Milan Kundera’s new novel, Identity, written in French and marked at its end as “completed in France, Autumn 1996,” reads like a modest commentary on a famous page in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Charles Swann’s love for Odette de Crécy, entering its unhappiest phase, is described as an illness, in which physical desire, and even Odette’s person, play only a small part. Swann can scarcely recognize her in a photograph, can’t connect her face with his pain—“as though suddenly we were to be shown a detached, externalized portrait of one of our own maladies, and we found it bore no resemblance to what we are suffering.” The switch from Swann to us is striking; our identification with his condition is swiftly taken for granted. Proust’s narrator then, even more strikingly, relates love and death, not, he says, because of any of the “so vague” resemblances which are “always” discussed, but because both make us interrogate further, interroger plus avant, “the mystery of personality.” Who is it we love, and who are we, in love or out of it?
There are really only two characters in Identity, although to call them “characters” is pushing it a bit. Chantal and Jean-Marc are lovers, have been for years. They are happy, have no thought of separating, but then certain thoughts disturb their relationship, as if thoughts were worse than infidelity, more dangerous than distance or violence. These thoughts are what matter in Chantal and Jean-Marc, so that everything else about them, their jobs, their bodies, their past lives, their friends, their apartment, their styles of speech or dress, is merely sketched in, or not even sketched in.
The first words of the book are: “A hotel in a small town on the Normandy coast, which they found in a guidebook.” No name except that of the region, no evocation; not so much as a main verb to take the sentence beyond the effect of notation. Chantal has been married, and has had a child, who died, but that’s all the boy is: a child who died, his death merely the premise for her current freedom. “Child,” Kundera writes: “an existence without a biography,” but that wouldn’t distinguish a child from anyone else in this book. Chantal’s dead child is what allows her to despise the world, because “it’s impossible to have a child and despise the world as it is, because that’s the world we’ve put the child into.” Translation: the novelist has given her this child and taken it away again in order to make this point about the world.
It would be absurd to ask for documentary realism of Kundera, who specializes in erratic and edgy mentalities; but the people in this novel do seem to be very skimpily and casually imagined, unlike the characters in most of his earlier works, who are solidly and quirkily alive among abstractions, and whose very ideas become flesh. Here the flesh itself is an idea, if that. The novel’s abrupt dips into Chantal’s mental idiom—“Ah, how she hated that, eating alone!”—seem blandly conventional, and Kundera wheels out clichés as if they were a form of worldly (masculine) wisdom: “Suddenly it is the immemorial situation of a woman being chased down by a man,” “this immemorial action of women hiding a letter among their undergarments.” The imagery, too, comes from well-worn general stock: “I was cold as an ice cube”; “She is icy with honor.” Is this the effect of Kundera’s no longer writing in Czech? His previous, similarly very thin novel, Slowness, was also written directly in French. The language may be one answer, and the French isn’t any fresher than the English translation, but I think rather that Kundera is deliberately looking for bareness and the plain style and has gone too far; or that he overestimates the interest of what’s left.
Chantal’s disturbing thought occurs on the beach in that Normandy town. All the men she sees are carrying children or pushing strollers, and she decides that “men have daddified themselves. They aren’t fathers, they’re just daddies, which means: fathers without a father’s authority.” She wonders what would happen if she made a pass at one of these daddies. Would the man even be able to turn around? Then she thinks, “I live in a world where men will never turn to look at me again.” She is amused by this idea at first, but when she tells Jean-Marc about it she can’t get the tone right. “She tried to say it as lightly as possible, but to her surprise, her voice was bitter and melancholy.”
Jean-Marc hears the melancholy and feels excluded—why does she need other men to turn to look at her?—but he also has had his own disturbing thought. Arriving in the town after Chantal and looking for her on the beach after she has returned to the hotel, he momentarily mistakes another woman for her. This other person is “old, ugly, pathetically other.” How could this happen? “How is it possible that he cannot distinguish the form of the being he loves most, the being he considers to be beyond compare?” At this point the Proustian echoes, intended or not, seem particularly clamorous, and Kundera executes a number of variations on this theme. When Jean-Marc catches up with Chantal at the hotel, she doesn’t look like herself any more: “Her face is old, her glance strangely harsh. As if the woman he had been waving at on the beach must, now and forevermore, replace the one he loves. As if he must be punished for his inability to recognize her.” Chantal is changed twice, so to speak: once by her own experience on the beach, and once by Jean-Marc’s.
