Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mortal Love and Italian Shoes

I know almost everyone is elbow deep in turkey preparations for Thanksgiving. At least, not our foreign correspondents, but all of us here in the US. Except I'm not because my Irish sister-in-law has the honor of hosting our extended family for Thanksgiving and she always goes overboard and makes far too much food so I'm probably going to make some rolls and pecan pie in the morning before we head over but otherwise I've been shirking holiday preparations and instead have been hunkering down with books. At least when the kids let me, which honestly isn't very often. Lately I've been longing for those single days when I could spend an entire day in bed with a book and only have to get up to eat. I tried to do that today but it was raining out and the children, seeing me sitting in one place, kept bringing me picture books to read to them. Still, I managed to finish Mortal Love this afternoon by locking myself in the bathroom during the boys' nap time. And now I'm trying to think what I think about it and what I can possibly say. But I thought I'd just jump in and say something to get the ball rolling and see if anyone else wanted to jump in with something that is a bit more substantial.

First, a greater contrast between this and the book I finished immediately prior to it I don't think I can imagine. Italian Shoes (I wrote more about it on my blog and incidentally I'd highly recommend it as a good, quick read that would be worthwhile discussing as a group. I thought there was some real meat to chew on and some interesting themes) is so stark, bleak --Spartan really-- while Mortal Love is so lush and overwrought, with a kind of hothouse quality. Italian Shoes opens with the narrator, a solitary hermit, on an ice-bound island off or Sweden who has had minimal human contact for the past dozen years. The cast of characters is small and the action minimalist. Mortal Love is bewildering in its operatic cast. I often forgot who was who as it shifted from the Victorian to the contemporary, from the coast of Maine to New York from London to Cornwall and back again. It's an interesting study in contrasts both in subject matter and narrative style.

I didn't dislike Mortal Love; but I'm not sure it was the book I wanted to read just now. I spent the first two thirds of the book feeling rather lost and unsure whether I really wanted to continue. I thought it pulled together by the end but am still not sure I'm satisfied by the ending. I didn't think that anything in the narrative really prepared me for the role that Valentine was going to play at the climax. It felt a bit deus ex machina. But maybe I was just being a sloppy reader and missed some major textual flags. That happens sometimes.

For me the novel does raise one interesting question. It posits that human creativity is mainly the result of the fact that we are mortal and finite. If we lived forever like the fairy-folk, it suggests, our drive to create art, music, poetry would disappear. It's not a new idea for me; but as I read it here suddenly it seemed like a false idea. I'm not sure I agree that mortality is the root of creativity. I think that rather it is because we are made in the image and likeness of God and one aspect of that likeness is that we share in God's creativity. I suppose you could argue that the fairy folk being soulless beings are not made in God's image and thus do not share in the divine gift of creativity. But then you're actually arguing that creativity goes along with having an immortal soul not with a finite being. Anyway, the novel's worldview is pretty pagan so I'm not sure I'm being fair by trying to read it with a Catholic sensibility.

One gripe... it kept knocking me out of the narrative because it was so jarring. The word "refractory" kept appearing where I'm pretty sure the author actually meant "refectory" as a room in the big English manor house. I kept wondering what the heck a "refractory room" was and it wasn't meant to be an important detail at all. It wasn't just once or twice and I can't think why the copy editor didn't catch it. More, I'm not even sure from context that the author realized that a "refectory" is a dining room since in one instance the list of rooms included both "refractory" and "dining room".


Pentimento said...

I don't remember the misuse of "refractory," hmmm. I do remember the word, however, in that wild eruption of prose, and I guess I assumed she was referring to light. My copy is back at the library now so I can't reference it.

I found the book wildly entertaining, and, since finishing it, I've checked out and read two more books by Hand. All of them are artful, with a certain darkness underneath and at the edges, and none of them is written from a Christian point of view. And Mortal Love draws upon Norse and Celtic myth, as well as Robert Graves's wacko book The White Goddess, and, yes, upon Wagner's cosmology. And includes the Pre-Raphaelites, and, according to Hand's website, is supposed to also be based on the life of "the schizophrenic Victorian fairy painter Richard Dadd."

