Friday, August 12, 2011

The Calculation of Other Meanings - #44 and #45

STORIES:  “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (1964) and “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” (1973) by Margaret Drabble


BASICALLY:  Both are stories of a repressed character who finds their self-control suddenly slipping.
  • In “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” a young man named Humphrey feels uncomfortable at a party where he doesn’t know anyone.  In one corner, an attractive redhead is holding court with her many admirers.  He makes his way to her but of course she ignores him--until he improvises a startling method for catching her attention.
  • “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” follows television personality Jenny Jamieson as she cooks, cleans, and manages her household, attends a committee meeting, and has lunch with a clergyman whom she’ll be interviewing on her program.  But it’s her afternoon appointment that throws her whole day off-kilter and makes every interaction, except those with her children, seem meaningless.  For months, she’s been ignoring an alarming, unexplained feminine bleeding, and now the doctor confirms that she needs to return for surgery as soon as possible.  Though her condition is never explained in detail, we know it’s bad, and Jenny starts bleeding again from all the digging around the doctor did during her appointment.  She begins to reflect on death, believing her own to be imminent.  But she still shows up to her final task of the day, a speaking engagement at a girls’ school.  There, as Jenny lectures winningly about new opportunities for girls, her clothes slowly soak with blood.

And with that giant gob of Courier font washing across your monitor, you may have picked up on just how it is I plan to catch up on my Year of One Hundred Stories …(HINT:  It’s not by continuing the recent trend of not posting for large chunks of time.  Sigh.)  Actually, I declare unto you, henceforth I shall be doubling up on stories as the mood strikes me.  I am blogger, hear me roar.  My goal this year is first and foremost about reading a hundred stories and, to be honest, penning a hundred separate write-ups seems a little unnecessary.  I mean, the write-up is important (if for no other reason than that my brain is a sieve and retains nothing if I don’t write it down), but synthesizing multiple stories into a single cohesive essay is its own intriguing challenge.  Let’s see if I’m up to it, shall we?

I picked today’s stories, as usual, without much of a plan.  I happened to like their titles, and because the pieces in this collection are organized chronologically, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get two that were right next to each another.  That’s why I was so weirded out by how much each reminded me of the other.  If I’d been looking for two stories to compare and contrast, I couldn’t have chosen more aptly.  Although you can see from the outlines above that their plots are quite different, and “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” is much longer (and therefore more multifaceted) than “Les Liaison Dangereuses,” these two stories have a curious sameness to them.  In fact, to my eyes, they represent a single basic technique, or maybe I should say an approach, as initially applied by a less-developed writer and, later, by one more developed.  They just happen to be the same writer, which is marvelously instructive.

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” published in 1964, is very short and encompasses a single action in a brief space of time.  Humphrey, a young man at a party, hovers unseen behind a beautiful and popular stranger, finally turning her attention to himself by—I’m about to spoil this for you, so hang onto your hat—by setting her hair on fire with a candle. Totally spontaneously, but totally on purpose.  Yikes, dude.  The bulk of the story leading up to this startling ending is taken up with Humphrey’s self-involved reflections on the rudeness of the other guests who ignore him, and trying to decide whether he should leave, and bitter judgments about the various attractive females who don’t so much as look at him.

What comes across about this young man is how uptight he is.  He follows the conversations around him closely, but he’s sort of shocked that no one’s polite enough to invite him into their conversations and resents that the other partygoers “seemed to be getting on quite nicely without him” and his “unoriginal views on Harold Pinter. On the other hand, he did not really want to leave.”  Humphrey begins as a person who is emotionally frozen by an unfamiliar setting filled with intimidating strangers.  But, ultimately, he surprises even himself with his ability to take action.  And here’s the zinger—Humphrey is socially rewarded for his entirely senseless (if mild) violence.  Self-assurance itself is enough to win the day, and apparently also the heart of the redhead:
“What did you do it for?” she cried, in a positive blaze of admiration, the kind of excitement kindled by duels or the Rape of the Sabine Women or indeed any violent and decisive action taken in the cause of passion.
            “Oh, well,” he said, with nonchalant pride, as though such inspirations came to him every day of the week, “I just wanted to attract your attention, that’s all.” 
Although 1973’s “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” is far more complex—the time span is longer and augmented by flashback, the topic more serious, and Jenny Jamieson considerably more fleshed out—it likewise features a protagonist who is discovering cracks in the system of social norms she has always adhered to.  Jenny has navigated society’s demands with ease; she’s always been able do exactly what was required of her, and do it in a way that others found pleasing.
She always managed to say the right things to everyone; she never offended and yet never made people dull. She was intelligent and quick, she had sympathy for everyone she talked to, and all the time she looked so splendid, sitting there shining and twinkling…She told everybody that she loved her job, that she was so lucky, that it fitted on so well with the children and her husband…She didn’t take herself very seriously—it’s just an entertainment, she would say. I’ve been lucky, she would say. All I do is have the chats I’d love to have at home, and I get paid to do it. Lovely!
I can just imagine Humphrey, in the other story, gazing from afar at Jenny Jamieson, telling himself how stuck up she must be and simultaneously longing to be near her.  His story has him on the outside, socially, but through a sudden flash of illumination (essentially, that style counts far more than substance), he blazes his way in.  Jenny’s story, on the other hand, is one of a woman who, by dint of her own skill, talent, and effort, has mastered being on the inside, but the intrusion of her own mortality has brought to the surface the emptiness of that success.