A few pages later Jean-Marc has a dream in which Chantal appears with “an alien and disagreeable face. Yet it is not someone different, it is Chantal, his Chantal, he has no doubt of that, but his Chantal with a stranger’s face, and this is horrifying, this is unbearably horrifying.” Even awake, Jean-Marc finds Chantal’s social self different from the person he loves, and his terror, in his bad moments, is not that he will lose Chantal but that he will no longer be able to distinguish her from other women, “that she would come to mean as little to him as everybody else.” The self-directed phrasing is important. Just as Chantal is free to despise the world as soon as her child is gone, Jean-Marc despises everything and everyone except Chantal. A lovely couple. Chantal is Jean-Marc’s “sole emotional link to the world…. She and she alone releases him from his apathy. Only through her can he feel compassion.” His love for her is his love of his ability to love her, a fragile form of self-congratulation.
Neither of the lovers is very secure in the self they prefer to the world. Troubled by Chantal’s need to feel looked at, Jean-Marc starts to write her anonymous admiring letters. She is touched and aroused by them, keeps them and hides them. When she realizes, by a few careful acts of deduction, that Jean-Marc is writing them, she thinks he is trying to trick her and get rid of her. He can’t understand why she is so upset by what he meant as a gesture of kindness, and their mutual misunderstanding sends Chantal off to London, with Jean-Marc trailing miserably after her. Certain sudden shifts of scenery and oddly recurring characters now suggest we have entered a realm of fantasy or hallucination, where Chantal gets trapped in an orgy and thinks she may be dead, and where Jean-Marc can trace her but can’t reach her. The end of the novel finds the lovers back together again, anxiously reassuring each other about their presence.
Just before this Kundera has teased us with speculations: “And I ask myself, who was dreaming? Who dreamed this story? Who imagined it? She? He? Both of them? Each one for the other? And starting when did their real life change into this treacherous fantasy?” These questions are less interesting than the one they seem to have displaced: Why would love, even happy love, be so prone to doubt and anxiety; what mysteries of personality have come unraveled here?
Letters and separation also figure significantly in The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto and A Lover’s Almanac; and John Bayley’s The Red Hat is, among many other things, a delicate meditation on the rewriting of love. The letters are anonymous and at the heart of Vargas Llosa’s novel; signed but not immediately opened in Maureen Howard’s book. In The Red Hat a timid and languid Englishman almost falls in love on reading a young woman’s letter to a friend and writes his own modest, bewildered companion piece. With all four of these novels in mind we might want to add a line to Proust’s parallel, and say that not only love and death but also love and writing keep turning up questions about personality. In writing as in love we see, if not our maladies, at least what may be a piece of ourselves externalized and independent, living a life of its own in the world. This other self is ours, but not recognized. Or it is recognized, but not our self. You don’t have to be a graphologist to get caught up in this riddle; and of course in writing about love the whole spectacle is dizzily doubled.
The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto picks up precisely where Vargas Llosa’s In Praise of the Stepmother (1988) left off, although the new work is much more densely elaborated. In the earlier novel the angelic stepson, Fonchito, all golden ringlets and blue eyes, short trousers and school uniform—we are told he has recently taken his first Communion—seduces or is seduced by his beautiful stepmother Doña Lucrecia. He is young enough to be repeatedly called a child and to present a perfect picture of sexual innocence; old enough to enjoy sleeping with his stepmother and, with seeming calculation, to let his father know of the (recurring) event. The boy’s father, Don Rigoberto, throws the wife out, which may be what the boy wanted all along.
In the new novel the boy is living with his father but secretly visits his stepmother after school each day. There are no further sexual misdemeanors on these occasions, but there is much suggestive talk, often focused on the drawings and paintings and life of Egon Schiele, who has become a passion with the boy. When the married couple are finally reunited, after a year of living apart, Lucrecia confesses that her abstinence had nothing to do with virtue. “I didn’t go to bed with him, but wait. Not because of any virtue in me, but because of him. If he had asked, if he had made the slightest suggestion, I would have done it. With the greatest of pleasure, Rigoberto.” These are hard words for a husband to hear, but perhaps not as hard for Don Rigoberto as for some, since he has made a nightly career out of mental voyeurism.
