Friday, October 16, 2009

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers

Concluding the Lord Peter Wimsey novels with the marriage and honeymoon of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, Busman's Honeymoon is a delightful combination of romance and detective work. Sayers combines these two usually disparate genres seamlessly and quite successfully. She comments that "It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story." I enjoyed both aspects of the novel, for the love story lends a much more personal view of Lord Peter and Harriet, while the mystery is full of interesting characters, or suspects as the case may be.

Thus, it is inconvenient to the characters, but perhaps not surprising to the readers, that Lord Peter and Harriet find a corpse in the cellar of the house they have purchased in the country where they had hoped to spend a quiet honeymoon away from the press. Such quiet is not to be theirs, however, with a troop of villagers, hired help, detectives, and reporters who all seem to have an opinion to offer, their own sad story to tell, or simply a desire to be a part of the action. Under these circumstances, Peter and Harriet's strengths and weaknesses are both displayed in stark reality, and they learn more about themselves and each other in a few days than they had discovered over the five or six years of their previous acquaintance.

The characters in this novel are exceptional: there is the Superintendent of police who parries literary quotes with Peter and Harriet for several pages (an interchange which will probably leave most 21st century readers thinking they are shamefully uneducated, at least that was my feeling); there is Lord Peter's mother, the Dowager Duchess, who is just delightful and the perfect mother-in-law to Harriet who lost her mother years before; and then there is Bunter, Lord Peter's faithful butler who always seems to know the right thing to do or say no matter the situation, even one as uncertain as having a wife added to the household.

And then the love-interest truly is the heart of the story - what poetry, what beauty, what raw emotion and brutal honesty, what insights into male/female psyches and relations, as these few quotations will show:

On the thought that their wedding night was tarnished by the fact that the corpse had been in the cellar unbeknownst to them, Peter says, "Nothing that you or I have done is any insult to death - unless you think so, Harriet. I should say, if anything could sweeten the atmosphere that wretched old man left behind him, it would be the feeling we - the feeling I have for you, at any rate, and yours for me if you feel like that. I do assure you, so far as I am concerned, there's nothing trivial about it." (122)

"He appeared satisfied, but Harriet cursed herself for a fool. This business of adjusting oneself was not so easy after all. Being preposterously fond of a person didn't prevent one from hurting him unintentionally. She had an uncomfortable feeling that his confidence had been shaken and that this was not the end of the misunderstanding...He wanted you to agree with him intelligently or not at all. And her intelligence did agree with him. It was her own feelings that didn't seem to be quite pulling in double harness with her intelligence." (131-132)

"Peter accepted the tea and drank it in silence. He was still dissatisfied with himself. It was as though he had invited the woman of his choice to sit down with him at the feast of life, only to discover that his table had not been reserved for him. Men, in these mortifying circumstances, commonly find fault with the waiter, grumble at the food and irritably reject every effort to restore pleasantness to the occasion. From the worst exhibitions of injured self-conceit, his good manners were sufficient to restrain him, but the mere fact that he knew himself to be in fault made it all the more difficult for him to recover spontaneity. Harriet watched his inner conflict sympathetically. If both of them had been ten years younger, the situation would have resolved itself in a row, tears and reconciling embraces; bur for them, that path was plainly marked, NO EXIT. There was no help for it; he must get out of his sulks as best he could. Having inflicted her own savage moods upon him for a good five years, she was in no position to feel aggrieved; compared with herself, indeed, he was making a pretty good showing." (190-191)

Other passages are too lengthy to quote here, but it is worth reading this novel if only to contemplate the views of marriage and men and women's roles that are implicit in the story and dialogue. I found the tension between the individual and the unity of marriage as played out by these two highly intelligent characters to be very interesting, see especially pp. 307-308 and 324-325.

Another unique aspect of this novel is that we see the aftermath and how Lord Peter is affected after figuring out whodunit. While most mystery novels close with the pieces falling into place and perhaps the arrest of the criminal, the reader is simply left to assume that justice will be done, and the detective walks away brushing off his hands and thinking of a job well done. Lord Peter, however, is struck with intense remorse over the fact that his skills of deduction will cost a man, even a guilty man, his life. In the short time (four weeks at most) between the arrest, trial, conviction, and execution of a murderer [The British system is far more efficient than the American one], Lord Peter repeatedly visits the prisoner and spends a sleepless night before his execution. Harriet loyally but quietly supports him through his inner agony, waiting for him to share this part of the detective's life with her - a wait that ends with the most beautiful and poignant phrase of the book:

[Peter says], "I hate behaving like this. I tried to stick it out by myself."
"But why should you?" [Harriet replied]...
"It's damnable for you too. I'm sorry, I'd forgotten. That sounds idiotic. But I've always been alone."
"Yes, of course. I'm like that, too. I like to crawl away and hide in a corner."
"Well," he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, "you're my corner and I've come to hide." (400)

Well, I started in the middle and have now finished half of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. I suppose it's time to go back and start properly at the beginning with Whose Body?.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

In The Gift of Asher Lev, Potok brings the reader back to the intricacies and contradictions of Asher Lev's life 18 years after he left Brooklyn for a self-imposed exile in France at the close of My Name is Asher Lev. Asher is now a very successful and well-known artist with a wife and two children, who continues to live with the dichotomy of painting and drawing what is in him for the sake of art while at the same time living as an observant Jew, mindful of Torah and the Rebbe, the leader of the Ladover Hasidic movement.