One of the things that intrigued me about the book is that it's a sort of Matrix for girls. It's lush and beautiful -- all the different descriptions of the color green! -- whereas the Matrix is just, well, computer code. Hand posits that there is a secret, hidden, teeming life behind all things, which, once glimpsed, will drive you mad unless you can channel it into artistic expression. Even Nietzsche said, "We possess art lest we perish of the truth." In this telling, art is not consolation, but it is a reflection of something beyond us, immortal.

Melanie, am I correct in believing that you have some familiarity with Irish legend? I wonder how ML squares with it all? Is God supposed to have created the fairy folk?

I wonder what the artistic output of people like Nick and Daniel is actually like. The Comstock grandfather and grandson both sound like unusually gifted painters, but there's no sense of what Nick's music or Daniel's writing is like, and Daniel seems like a bit of a hack.

Otepoti said...

I've been reading Mortal Love since I left my copy of Midddlemarch in the bell-ringing chamber last week. I'd been pondering a post on the female types in the book.

I liked the lush operatic quality, Melanie. The colour language, when read over quickly, leaves the impression of a roomful of PRB paintings.

My favourite line so far, when Daniel goes into the wardrobe -
"He made sure the door behind him stayed open - he'd read the right sort of children's books - "

If for no other reason, the book had me at the C.S. Lewis reference.

Melanie B said...

Hmmm.... I'm doing more google searches of "refractory room" and while I can't find a definition that seems to fit the use, I'm finding it used in various documents. It seems to maybe have something to do with either prisons or welding? So maybe it isn't a misuse but I can't for the life of me figure out what it exactly it means either in the context of the novel. A mystery.

I'm not really familiar with Graves and have only a faint passing knowledge of Wagner. Anyone who glances at my blog will guess at my fondness for the Pre-Raphaelites; but I confess I'm not terribly well-read about them. Very likely my enjoyment of the novel would be vastly improved if I had a greater familiarity with the source material. I've never heard of the schizophrenic fairy painter Richard Dadd; but I'm now rather curious.

Likewise with the Celtic material. I took a class in grad school on Irish heroic literature. We read a selection of the original source material and then traced the use of it by various translators and adapters. But I'm not so familiar with the Welsh strains except as they are used in Arthurian matter and in contemporary fantasy fiction. Someday I probably should read The Mabinogion, though my experience with the Irish material is that it helps very much to have someone knowledgeable to help guide you through the weirdness that is Celtic mythology.

That was actually one of the things that I kept finding confusing. I know several versions of the Tristan and Iseult legend; but not of any in which either of the two characters were fairy folk. That kind of threw me for a loop. Perhaps having a little knowledge with major gaps is worse than having none at all?

I love the idea of the book as a "Matrix for girls". It does have a very similar feel of that gnostic fantasy, the mystery of the hidden world.

However, I think that helps to clarify one thing that bothered me as I read. I reject a gnostic conception of the world. I suppose I believe there is a deeper meaning but that probing it, going deeper, leads to greater sanity and not madness. I believe in a world created by a Creator who means us to know him in his creation, who means creation to be a book that leads us toward holiness and wholeness. So I kind of think that Hand's secret teeming life which will drive you to madness is essentially a kind of pretty lie and not a true mirror of reality. Yes, Hand's conception fits nicely with the Nietzsche quote. So I guess that makes this Nietzschean fantasy?

Melanie B said...

As for the question about whether God created fairy folk, I suppose that depends on who you talk to. The oldest Irish legends are obviously pre-Christian mythology. They are for the Irish people what the stores of Olympus were for the Greeks, they are a later-day recording of what was originally a religion. There are deities and then there are heroes who are semi-divine. But somewhere along the line there is a blurring that happens with the Irish material such that the old gods become transmuted to fairy-folk. I'm not sure exactly how it all fits together within a Christian worldview, I don't think there's really a single answer. I think different authors have handled the material in different ways as they have adapted it to their purposes. So much of the way the material is treated in modern adaptations has to do with the Victorian era translators and adapters many of whom were into theosophy and the occult and so not really working from a strictly Christian worldview. I think it would be more apt to say that humans created the fairy folk, first as Gods and later as legends and finally as mythopoeia. I suppose that if you were to posit that the fairy folk really do exist in some form or other then they must have been created by God who made all things visible and invisible; but what sort of thing they are then becomes rather mysterious in that they don't really fit neatly into a traditional Judeo-Christian worldview.

