Friday, October 9, 2009

The Hollow Below the House

After the end of By Way of Sainte-Beuve I felt desolate, as if I had lost something and couldn't find it. I picked up Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner That Held Them, wondering if the feeling of one book would carry over into the other. Townsend Warner translated the Proust. But the businesslike clarity of her book was too strong after the unfinished essays of Sainte-Beuve, so instead I chose Rosamond Lehmann's Invitation to the Waltz: looser, lighter, more suggestive than Corner. My copies of Waltz and Corner were both published by Virago, and it was the dark green spines that made me connect them.

Waltz is the story of Olivia Curtis who starts everything by waking up on the morning of her seventeenth birthday. The book advances in two movements. The first movement follows her through the day. Then the second movement goes along with her to a ball being given, some time later, at the local grand house (because this is an English village in the 1920s, when balls were given at grand houses and a man who wanted to compliment a woman could say things like this:

"You'd look corking on a horse."

The same man goes on to say

"And I could mount you too"

by which he means that he could find her a horse to look corking on, not the double entendre that occurred to me when I came across that line.)

Olivia is more certain of herself in part one than in part two, something that the author reinforces with her punctuation, as long, flowing lists of observations connected by semi-colons turn into sentences that trail out into ellipses. By the end we've covered three hundred pages but the effect is the effect of a short story: very little happens on the surface, but there are delicate shifts in the power dynamics all the way through, and then, at the finale, the author gives you a line that sends you away noticing that a dramatic and irrevocable change has occurred. With this you realise, all of a sudden (along with the other realisations, about the characters themselves and what has changed, and how), that this was set up from the start, that it was reinforced in dozens of ways without the reader seeing it, and only now is the purpose of that reinforcement being shown to you.

There it is, then it is gone, and you are alone.

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