Don Rigoberto is an insurance lawyer, director of a company, a rich, conservative citizen of Lima, a man with huge ears and a corkscrew nose, poor equipment, we might think, for a would-be libertine. But then he is a very special kind of libertine, a connoisseur of lingering fleshly pleasure, but only with his own wife, in person before their break-up, and in the shape of her imagined, lovingly evoked phantom when she is away. Don Rigoberto has other interests too. He has a collection of “four thousand volumes and one hundred prints,” a number he maintains exactly by burning a book or a picture every time he acquires a new one, on the grounds that “it was stupid to inflict on other eyes a work I had come to consider unworthy of mine.”
He worries about these acts of destruction at first, but comes to think he is “engaging in literary and artistic criticism as it should be practiced: radically, irreversibly, and flammably.” Don Rigoberto writes elaborate, polemical letters (which he does not send) to an ecologist, a feminist, a sports enthusiast, a Rotarian, a patriot, a bureaucrat. He writes a fan letter to a voyeur. His tune is always the same, although the rhetoric is different each time. He will not and cannot join in what he calls “municipal” pleasures and projects. His only religion is his faith in “the rule of the free and sovereign individual”—accompanied where possible by his wife.
Don Rigoberto sees himself as “an intractable and unclassifiable spirit.” What about his job at the insurance company, we may ask, and his impeccably conformist upper-class life, the complete absence from the Peruvian social or political scene of the slightest trace of his libertarian dissent? Well, that’s the trick. Don Rigoberto is not saying he’s a hero, or even a philanderer. He is just a “modest epicurean and anarchist concealed in the civil body of a man who insures property.” He needs the job and the money to protect not only the privacy of his hedonist separatism, but its very possibility: “The world of fantasy, pleasure, and liberated desire, my only homeland, would not have survived unscathed subjected to the rigors of need, deprivation, economic worries, the stifling weight of debts and poverty.”
Don Rigoberto is eloquent rather than appealing, and I kept wondering whether he and Chantal and Jean-Marc might want to get together in a little society of scorn. But he is also one of Vargas Llosa’s finest and most self-renewing comic figures, caught up in all the social contradictions he keeps denying, and there is considerable pathos and bravery in his cantankerousness, since it is mainly a side effect of his attempt to get fantasy to do more than it ever can.
For all but the last few pages of this novel, Don Rigoberto is desperately dreaming of the presence of his absent wife, putting her through all kinds of erotic paces (sex amid a pile of Angora cats, a trip to Paris and Venice with a former suitor, a partner-switching night with his brother and his spouse, a couple of lesbian moments with a maid and a visiting diplomat’s wife, an incident à trois in a seedy club in Mexico), but only in his mind. He thinks of Calderón’s famous play La Vida es Sueño—“Life is Dream”—and Vargas Llosa, in a chapter subtitle, amiably inverts the phrase to read El Sueño es Vida, but Don Rigoberto’s sorry discovery is that the proposition is untrue both ways. “Life was not a dream, dreams were a feeble lie, a fleeting deception that provided only temporary escape from frustration and solitude….”
There is an interesting, perhaps insuperable difficulty of translation here, since the famous Spanish phrase lacks an article, and the usual version, sensibly followed by Edith Grossman, tells us only that Life is a Dream (or Dream is a Life), not that life is (inescapably, completely) indistinguishable from the state of dreaming. The whole of life is dream, Calderón says, and dreams are dreams too: que toda la vida es sueño,/ y los sueños, sueños son. Don Rigoberto, I should add, understands the Spanish as if it were idiomatic English; and writes, in the passage I have just quoted, exactly as the translation says, “La vida no era un sueño.”
What brings Don Rigoberto and Doña Lucrecia happily if nervously back together is a sequence of anonymous letters each has received, and which each thinks comes from the other. They all turn out to be the work of the angelic Fonchito, who has rifled his father’s notebooks to get a sense of his taste and manner, and has made up his stepmother’s style by borrowing freely from the works of the sentimental writer Corín Tellado. Fonchito no doubt wants to repair the damage he has done in the earlier novel, but he is such a wonderfully ambiguous figure that there is really no knowing what he is up to. What is called the “savage little light” in his eyes is ultimately unreadable. He is clearly smarter and more mature (and more devious) than anyone else in the book, so perhaps he means to prepare both a happy ending and the possibilities of intricate and perverse disaster in the future. The ominous last words of the novel, after Don Rigoberto and Doña Lucrecia have failed to decide what to do about Fonchito—they can’t keep him with them and they can’t send him away—are: “In spite of everything we’re a happy family, aren’t we, Lucrecia?” Cue for a sequel to the sequel.
