An Elegy for the Gentle Art of Viciousness.
Three days after my aunt Saroj died, I was surveying her library in her new house. Her husband, who blamed their new house for her death, wanted it packed up; he planned to go as far away as he could, take as little as he could, and stay gone as long as he could. Like any library, it was a glimpse into her soul, in this case the soul of a practical oncologist who had little time for the finer pleasures of literature. It was only on two shelves, stacked behind her desk, that my aunt revealed she had an astonishingly coy heart: every Georgette Heyer novel in the world, each stamped with a date, a place, a memory.
In the weeks since, I have often wondered about my own comfort shelf, a mix of science fiction and Wodehouse, and why it is that I, unlike so many other women, find no comfort in the cheery plots, regency settings, and smooth prose of Georgette Heyer. I like my relationship-novels to be arch, biting, even cruel—not for me the dashing dukes and modest maidens that make up so much of her world. Georgette Heyer is witty and often wise, but I don’t enjoy the illusions woven into her work, and I despise the convention of the happily-ever-after. I need my humour to arrive from a dark place, to be carried, as it were, upon the winds of satire. What puzzles me, of course, is why. Why do I need a twist, either of irony or, even worse, of malice?
All that thinking happened later. That day, surveying my aunt’s upstart romances, all I felt was a slight, affectionate twinge of pity: there was no one left to cherish these old paperbacks that she had so painstakingly collected. Then the phone rang, and a familiar tingle of dread surged up my spine.
It had all started about ten days before. When the first call came, I went into shock. My oldest friend’s mother was dead. Two days later, another. Cancer. Then another. Car accident. Then came Saroj Mausi, by which time my mind had been pummeled into resignation. I asked no questions, spilt no tears, was just grateful that this time, at least, I could show up and be useful, for the only thing lonelier than unrequited love is grieving alone. But here was my phone again, announcing another call from another continent, and it told me K was dead.
K, whom I had loved so long ago I had forgotten I still loved him. But this time I knew that I could no longer stay away; that I had to go home and greet his end. I could see it unfolding. I’d march straight up to his stranger of a wife, and announce myself to her: “I loved him too. A decade ago, your husband and my brother were sleeping together. They broke up, we got drunk…” and, once done with the whole salacious shambles, I’d likely find myself being offered tea and samosas and a baby to hold.
So there I was, staring at a shelf of Georgette Heyers and planning a prodigal return, living through a postmodern Barbara Pym novel, laughing uncontrollably. Life, they say, is sometimes weirder than fiction. It’s not. Death is weirder than fiction.
Kara Walker, Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occured between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (detail), from Guernica.
The book I was thinking of, in that instant, was The Sweet Dove Died, one of Pym’s most melancholy novels and the last one published in her lifetime. It takes its title, like many Pym novels, from a poem, but the title isn’t the only reason it floated into my memory. The novel is about a cold and elegant woman who finds passion late in life, with a man half her age, only to lose her lover to another man. The novel was a departure for Pym, featuring as it did a fading beauty caught in a whirl of shifting sexuality she doesn’t quite comprehend. Most of Pym’s heroines are dreamy, shabby women who survive on the fringes of gentility and grasp reality rather better than they let on. Leonora, Sweet Dove’s protagonist, is their foil: a woman whose confidence derives from her beauty rather than her wit, who believes herself worldly until the world proves her otherwise. A Sweet Dove Died seemed, in the circumstances, to be an uncanny parallel of my situation. I am the quintessential Pym heroine—a dowdy spinster who knows her way around a quote—and I had once fallen for a bisexual man who discovered he preferred elegance to intelligence. It was a reversal to do Pym proud, and I thought, yet again, what a deep misfortune it is for literature that there is no such thing as a postmodern Barbara Pym novel.