Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Swan in the Evening

Rosamond Lehmann

I was lucky enough to hear about Rosamond Lehmann after Virago Press (my favourite publishing company along with Persephone Books) decided to reprint her works : I feel there's nothing more frustrating than getting interested in an author only to discover that all his or her books are out of print. Born at the beginning of the last century (in 1901, easy to remember), she died in 1990. The name of this great novelist of the 20th century is often fondly remembered in lists of forgotten/obscure authors who deserve more coverage, and I can only agree with that. I have recently discovered The Weather in the Streets and was swept off my feet by a rich, generous and graceful reading : this novel, which is in fact a sort of sequel to Invitation to the Waltz (which I have yet to read), can be read as a stand-alone novel. We follow the life of Olivia, a divorced woman who falls for a married man. This delicate yet rare portrait of "the other woman" is anything but ordinary - first published in 1936 and criticized from all quarters by a conservative Britain, today the book is not read as the forbidden pleasure it was read as then. However, and I think we find here the true value of a book, today its poetic prose and the narrator's voice make of it one of the most unjustly forgotten books of British literature. Emotions are depicted honestly, closest to Olivia's fleeting thoughts, a style which is obviously reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's. I have this theory that modern books with a solid plot are the best. You've got the original and -let's put it simply- breathtaking prose and the advantage of a story you can completely lose yourself in and have the satisfaction of knowing that you'll have learned a lot by the time you'll close the book.
In Dusty Answer, her first novel published in 1927, the main character Judith we see in an almost intimate way evolving and changing during the whole course of her teenage years, up till she reaches adulthood. This ordinary girl, almost tedious, falls for a group of cousins who move in the house next door during the summer and she will spend her time waiting for one of them to notice her - before realising she has to choose without waiting for her to be chosen. You can't help but remember Rosamond Lehmann's writing style, it's so balanced and profound. She's once again perfect in those two passages :

"There was sadness in everything - in the room, in the ringing bird-calls from the garden, in the lit, golden lawn beyond the window, with its single miraculous cherry-tree breaking in immaculate blossom and tossing long foamy sprays against the sky. She was sad to the verge of tears, and yet the sorrow was rich, - a suffocating joy."

Fourteen pages later, about fireworks :

"Oh Roddy, if only -! They're so brief. I wish they were never quenched but went on falling and falling , so lovely, for ever. Would you be content to burst into life and be a ten second marvel and then vanish ?"

At her boarding-school, the depiction of her intense relationship with one of her classmates hides stronger feelings : Judith is in love, but doesn't realise it. A sensitive and generous heroine - I felt like an intruder reading her story : the narrative, as usual with Lehmann, relies a great deal on identification (the second person pronoun is often used for entire paragraphs). Still, it's a far cry from excessive sentimentalism, perhaps before the story never gives it any chance - what happens is sometimes cruel.
Dusty Answer reminded me a great deal of Mariana by Monica Dickens, published in 1940 but Rosamond Lehmann's works are by far superior : in his excellent introduction to the Virago edition of the book, