Bad Characters

Two Novels: The Snow Ball and The Finishing Touch

by Brigid Brophy
World, 253 pp., $4.95

The Soul of Kindness

by Elizabeth Taylor
Viking, 247 pp., $4.50

When a woman writes economically there is likely to be a wanton comparison to Jane Austen. The authors of both books under review have received this accolade, in one case at least with preposterous irrelevance. Considering that Jane Austen belongs to a world as remote as Lady Murasaki’s, the comparison is bound to be absurd. But even Elizabeth Taylor and Brigid Brophy are worlds apart. Miss Taylor takes the novel as she finds it (spruced up a bit by Henry Green perhaps), fills it with ordinary English people, and self-effacingly lets them live a passage of their lives which shows us what they are. Brigid Brophy flings herself upon the novel as if it were an exercise machine and she a programmatic gymnast.

The Snow Ball is a sort of prosy musical joke, though hardly like one by Mozart, with whom Brigid Brophy seems to be on close terms; Meyerbeer perhaps. The author begins with an epigraph from a book written by herself (Mozart the Dramatist): “That most fascinating subject for gossip, whether, when the opera opens, Don Giovanni has just seduced or has just failed to seduce Donna Anna will no doubt go on being debated for another two centuries.” The novel provides an all-night debating ground. An eighteenth-century costume ball is being given on a contemporary New Year’s Eve by a fleshy lady named Anne. Her closest friend, another middle-aged Anne, who has obligingly changed her name to Anna, has elected to come to the ball as Donna Anna. The two women—whose relationship seems oddly playful and interdependent for women above school age—posture and play together in a white bedroom, gloatingly described. When Anna descends to the ball she glimpses a masked Don Giovanni, flees him, then seeks him. They meet, talk about what interests them (especially: Did Don Giovanni seduce Donna Anna?), go off to bed together, where he at last removes his mask and she has a two-page orgasm. They return in time to see an enigmatic fellow-guest fall dead on the dance floor; they part once more and Anna goes home alone, thinking of death. Played off against the main plot is a little counter theme involving a young couple dressed as Casanova and Cherubino.

But the plot is chiefly a stage for the play of three ideas. When Don Giovanni asks Anna what she chiefly thinks about, she sums it up neatly: “Mozart, sex, and death.” Considering the latter preoccupation, however, one wonders what to make of an observation by Don Giovanni a little later: “Obsessive thoughts about death are in inverse proportion to the frequency of sexual intercourse.” For Brigid Brophy evidently puts a very high value upon sexual intercourse. Anna gazes at a statue of Cupid—described, oddly enough, with beady-eyed disgust—and offers “a prayer to the only god she believed in: but him she believed capable of saving the world.” Like other ideas in this book, however, this estimate of the powers of Eros is stated …

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