Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"A profound and happy experience of love." Well, maybe not so much.

Following last week's post about Dostoevsky and adultery, to which this post will serve as a sort of haphazard addendum, I happened across the following passage in the 6 September 2007 issue of the London Review of Books, in a review by Stefan Collini of Peter Stanford's C. Day-Lewis: A Life (2007):
The novelist Rosamond Lehmann reviewed Poems in Wartime in the New Statesman: Day-Lewis, she proclaimed, was a "writer with a profound and happy experience of love." Day-Lewis responded to the review by inviting her to dinner, as one would.
You will not, I imagine, be surprised to learn that an affair followed the dinner nearly as quickly as dessert. I've pointed out before (somewhat facetiously and in relation to Thomas Hardy) that critics should always remember that their words can have unexpected effects on authors; in this case I can't help but wonder whether Lehmann might at some level have actually imagined her lines generating exactly the response they did--though I realize that's probably being unfair.

The affair continued, quite publicly, for years, ending when Day-Lewis fell for another woman, whom he would eventually marry. Text messaging not having been invented at the time, he ended the relationship with Lehmann by letter; one assumes that he when he left his long-suffering wife at the same time, he was at least forced to pay her the courtesy of telling her in person. (Long-suffering must be one of those adjectives that regularly sends writers of literary biography to their thesauruses--but how else can one properly describe the legion of devoted, disrespected spouses left in literature's wake?)

Surely Day-Lewis at least felt a bit guilty about his amorous indecisiveness, unlike the master of that sort of adventure, Casanova. His History of My Life--by turns charming and repellent, amusing and grotesque, yet extremely difficult to put down--may be the least repentant, least apologetic work I have ever read. If, like the Dostoevsky character I wrote about the other day, Casanova were to come face-to-face with a man whose wife he'd slept with, he surely wouldn't wait around to find out if the man knew about the affair. He'd instead start edging toward the door--through which, for a man of his boundless luck and insatiable desire, there would surely be other women to meet, preferably ones with less-attentive husbands. Even a wedding, after all, leaves him only thinking about the availability of the bride:
I left full of love, but without any plan, since I thought the beginning of a marriage presented too many difficulties.
Too many difficulties, that is, for an instant conquest; instead, he's forced to commit nearly a month to the task before he meets with success.

Which leads me to Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915) (which Ford wanted to title The Saddest Story after its justifiably famous opening line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard.") Written with a precision and restraint that brings to mind Ford's friend and mentor Joseph Conrad, it is an at times excruciating tale of self-deception and bad faith in marriage. In a 1927 Introduction to the novel, Ford recounts the following:
On one occasion I met the adjutant of my regiment just come off leave and looking extremely sick. I said: "Great heavens, man, what is the matter with you?" He replied: "Well, the day before yesterday I got engaged to be married and today I have been reading The Good Soldier."
Like Alfred Appel's story of having a bunkmate in the Army ask to read that smutty book Lolita, then toss it back to Appel after a few lines with a disgusted, "Dammit! That's literature!", Ford's story sounds a tad too good to be true. But Ford is long gone, and I hate to stand in the way of a good story, so I won't quibble.

The military angle allows me to bring this rambling post to a close by returning to Anthony Powell, and one of his least sympathetic characters, Lieutenant Odo Stevens. Jenkins meets Stevens in the early days of his Army service and describes him like this:
Narcissistic, Stevens was at the same time--if the distinction can be made--not narrowly egotistical. He was interested in everything round him, even though everything must eventually lead back to himself.
But while Odo Stevens is every bit as odious as the sound of his name would suggest, his crass self-regard allows him to get off one of the most unforgettable lines in all of A Dance to the Music of Time. While giving Jenkins a lift back to the base from a hectic weekend at the country house where Jenkins's wife and her family are staying, Stevens offhandedly comments,
Not feeling like going on the square tomorrow, are you? Still, it was the hell of a good weekend's leave. I had one of the local girls under a hedge.

And that, surely, is enough of that for today.

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