Time, appearing as a chorus in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, says it pleases some and tries all of us. It’s a cheerful thought, since most writers, ancient and modern, find time merely trying, possibly redeemable but hardly ever a source of pleasure. “A Winter’s Tale,” a subtitle, are the first words before the story starts in Maureen Howard’s acute and haunting new novel, and the play itself is quoted later, to signal a narrative elision, a time beyond what seems to be the end of the tale:
I turn my glasse, and give my Scene such growing
As you had slept between
A Lover’s Almanac tells the story of three months in the lives of various lovers, lost and found, young and old, past and present—chiefly those of two thirtysomethings, Louise Moffett, a New York painter, and Artie Freeman, a sporadically employed computer whiz. The months are January, February, and March of the year 2000—Howard has reserved the other months, perhaps of different years and almost certainly inhabited by different characters, for two future volumes to make up a trilogy.
The millennium, barely over in the opening pages of the book, seems at first to be just a missed chance. “Louise Moffett cries in the ruins,” we read at the start of the story. The ruins are those of Louise’s party, held for New Year’s Eve, the last moments of the old century and the first of the new, and she has had a row with Artie, whom she loves and wants to marry but who is too shaky in his sense of himself to contemplate such a drastic descent into stability. The party, to complicate our sense of time, was in 1950s fancy dress. It takes Louise and Artie most of the three months of the novel to get back together again, but that’s quick compared with Don Rigoberto’s and Doña Lucrecia’s twelve-month estrangement. Artie sends letters, calls Louise; she doesn’t answer. He visits his grandfather, thinks about looking for a real job. Louise pulls herself out of her gloom and gets back to work. She leaves the door of her loft open for Artie’s return, a forlorn hope until one night he is there when she gets back from an art show. The reunion is ecstatic but the future uncertain. The millennium, though, or at least the next quarter-century, now looks like an opportunity.
Louise has all but cut herself off from her farm childhood in Wisconsin, and from her aggressive, all-modern-methods farming dad and her mild, submissive mother. Her family is too much, while Artie’s is too little. His mother died in a boating accident when he was eleven, and, raised by her parents, he has never known who his father is. Louise’s moment of illumination, and paradoxically the renewal of her faith in the possibility of marriage, comes about when she realizes that her mother can be separated from her father and be happy, that even the most conventional of persons may know how to rebel, and Artie’s moment comes when he finds and meets two men, old admirers of his free-loving mother, one of whom may be his father. In fact, one of them is, although Artie can’t see his idea of “father” in the defeated priest that this man has become. But Artie’s freedom resides in his finally knowing how to give up his quest for his father, not in defeat but in a turning from an imaginary then to an actual now.
Not all is splendor or cheer, though, which is why the illumination makes so much sense. “He quits the believing…if ever it was belief in the phantom father…yet his sorrow is immense, real as the knowledge that he can’t subtract loss from what he never gained.” You can’t lose the sense of loss, and you shouldn’t try. One of the strongest connections between Artie and Louise is his feeling for the unkinder meanings of the word “home.” “I see,” he says when he first looks at her little paintings of the family farm, recreated not as it was but as it felt to a child. “Home. The crippled viewer, the crippling view.”
Times and places crisscross through memories and flashbacks in the novel: New York and Wisconsin and elsewhere in the 1950s and 1960s and the year 2000. We learn about the other lovers, whose lives have been affected by the century’s horrors in ways that the young people find it hard to imagine: Louise’s independent-minded Aunt Bea and her refugee intellectual; Artie’s grandfather, Cyril, and his once abandoned and now reencountered lover, Sylvie. Sylvie is an Austrian escapee from the Anschluss, raped as a little girl by a German soldier and unable, even in old age, to forget the sour smell of that violence. Her mother, Inge, is a more versatile survivor, hanging out with émigré intellectuals in California and then marrying the rich Billy Ray Boots, of River Oaks, Texas. Still, Sylvie finds something like peace in her reunion with Cyril, whose wife of many years is now dead, and whose only family tie is Artie. What is said of Cyril could also be said of Sylvie: “old and strangely in love or in love strangely, go figure.” This too is a way of talking about the mystery of personality.
