skimming to the end, no chance for redemption.
Perhaps, I thought, the fault wasn’t in the books on the “New Fiction” shelf, nor in my dissatisfying stack. Perhaps, just maybe, my reading brain was so distracted and exhausted by our current politics, with its nonstop, debasing conflict, that it had forgotten how much it loved books altogether. Maybe my attention span’s been shot by hurricanes and North Korea, by White Supremacists and Robert Mueller. Fiction, it’s not you; it’s me.
In June, I promised this blog a fiction book review, due at the end of October. Four full months away. Surely, I would find an engrossing novel in time. For many weeks, the only book I actually finished was A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr, a sweet novella about a shell-shocked WWI veteran who finds a kind of peace through restoring a lost Medieval church mural in rural Yorkshire. Sweet and melancholy, and quite nicely written.
My deadline looming closer, I read John le Carré’s new book, A Legacy of Spies, the simultaneous prequel and sequel to his 1963 novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which basically invented the modern English-language spy thriller and launched the genius phase of his career. A Legacy of Spies, by the way, is not un-worth reading. I’ve always enjoyed le Carré’s intricate plots, rich settings and spy-craft detail, and the essential humanity at the core of his main characters, even those he assigns brutal, cold-blooded roles (like the Scalphunter Peter Guillam, Legacy’s protagonist.)
But this time, in the choppy wake of new revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Mark Halperin, Ben Affleck and goodness knows who else, I found A Legacy of Spies annoyingly ruined by le Carré’s old-school depiction of women, by how one-dimensional they all are. There’s the beautiful but icy Circus retainer, a cold princess locked in her tower of secrets. (Teaser: did the married George Smiley steal her heart and that’s why she stopped dating colleagues?) There’s the beautiful and lusty East German source too hot-blooded to survive this sordid world. There’s the beautiful and passionate English Communist, whom love leads to her execution at the Berlin Wall. The le Carré woman, one might fairly conclude, exists only to sleep with – or to elude sleeping with – a le Carré man. I know, he’s 85 and that’s the genre. But still.
Finally, I ran across a notice that Edward St. Aubyn, one of my favorite living writers, was publishing a new book on October 3rd. Relief! Just in time! His Patrick Melrose novels belong, in my view, on any “best of” list from the last 25 years (the first, Never Mind, appeared in 1992). His Lost for Words (2014) is a deeply hilarious spoof of elite fiction awards like the Man Booker Prize, and I regularly give it to friends going through a gloomy patch. His new novel, Dunbar, is the latest entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, which asks novelists to reimagine Shakespeare’s plays as modern fiction – in this case, King Lear.
While I waited for Dunbar, St. Aubyn’s tale of a Canadian media mogul who unwisely hands over his conglomerate to two scheming evil daughters while a third races to rescue him, I decided to re-read King Lear itself.
And I was cured.
From the moment Lear strides onto the page, mid-sentence, this story crashes along in an unmodulated roar of vanity, envy, cruelty, and selfish ambition. Everyone knows the plot: Lear, King of England, decides to divest power and divide his kingdom among his three daughters while he’s still alive so “that future strife may be prevented now.” (1.1.47). He plans “[t]o shake all cares and business from our age, Conferring them on younger strengths, while we Unburdened crawl toward death.” (1.1.40-43). Sounds sensible. Retire and enjoy the grandchildren.
But Lear’s fatal vanity seals his family’s doom. Instead of just parceling out the kingdom, as any sensible father would do, he demands that his daughters compete in a public show: which daughter will say she loves him most?
That’s the point, really. Lear doesn’t wonder which daughter in fact loves him most – he already knows that’s the youngest, Cordelia, his favorite (“our joy” (1.1.91); “I loved her most and thought to set my rest On her kind nursery.” 1.1.137). But his two older daughters, two splendid extravagant liars, know enough to pile it on. Says Goneril, with irony lost on Lear, “I love you more than word can wield the matter . . . . A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable.” (1.1.60,66). Regan, in turn, claims a love so great “that I profess Myself an enemy to all other joys . . . and find I am alone felicitate In your dear Highness’ love.” (1.1.79-80). Cordelia, the honest, says nothing: “my love’s More ponderous than my tongue.” (1.1.86). In a rage, King Lear disowns her, and divides England between Goneril and Regan.
King Lear’s power comes not from the events that follow. They are predictable, and not a little melodramatic. The new Queens Goneril and Regan mistreat Lear, first in small things – they slash his allowance and reduce his knightly staff – and then grotesquely, casting him out altogether into a ferocious storm. They send his own armies against him, and against Cordelia, who is trying to rescue Lear from her perch as the dowry-less wife of the King of France (who married her despite her disinheritance, because (1) she’s so lovely, see also, le Carré; and (2) France is always looking for a claim to England, even one that needs a little work). Lear goes mad, and wanders through a dark, Biblical wilderness, joined by refugees from a second family in crisis: the Gloucesters, whose illegitimate son, by seducing both wicked Queens at once, has managed to usurp both his legitimate older brother and his father the Earl. Eyes are gouged out! Friends masquerade as raving strangers! Lear and Cordelia reconcile, only to perish together in prison at the hands of the perfidious faux-Gloucester! Death by poison, hanging, and swordfight!
In the end? “All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly.” (5.3.351).
Yet King Lear, for all this hammy melodrama, speaks directly, piercingly, to the potent mix of love and rage that can surge up in any family – in any politics – no matter how ordinarily functional. Children vying for a parent’s favor, chafing against parents’ control. The old fearing a final irrelevance; the young fearing a path without glory. Pride and anxiety, greed and resentment. Lear’s characters act out of dread and panic; they are venal and cruel. They are relentlessly human. Cries a villain, “I pant for life. Some good I mean to do Despite of mine own nature.” (5.3.291)
To state the obvious, there is nothing coy or indirect about King Lear. It does not read like it has been workshopped or focus-grouped, and there is nothing meta about it. Elemental and violent, it makes evil ugly and rage grotesque, in men and women alike. It is, in my view, the perfect work of fiction – required reading, even – for our tumultuous time.
Oh, and Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar? By the time it arrived, I had survived the earthquake that was reading King Lear. After Dunbar’s first sixty pages, I put it aside out of fairness to the living. For Lear is its own modern version of Lear. We do not need another.
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For more from Laura Cooper on Swing Time by Zadie Smith, click here. Laura has recently won a writing fellowship residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts! Anyone surprised? No pressure, Laura, but: Expecting Great Things.
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Top image copyright here.