Thursday, December 12, 2013

suppose -- that I hate and rebel

Bengala ventriloquises between two voices; it drops away from one style when the insane woman has died (we have lost the convicts and workers) and picks up another one when a Catholic priest named Dr. Mornay falls in love with Isabel, surprising all the readers, who never saw that coming. Soon he is writhing and flagellating himself. "Scourge -- fasting -- torture -- where are ye? What am I?" he exclaims and then his hat falls off.

If I had not been reading Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor and from her discovering that anti-Catholicism in Victorian novels was persistent and even a regular theme or sub-genre then I would wonder where he had found the resources to come on so strong so quickly: why is there not more development before the writhing, I would ask myself? Why does he suddenly writhe?

He is a sign that the book is dwelling and living in the world of its own contemporary literature where those actions have been befriended so extensively by other Catholic priests that he can adopt them from his peers. In this respect he is behaving like a fleshy being with a mind and eyes that can see what is expected of him, and understand it, and copy it.

The Austen characters do not recognise his category in spite of all the hints he gives them. "Curious! I wonder if he meant himself all the time!" muses Isabel after he has given her a speech about "a man" who decides to devote himself to an ideal and "awakes to find himself burning with thirst, craving just that one -- one drop of living water which has been put from him." If they had known who his peers were they could have spotted it immediately and given him a useful response. They are not his peers: he has just moved into their book and made use of them for a while. "Yet suppose -- I say suppose -- that I hate and rebel . . . O, Isabel!" he says.

He came from the outside of this book; he knocked on the door of it and entered; he entered almost without knocking. He does his thing and goes away, and Austen takes over again until the end. The lunch-eating Bengala has been violated and reshaped by the actual physical conditions that appeared around the setting of the book, the presence of convicts and the financial crash that brought Isabel closely into contact with Dr. Mornay. They have refused to let it stay static. They have infected its mode. (My imaginary Stifter has resisted everything that would come from the exterior of the book like that: he has built a book like a dam.)

By the end of Bengala it has been revealed that the Austen-characters can't cope with characters from other modes of book: everybody else dies: the body of Vidal's book is fundamentally hostile to everyone except Austens.


  1. This is a highly interesting way to read the book, as a conflict between incompatible literary realisms. Is it a transitional piece of some sort? I don't know Vidal at all, so I don't know what sort of literary/cultural forces were pressing against her while she wrote. But I've never quite seen things put this way, and it's a most attractive lens through which to view books. Hmm, I say. The closest I've come to this kind of thinking is to plan a long story where Chekhov and Kafka meet and Chekhov suddenly finds himself in a Kafka story while Kafka naturally is flung into a Chekhov tale. But that's just play, not thoughtful analysis of a real novel. This entire paragraph is a sort of weak gesture in the direction of a compliment: you say the most startling things about fiction; it's quite provoking. Good on you, etc.

    1. Thank you, etc, I like the compliment. Vidal was British but she'd spent time in Australia living with the kind of people that she writes about, that same lunch-eating Austen milieu with the leisure and the large country houses. The close mixture of convicts with middle-class people seems to have struck a lot of the writers from that period (the ones I've read) as something new that they needed to write about but there wasn't an established language or framework for them to use, and they all find different ways to do it. This must have been the way that seemed natural to her, this crossing over from Austen style (for one group of people) to the dramatic shouting-going-mad style for the other group of people. It's not a perfectly sharp divide (the story doesn't lurch into a completely new vocabulary just because a character is a convict) but the author's expectations of the characters change.

      Or, more briefly, she doesn't seem to have had a single style that would have let her write about two classes of people in one book. She's not unsympathetic to the convicts, or to the Catholic priest either (he dies performing heroisms), but they're essentially different.

      The author herself thought of Bengala as a story that would cover a period of transition although she doesn't say anything about the transition crossing over into her style: "... though life is the same in one hemisphere as in another, the accidental and surrounding circumstances vary, and there is a more rapid and continual change in a new colony. To seize one of these shifting scenes—a transient period with its own peculiar characteristics, its hopes, fears, evils, and enjoyments—has been my endeavour."

    2. (Clarification: when I say "a lot of writers" I mean "a lot of writers who were setting their books in Australia" ... etc)