What is our role, and how do we fulfill that role?  How do we defy it?  How much of oneself is authentic, and how much a construction?  These questions clearly interest author Margaret Drabble.  Her method of exploring them seems to be one of setting up a reflective individual to have their assumptions overturned.  Successful television interviewer Jenny Jamieson can’t seem to escape an awareness of how her own success seems to be destroying her husband, even though he’s the reason she got the job in the first place.  Jenny’s strength has served in the past, one gets a sense, to cover up his weaknesses.  She has always done everything exactly right, and yet everything is falling apart—especially herself.  The most positive thing she can think of is that she was smart enough to take out a life insurance policy on herself years before.
It had seemed a good idea at the time, and she had never regretted it. Her husband, though competent in some ways, was feckless: he was also much hated, as editors often are, and if ever he lost his power to control others, others would not waste time in trying to ruin him. She had thought to herself, some years ago, as soon as she began to earn good money, I should insure myself, for the children’s sake. Well, she had done it, she had not merely thought about it, she had done it. That was the kind of woman she was. So she need not worry about their material future.
And yet, even feeling the rightness of that decision, Jenny can’t escape the sense of having wasted her life.

Drabble engages in one technique of which I’m not especially fond.  Both Humphrey and Jenny, in their respective stories, reflect on an experience similar to their own that happened to one of their friends.  Humphrey recalls a “chap he had once known who had put a cigarette out on the back of his hand because some girl said he was a physical coward.”  The girl, he notes, “had been most impressed: indeed she had screamed loudly and burst into tears.”  Jenny reflects on a friend of hers who had committed suicide, while she, Jenny,
had comforted husband and mistress and child, in so much as it was in her to do so…So much sympathy had been lavished upon the survivors. But the woman, Jenny’s friend, was dead forever. She was beyond sympathy and love and fear. She was no more. What rage must have possessed her, at the moment of extinction, to know what tenderness would accrue to others from her death, while she lay rotting.
In both cases, I think Drabble is trying to find a way to have her protagonist reflect on the meaning of their own actions without doing so directly.  She doesn’t want to explain the moral or the point of the story directly, so she couches it in a memory suddenly coming to her protagonist’s mind.  But the sudden remembrance, occurring both times not far from the story’s end, feels to me like an intrusion.  It’s just too convenient that the guy struggling with getting a girl’s attention remembers a friend who once tried to get a girl’s attention, and that the woman who’s struggling with her own possible death remembers a friend’s death. 

Well, the second one is maybe more plausible, but, because I had already read the first story, I was probably sensitive to the repetition of it.  When people complain that a collection of short stories can seem redundant, this is what they’re talking about—so I think it’s worth bringing up as something to possibly avoid.  Or at least, to be aware of.  As different as these two stories are in terms of their plots, they feel like they’re solving similar questions in similar ways.

Still, though, they’re worth reading.  If you’re interested in tackling big social questions in your writing, Drabble is a worthwhile model.  One other point, in that vein, before I go—Drabble works outright symbolism into the ends of both of these stories in a very interesting way.  Though it’s outside of the scope of this blog to analyze what she really means by having a guy enjoy social success when he dares to do violence to a beautiful woman, and having a beautiful woman give an inspirational speech while her clothes soak with the blood of her diseased body, I want to draw attention to how well she makes both of these symbolic endings work within the universe she has set up inside her work.  It would be entirely possible to read both of these stories and not notice the symbolism at all and yet still get the stories’ import.  That is to say, the symbolic images mesh entirely with the plot and characters of the story.  (In “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” this is maybe a little less seamless—my first instinct was to be annoyed by the redhead’s giddy response—but that could well be because I’ve benefited from the intervening half a century of women’s cultural advances.) 

Though I’m no expert, it certainly seems that the success of symbolism sometimes depends on its superfluity.  What I mean is, the story would still be the story without the symbolism.  It’s just that the symbolism reinforces what the story is trying to say and makes it feel true in an indirect and non-logic-based manner.  Using symbolism well is still a pretty big mystery to me, but Drabble’s given me something to think about.