Rameau’s Niece is a jeu d’esprit for readers who would be able to guess that from the title, and who would feel at home in the milieu it inhabits. The milieu is defined by its “initial dinnerparty question…either ‘What is your field?’ or ‘What are you working on?’ depending on the degree of familiarity between participants in the exchange.’ The heroine, Margaret Nathan, is twenty-eight and has published a biography of an eighteenth-century French femme savante, an anatomist called Madame de Montigny. Unexpectedly the book made it to the top of the best-seller list because the critics praised it for being readable as well as scholarly. It also won Margaret a grant and an office at Princeton, which she doesn’t use because she is thoroughly dug into her life in New York.
Her handsome extrovert, boomingly articulate husband, Edward, teaches American literature at Columbia to worshiping students. He is English, an Oxford graduate, but this doesn’t prevent him from being Jewish—as Jewish as Margaret, i.e., not very. Their Jewishness is not part of the story, just part of the Manhattan setting, like jogging around the reservoir and waiting on line for lunch at restaurants with only four tables and names like You Are Hungry. Margaret and Edward have no religion, no hang-ups about the Holocaust or immigrant parents, no nostalgia for Brooklyn or the Lower East Side where they didn’t grow up. They are upper-middle-class intellectuals, and so, with one exception, is everyone else in this old-fashioned romantic comedy. In spite of its chic Nineties trappings one can easily imagine it made into an old-fashioned film with Margaret Sullavan, say, and Cary Grant in the leads. There is even a part for Charles Boyer.
Margaret is that old Hollywood favorite, the attractive bluestocking. The novel rides on her charm, and her charm comes from her engaging turn of mind and phrase, whether she’s speaking or just thinking. She is pretty, but socially inept, suffering from “panic, shyness, and critical disdain for her fellow man.” This does not extend to Edward, whom she adores. She is at work on the translation of an anonymous eighteenth-century French manuscript which she discovered in the course of her research on Madame de Montigny. It is called Rameau’s Niece, in imitation, she supposes, of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, and it is a conflation of ideas and whole passages lifted from Helvétius, Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke, etc.
Schine intercuts her novel with chunks from this manuscript, which—like Rameau’s Nephew—is in the form of a dialogue. On one level it is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of truth and how we come to perceive it; on the other an erotic tale of seduction—of a young girl by a philosopher twice her age. Schine must have had fun inventing this spoof text, which runs on a sustained double entendre. For instance:
Myself: [i.e. the philosopher]…Impressions are perceptions that are forceful and violent, external objects pressing in upon you.
She: At this moment, not only do I sense a glorious external object forcefully pressing in upon me, but in truth I feel myself to be nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions…
Myself:…which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity?
She: Yes! Exactly! They are in perpetual flux and movement!
Margaret is invited to Prague to give a paper to the Comenius Society. Her subject is “The Satin Underground,” a name she has invented for a genre she thinks will strike a chord with former consumers of samizdat literature. It consists of
eighteenth-century French philosophical works printed in Switzerland, then smuggled back across the Swiss border into France and sold by starving Parisian hacks who were then hounded by the police until they disappeared into exile, abject poverty, and utter obscurity. The discovery of Rameau’s Niece had drawn her into this study of underground literature, which included not only works by philosophers like Voltaire and Helvétius and Locke, but also titles like Venus, Wild in the Cloister and The Per der Guidance of Dom Bugger.
This stuff, combined with separation from Edward, has an aphrodisiac effect on Margaret. When she goes sightseeing in Prague, the Baroque statues, even the religious ones, seem to bulge and throb with sexual significance and desire. On the flight home between Paris and New York she is seriously turned on by the long eyelashes of her middle-aged neighbor, even after she discovers that he is not French, but Belgian. He turns out to have an introduction to her from his parents, whom she met as fellow tourists in Prague.
So she has an excuse to take him sightseeing in New York. She is restless, and beastly to Edward. She resents him: sometimes because she thinks he might have slept with one of his silky-haired young students in her absence, sometimes because she reasons that if she is dissatisfied with him, it must be his fault for being unsatisfactory. She argues out her predicaments to herself in the style of her eighteenth-century empiricists.
Eventually she argues herself into leaving Edward, and holes up in the dismal maid’s room of her gay publisher’s flat. She surprises herself by feeling overwhelmed with desire for her friend Lily, who rejects her advances. The Belgian rejects them too, on the grounds that she is his daughter’s age. Then Margaret begins to suspect Lily of sleeping with Edward: the thought helps her to justify yet another passion, this time for her dentist. Dr. Lipi (short for Lipinsky) has become overhelmingly attractive to her, even though his newsletter to patients proclaims: “A natural contract exists between each of us and his or her teeth. Each has a responsibility to the other. Man was born with an innate ability to care for his teeth—saliva.” And so on. Margaret recognizes that Dr. Lipi’s mind and style are deplorable, but he looks exactly like Michelangelo’s David, and so he is the one she finally goes to bed with.
The story is far from unilinear, and is studded with intimate scenes accidentally witnessed and then misinterpreted by other characters: the goingson remind one more of Feydeau than Marivaux. There is no underlying melancholy, and the end is both happy and virtuous; Margaret learns that Edward has never betrayed her with Lily (or anyone else), and magnanimous Edward forgives her single misdemeanor, though not until she has humbled herself by going to his office and asking him to take her back: there is a thin but sustained thread of cheerful antifeminism in this story.
It ends with Edward and Margaret making love on Edward’s office desk. But there is an epilogue: when Margaret’s book Rameau’s Niece and the Satin Underground is duly published, the critics spot a major howler: Rameau’s Nephew was written in 1761, but no one knew of its existence until a posthumous German translation was published in 1805; by that time the Satin Underground was a thing of the past. “Oh God!” said Margaret. “I forgot.”
Was Diderot himself the author? Did one of his friends, shown Rameau’s Nephew in confidence, write his own unpublished response? Or was it Diderot’s mistress? One of his students, perhaps, one with silky brown hair? Maybe Rameau’s niece wrote Rameau’s Niece! Rising from her bed, where she had spent the last several weeks in speechless mortification, Margaret began her research. And, dimly, she recalled something Diderot had said. Perhaps it was Diderot, anyway; perhaps it was what he said: It is my job to seek the truth, not to find it.
A nice postmodern ending to a very amusing novel, which is demurely antimodern all the way through.
April 22, 1993