All of this is evoked in rich, crowded, metaphor-making prose. Sometimes we wonder who is speaking, whose consciousness this is which runs so fast, and then we realize it is the writer’s, in and out of her characters’ heads. Artie buys a steak and a soup bone for his grandfather, for instance, and takes a bus across Central Park. The butcher’s bag in the following quotation is his. The eyes and thoughts, however, except for the thought about the destination of the Pope’s blessing, seem to be his and everyone’s.
The passengers…observe the iced rocks shimmering black in the sun, toppled trees and torn branches, a shutter flapping at the barracks where patrol cars snort, ready to drive their routes where no dog or jogger or criminal element yet roams. A still, colorless world: ebony limbs, white hillocks severed sharp as canyons by the wind, lamp posts crowned with turbans of snow. Grand, the close-up as well as the panoramic view. As the bus skids toward the Museum, a woman in a leather hat, slick black hide pulled tight to her skull, follows the rivulet of blood which drips from the butcher’s bag across the face of her New York Times, miraculously published this day, across the face of the Pope in his white robes blessing Artie’s beef bone.
It’s almost too much, too busy; or seems so, until we remember the work this restless notation of details and associations is doing, and the model it has drawn on.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac (established 1792), glanced at in Howard’s title, is a compendium of dates and facts and sagacity, confident in its predictions, a little garrulous, in the manner of Shakespeare’s talking Time. For June 1998, for instance, after telling us about the conjunction of the stars and the phases of the moon, times of sunrise and sunset and of high tide at Boston, it gives us three amiable paragraphs on June butterflies, a quotation from Einstein (“gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love”), a couple of bits of anonymous wisdom (“Nature does nothing in vain,” “A trusting heart is an easy mark for the cunning scoundrel”), and lists a series of feasts and events for particular days of the month: St. Boniface (5th), first drive-in movie, Camden, N.J., 1933 (6th), Magna Carta sealed, 1215 (15th), Amelia Earhart flies across the Atlantic, 1928 (17th), Willie Mays graduates from high school, 1950 (20th). Information seems endlessly available, recyclable, but also eccentric and random. What logic produces these snippets and not others? Could there be such a logic?
A Lover’s Almanac reads entirely like a (very good) novel in which the lives and sensibilities of such characters as Louise and Artie become memorable; but it borrows an effect from the Farmer’s Almanac by inserting into the story brief, casual-seeming almanac entries. We learn, for the first months of the year 2000, of the Feast of the Circumcision and the Eve of St. Agnes, the birthdays of William James and FDR (all January); of the birthdays of Gertrude Stein, Edison, and Ann Lee, founder of the celibate Shakers, the death of John von Neumann in 1957, the burning of Jefferson’s library in 1770, Hitler’s threat to annex Austria in 1938, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (February), the birthdays of Alexander Graham Bell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Haydn, and the founding of the New York Stock Exchange in 1817 (March).
The result of these brief and lively lessons, often but not always associated with events in the lives of Howard’s fictional characters, is that all these historical persons and occurrences, in spite of their different centuries, seem to belong to one circling year, as if they are bound to keep coming back, cropping up again and again but also each time for the first time. And more important still, these quirky acts of cultural memory, through the eager, grasshopping curiosity which animates them, and through their very failure to add up to anything more than fragments, suggest something of the immensity of what we might know but don’t. The Farmer’s Almanac was born in the century of the great French Encyclopedia, but it looks like an encyclopedia in reverse: a demonstration that only pieces of knowledge can be represented, or even that knowledge is just a matter of pieces. This is of course a late-twentieth-century reading of the almanac’s achievement, but that, Howard would say, is where we are.
Time for Howard is always then and now, but the really difficult time, the one we need to love and have such trouble with, is now. We need to learn, as in The Winter’s Tale, that time can be on our side as well as against us, and this is where the details, even random details, may help—since their scattering and incoherence, combined with their unmistakable concreteness, may defend us against the coercion of large stories, either oppressively upbeat or irredeemably glum. Howard is moved by the thought of Haydn in London, jotting down the price of a roasting chicken, of a measure of coal, interested to know how many baskets of gooseberries were served at Lord Barrymore’s ball. We may be skeptical, Howard suggests, about Haydn’s self-proclaimed “cheerful heart,” perhaps even about the untormented perfection of his music, but his attention to detail brings him closer to us, just as Howard’s own prose catches us up and won’t let us go.
