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Foiled

In response to:

The Christie Mystery from the December 21, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

My favorite part of NYR is the letters column, in which authors and reviewers slang each other, carve each other up, vituperate (is there such a word? Careful, here, lest some dread lexicographer should chance to read this), and generally lunge for each other’s jugulars. Even if one has not read the book or the NYR review of it, all this makes for enjoyable and diverting reading.

May I enter these lists—although a latecomer to my subject? It takes me a month of Sundays to catch up on back issues of NYR, and I have only just seen Julian Symons’s review of Agatha, by Kathleen Tynan [NYR, December 21].

He calls it “contemptible…ill-written…utterly vulgar…total nonsense.” Well! What brought that on, I wondered? For I, on the contrary, had thought it charming, well written and entertaining. I particularly liked the way Kathleen Tynan captured the Christie style and tone of voice, so that parts of it read like superb parody: “Jane, the parlourmaid, who was something of a pedant, nudged the butler. ‘Time to fetch the car,’ she said. The butler finished his tea in his own time and then went out to the garage.” I also relished K. Tynan’s meticulous recreation of the atmosphere and details of life in the mid-1920s and the high suspense of the mystery she has constructed, what reviewers of such fiction call a “cliffhanger.”

Perhaps the clue to J. Symons’s nasty, short, and brutish comment on Agatha is to be found in the passage where he says the book is “a work that must cause extreme distress to Agatha Christie’s family, who have unsuccessfully opposed both book and film.” Do we detect here a special pleading, one of those cases that abound in the English world of letters when at a signal from the loved ones the wagons are drawn in a circle, and snide polemics like this are fired off to curry favor with the family? If so, it seems a pity that this particularly unpleasant and small-pondish aspect of English literary relationships should have found its way across the Atlantic.

Now, for “Julian Symons replies.” I shall be waiting with baited breath, as a Southern friend of mine spells it. Come one, J.S.! Don’t disappoint me. After all, this is my first letter to NYR; think how frustrated I shall be if you simply drop your rapier and turn your back. Have at me, thou scoundrelly poltroon! Then I’ll have back at you, and so it will go on for many a moon, contributing, we must fondly hope, to the edification and joie de combat of NYR readers.

Jessica Mitford

Oakland, California

Julian Symons replies:

What brought that on, I wondered?” Well now, what brought on the wondering, why was JM moved to write a letter about JS’s review? Do we detect here a certain resentment of an unfavorable view of JM’s last book that appeared under JS’s name? Why, certainly not, any more than JM should be sniffing out an imaginary desire to “curry favor” with the Christie family. She should be content to assume that when I called Agatha contemptible, ill-written and total nonsense I meant what I said. Then she might see that the words are justified in the review. Total nonsense: see the plot summary. Ill-written: examples given. Contemptible: the project and its execution evidently so. If JM thought there were cliffhangers in the story, she can’t have hung from many fictional cliffs.

But still, everybody must be pleased that the review brought on JM’s very first letter to NYR. As for a prolonged duel though, enjoyable as it sounds, I’m really not up to it. From now on my foil is buttoned.

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