That's an interesting question about Nick's music and Daniel's writing. I wonder why Hand leaves it to the reader's imagination. Is it because we are supposed to identify with Daniel, who is hardly an objective audience of Nick's music or of his own writing? Is Daniel a sort of alter-ego for Hand?

Otepoti, I'd love to see your post on female types. And yes, the book definitely had me at the C.S. Lewis reference. That was a great line.

Also, I can't help but compare Mortal Love to A.S. Byatt's Possession. There are the Victorian poets and artists and the moderns who study them, there is the fairy material, though in Byatt it all stays neatly literary and doesn't trespass the boundaries like Hand's does. That actually makes for an interesting comparison. I wonder if Hand began with pondering what would have happened in Byatt's novel if the fairies had actually existed. Has anyone else read Possession (I vaguely remember that we might have talked about it before?) and did you notice the similarities?

Otepoti said...

Did you see the use of "refractory room" for recalcitrant orphan girls in nineteenth century Australia?

So presumably it's the cooling cell for violent inmates of the asylum. Though I bet that if you simultaneously thought of the refraction of light or high-temperature metal-working, Elizabeth Hand wouldn't mind a bit!

Pentimento said...

This is a little off-topic, but I'm wondering what you think of the blue fingertips. It's exposure to mercury that turns the skin blue, and mercury also turns those who work with it mad.

And if Breaghan, the "midwife" who has blue fingertips and is a sort of liege of the fairy/goddess, has blue fingertips and is a sort of demi-immortal, is Red, who also has blue fingertips, demi-immortal? And first Learmont, the grandfather of the drug executive, notes in the opening scene that he hasn't aged in thirty years. What is his relationship to immortality?

Pentimento said...

This might interest you guys. I'm thinking of ILL'ing it.

Melanie B said...

I keep forgetting to come back to this. I felt like the blue fingertips were a detail that promised much and then got dropped. I wanted there to be some kind of explanation for them. I'm glad you suggested the mercury, though even that isn't completely satisfactory. In general that seemed to be Hand's style, she often drops hints and suggestions in your path in a way that makes them seem like clues. But I felt like they never added up. I never figured out what they were hinting at.

I think we're supposed to infer that Juda, Breaghan, Learmont and Red were the other fairies who accompanied Larkin and Val.

I checked the Silver book out from the library and am really enjoying it. Middlemarch gets a few mentions, which is kind of fun synchronicity.

Pentimento said...

Hmmm -- but Learmont burns himself on the candle in the first scene, and it's mentioned that he has other scars, which made me think that he is a mortal. Not sure. I think you're right about the lead-up of symbols and then the drop-off, Melanie. The book is so full of symbols -- like a medieval tapestry -- that you'd like to think they make a consistent lexicon of something, but maybe they all don't.

Melanie B said...

I'd forgotten that Learmont burned himself. I'm still not sure that definitively puts him into the mortal camp. I think that the two problems are related. It's hard to tell exactly who is mortal and who is fairy because she never makes it exactly clear how it all fits together. It's kind of like a Seurat painting, it makes a lovely picture from a distance but when you get up close it becomes a blur of dots that don't give you any more information. I don't think it hold up under close scrutiny, and that's kind of disappointing.

To go off on a complete tangent, that's what makes Tolkien's world-building so much more satisfactory to me than, say, J.K. Rowling's. Rowling takes you on a fun ride but when you stop to think about how everything fits together, there are serious gaps. I think Hand is much more in the Rowling school of tale-telling than in the Tolkien school. She's about the relationships and adventure-- and, above all, the art and imagery!-- but not so much on figuring out the rules for exactly how the fairy stuff works.

Pentimento said...

I love her writing, though, I have to say.

Oh, I got the Silver book on ILL -- haven't read it yet.