No, in honesty we cannot, in these hellish, postindustrialist days, sell you the elixir, the tonic of Haydn…. We must cut Franz Joseph down to fit the page of our Almanac, as we have trimmed Franklin, Edison, Bell, von Neumann, noting their failures and amusing foibles….
We have to do this, Howard’s narrator is suggesting, although we are “poorer” for it. Honest but poor, that’s us. But the Haydn who was interested in the price of a chicken was also “in love with a charming widow.” We can care about this couple and their attachment to “domestic details”—as we can also care about Howard’s modern characters—without selling any elixirs or cutting anyone down to our idea of size.
All three of the novels discussed in detail so far are explicitly dated on their last page. France, autumn 1996 (Kundera). London, June 28, 1997 (Howard). October 19, 1996 (Vargas Llosa, in the Spanish edition). Howard even tells us, about a quarter of the way through her book, what the time is now, as she writes, calling it a “blessed moment”: “91å?2 minutes before 2 P.M. of this 23rd day of August, A.D. 1996.” The symmetry among the three texts is even neater if you think, as I do, that A Lover’s Almanac is eloquently and unmistakably a New York novel, so that the name of the city scarcely needs writing with the date.
The suggestion of these discreet but insistent traces of the hand of the actual author is that love is not timeless, but local, a matter of particular places and times, identifiable countries and cities and years. Howard explicitly compares Louise Moffett’s artwork The Progress of Love with a work of the same title by Fragonard, “a series of wall panels in which lovers are restored to the garden where they play erotic games under a china-blue sky.” Louise’s show, by contrast, has two plexiglass bins full of plasticine hearts and cheap charms and favors, old bridal photographs, a kitsch image of the Sacred Heart.
“We see how diminished our time,” the narrator comments, “how black-and-white earnest the libidinal nature of consumerism,” but the narrator is getting carried away by anti-presentism. What the contrast between the two artworks suggests, in the context of the novel, is not simple diminishment but a ratcheting up of the difficulty of love, which now has to find its way not among courtly subterfuges but among self-consuming ironies, among the endless ambushes of late-modern mockery and despair. “It seems,” Louise thinks, “you must reinvent yourself to meet love’s impossible demands.” This is probably true of most times and places, but the language of invention must change, and perhaps the very notion of impossibility changes too. It almost certainly couldn’t be the same in the eighteenth century and the early days of the twenty-first. This is not to say that love’s impossible demands cannot be met, in any time or place, if you are lucky, and if your self-invention is up to scratch.
John Bayley doesn’t date The Red Hat, doesn’t appear, in this sense, on his own pages at all. The author stays tactfully dead and leaves all the talking (all the writing) to his characters. But this also is a novel about self-invention, and about love as an interrogation of personality. The first half of the book takes the form of a letter written from Nancy Deverell to her friend Cloe Winterbotham—the names seem to place us somewhere between P.G. Wodehouse and Anthony Powell. “Friend” is not quite the right word, as Nancy is quick to tell us. “Cloe is supposed to be what we once used to call my best friend.”
Cloe is my best friend, yes: but actually I hate the idea of best friends. Or friends of any sort, come to think of it. What’s the point of them?—why such a big idea? There are people you know, and a great many more whom you don’t, and that’s about it.
This sounds like cynicism, and similar remarks in Kundera’s Identity are cynical, weary dismissals of the very notion of friendship, but Nancy is too breezy and light-hearted for cynicism. She just thinks friendship is a tie, a restriction, and she wants to be on the move. Nancy is in The Hague with Cloe and Cloe’s fiancé Charles, “about as queer as they come,” according to Nancy, but “trying pretty doggedly to be in love with Cloe.”
They are there to see a Vermeer show, and to have a good time. Cloe and Charles take themselves and Vermeer very seriously, and bicker a lot; Nancy’s not too serious about herself or the art, but she identifies strongly with the person in the picture called Girl with a Red Hat. Is this person a girl? “She’s a girl,” Nancy says, determined to be sophisticated about gender matters, “and yet she’s not a girl. She’s a boy. That’s obvious. At least it’s obvious if you really start to think about it.” Nancy also thinks this figure bears a startling resemblance to herself, although no one else comments on it, so perhaps she’s projecting a little. What Nancy likes about the person in the painting is that he/she seems not only to have been lively once but to be lively now, ready to skip the frame:
It’s the picture of Vermeer, perhaps the only one, which has a future, if you see what I mean. That girl or boy is going somewhere, though he or she doesn’t know where. None of the others are: they have become their pictures. That red hat person is getting out—is on the way out as she looks at you.