This is perhaps the most psychological stream-of-consciousness novel that I have read, as the author uses Asher's thoughts, fears, dreams, and visions to convey his current struggles as well as the history of the intervening years and even his wife's memories of World War II. Alongside the nebulous images of Asher's psyche, the traditions and expectations of the Ladover Hasidic community continue to shape the course of his life, even if they feel he has betrayed them with his art. Asher knows he has the Rebbe's blessing to pursue his art, even though his artistic vision brings pain and confusion to the Ladover Jews, but he was not prepared for what the Rebbe asked of him in return. Indeed, the Rebbe's request is posed in riddles and never fully articulated - no one else seems to be aware of how the Rebbe is shaping the future of individual lives and the Ladover movement - but perhaps it is Asher's artistic vision that makes him able to understand the Rebbe's intent and forces him to wrestle with decisions that will forever change the life of his family and children.

This novel was more mystical and introspective than My Name is Asher Lev, but that is to be expected when the protagonist is no longer a child and has years of life experience to reflect upon. It continued the conflict introduced in the first novel and provides a very interesting study of tension between one's gifts or talents and one's beliefs. On the one hand, Asher's artistic talent is a gift from the Master of the Universe, but the Ladover think that he misuses this gift by painting images that do not further the work of God. Asher maintains that this ambiguity is in accord with the way the Master of Universe has ordered the world - it is the only way he can make sense of the senseless things that have shaped the lives of those he loves and the world at large. While Asher wrestled with these issues as an individual in My Name is Asher Lev, in The Gift of Asher Lev he is faced with the implications of his artistic gifts for his family and forced to make a difficult and undesirable choice to try to balance his family's interests with the desires of the Rebbe and with his needs as an artist. Ironically, the decision that seems to be made for the greater good of everyone - himself, his wife and children, his parents, and the Ladover community - leads to a separation that was not unlike what he experienced and resented as a child.

I do not know if the author wanted to convey the message that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children or to emphasize the paradoxes of life: that joy is mixed with pain, that fulfillment entails self-denial, that what is received must be given away. Perhaps both messages are inherent along with many more. Potok's writing is rich with layers of meaning and symbolism, which reflects the mystical life and vision of the Rebbe as well as the Jewish way of discussing many interpretations of a single text. At any rate, it is thought provoking, and I will be adding Chaim Potok's other novels to my to be read list.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

Since my local library did not have Busman's Honeymoon, the fourth and final Lord Peter/Harriet Vane mystery, I had to settle for another Lord Peter mystery that is set sometime during the years he is pursuing Miss Vane. There is only one rather veiled reference to Harriet Vane, however, and it seemed to me that Lord Peter was not quite as much the gentleman in this novel as in the ones where her presence is more pervasive. Nevertheless, the plot in Murder Must Advertise is captivating and witty as I've come to expect from Sayers.

Murder Must Advertise finds Lord Peter using his middle names Death Bredon to pose as a copy-editor in an advertising firm while investigating the strange death of a former employee. In unravelling the mystery he finds a complex web of drug dealing (in 1930's London, lest you think it is only an American problem of later years), blackmail, and murder. Lord Peter is a bit more rakish, a bit less genteel, a bit more unpredictable than I expected from the other three mysteries I have read recently, but it added to the fun of the novel to see these unexpected sides of his character, from dressing as a harlequin with a penny whistle to doing cartwheels down the office corridor. I must admit that I was rather lost during the detailed account of a cricket game, but apart from that the British humor is just delightful!

Sayers accurately and hilariously captures the undercurrents of a typical office with a host of colorful characters who love to chat and gossip in between doing their various jobs. Mixed in with the witty and sometime heated interchanges however, are remarkably astute observations about humanity and subtle (or not so subtle) comments on culture that are still quite accurate 75+ years later. On the morality of advertising, for instance...

"I think this is an awfully immoral job of ours. I do, really. Think how we spoil the digestions of the public."
"Ah, yes, but think how earnestly we strive to put them right again. We undermine 'em with one hand and build 'em up with the other. The vitamins we destroy in the canning, we restore in Revito, the roughage we remove from Peabody's Piper Parritch we make u into a package and market as Bunbury's Breakfast Bran; the stomachs we ruin with Pompayne, we re-line with Peplets to aid digestion. And by forcing the d--n-fool public to pay twice over - once to have its food emasculated and once to have the vitality put back again, we keep the wheels of commerce turning and give employment to thousands - including you and me." (54)

Or on the effectiveness of public education... "Wild 'orses,' declared Ginger [an office boy], finally and completely losing his grasp of the aitches with which a careful nation had endowed him at the expense of the tax-payer..." (106)

As in Gaudy Night, there is a not unfavorable reference to what, with a view of history, we would consider questionable politics when a character states: "What we want in this country is a Mussolini to organize trade conditions." (18) I find it fascinating to read novels from the '30's when history had not made it's judgment upon foreign dictators. It would be interesting to do a study of British or Continental fiction in the '30's and '40's to see how views changed over a decade or so.

As for the mystery itself, I found this puzzle to be easier to solve than the other Lord Peter/Harriet Vane novels I've reviewed recently. Perhaps that is because I'm more accustomed to Sayers' style, or perhaps it simply was more obvious in this book. At any rate, I'm looking forward to reading Busman's Honeymoon soon, since a friend has been so kind as to loan me her copy.