Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Continuing to fall for Alice Thomas Ellis

With every book of hers I read--in hideous large-print editions because that's all Chicago Public Library has--it becomes more clear that Alice Thomas Ellis is nearly a perfect writer for me. She's funny, mordant, and impressively dark, much of her whiplash humor coming from the combination of her characters' terseness and their seeming lack of social filters. Ivy Compton-Burnett, her most obvious influence (who knew that a writer as sui generis as Compton-Burnett had a legacy?), shares that trait, but Ellis also brings to mind the social comedy and satire of Barbara Pym and Penelope Fitzgerald, and the clear-eyed believer's often-comic understanding of religion that we find in J. F. Powers.

One writer I'd not linked her to until the most recent book I've read, Pillars of Gold, is P. G. Wodehouse. Yet there are a number of Wodehousian attitudes or turns of phrase in the book. Even as simple a bit as this description of an emotionally disconnected husband listening to his wife--
Scarlet said much more, and while he had not listened closely, he had got the gist.
--smacks of Wodehouse, whose characters, distracted, apprehend the world largely as a gestalt rather than a concatenation of specific details.

Then there's the borderline criminality of so many of Ellis's characters, and the sense that even murder is a problem only to the extent that it will out. Wodehouse's characters would never stoop to murder, of course--blithe violence being much more the territory of Compton-Burnett's family jealousies--but they do fret an awful lot about the depredations of the long arm of the law. Read the following passage from Pillars of Gold and imagine that Constance is a Wodehouseian aunt--in the brash, Aunt Agatha mold:
"It's not your fault," said Constance. "If you was anyone else, I'd say, get divorced, but you did that once and then you went and got married again. You can't help yourself. It's your destiny--all writ up in your stars. You could kill him, I suppose, but you've got to remember this: if you do, what you have to do next is ruffle up your hair and mess up your garments and appear howling and all distressed at your local nick, saying you don't know what came over you. On no account look out your passport and make for the airport because they'll catch you in customs and the judge will be cross and tell you you're a calculating murderess and give you twenty years. If you follow course one, you'll get off with a caution or three month's community work. That's today's Helpful Home Hint."
And to think I've got another ten books to read!

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