Nancy takes the red hat as the sign of adventure, a disguise which is also a permission. “It was a real red hat situation,” she says, and wonders, “What would the girl in the red hat have done?” She has plenty of occasions for asking, since she meets a dark, mysterious man in the hotel elevator, who later comes and makes love to her in the night, and later still tells her he is a Mossad agent and threatens to kill her. Nancy wears an improvised red hat to a fancy-dress ball, loses it in the drunken aftermath of the festivities, and closes her account of these Dutch doings with a report of her reconciliation with the putative secret agent, who’s got over wanting to kill her, it seems. He has bought her a splendid red hat to replace the one she has lost.
It’s black velvet lined with white silk, under the red plumes. I put it on every evening…and look at myself in the mirror. I’d thought of sending it to you, Cloe, before I go, as a sort of consolation prize. But now I think not. No, I shall take it with me on my journey back to him.
The second half of the book presents a memoir by Roland, a diffident chap with a private income who is a friend and admirer of Cloe’s. Roland has read Nancy’s letter, and agrees, at Cloe’s suggestion, to go to France and see if he can find Nancy, where she has apparently gone to live with her Israeli, if that’s what he is. “I was struck by her tale of events,” Roland says, sounding like Bertie Wooster when he is concentrating hard, “to the point of wishing with what for me is quite remarkable intensity to get to know this peculiar girl.”
The narrative voices are beautifully done and are among the great pleasures of this book. Roland is as elegantly stuffy as Nancy is casual and scatty. Nancy is fond of words like “rackety,” for example, and mildly says, “What has to be called my mind was still divided between the two possibilities.” Roland uses phrases like “the fishiest part of the whole business,” and his high point of romance comes when he almost lets himself go. Nancy is strolling across the top of the great viaduct of the Pont du Gard, Roland is watching from down below, by the river. She waves, and “her gesture…seemed to carry an immense significance. I felt suddenly and at once that I loved her: needed her, wanted to protect her. She was so far away, and in the last few days we seemed to have come so close.” This is so unlike him that he is glad to get it over with. “All an impulse of the moment of course,” he says in the next sentence. “By the time she was back beside me at the car I felt quite normal again….”
Quite normal. Roland has fallen in love with Nancy’s story, and is half in love with Nancy, because he thinks the whole tale is a fabrication, a harmless alternative to a cozy life. He is perfectly sure that there is no swarthy Mossad agent whom Nancy is hooked on, and who may return at any moment to beat her up—until someone remarkably like this fellow turns up and threatens them both. Carrying a red hat. The chances are that Nancy has been telling the unlikely truth all along, but her truthfulness is not the main preoccupation of this very engaging novel. What Bayley is asking us to think about is our sense of what’s odd and what’s not. What is out of the range of our experience is not necessarily implausible. What seems probable is not necessarily what’s happening. “And was she so incomprehensible?” Roland asks about Nancy. “Perhaps she was no odder than anyone else?” She is more fun than anyone else Roland knows, and when he learns that her Dutch/French affair is over and that she is returning to England, he is overwhelmed by “a really ghastly depression.” Can it be that she is “just like everybody else”? Can one give up wearing the red hat? Perhaps one has to.
Identity is the only unalluring book among these four novels about love. Its air is too thin, and its ideas, interesting as they are, are just dangled rather than worked on. The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto is immensely accomplished, the book of a craftsman, only a little dogged in pursuit of the formal scheme it has set itself, each section repeating the shape of the last. A Lover’s Almanac is the richest, most substantial book of the four, the one to return to, because it is crowded with detail and associations, not always easy to gather at first go. The Red Hat is the lightest and most surprising of the books, driven by the purest sense of mischief.
So had Nancy become odd, or strange or peculiar or whatever one called it, because of what she had written down about herself? Rather in the same way that people in portraits become strange and unique to our eyes just by being painted. If the painting’s good enough, that is….
Becoming peculiar or whatever we call it may be a way of becoming ourselves: not eccentric but clarified. One of the lessons of love and writing, and above all of the writing of love.
July 16, 1998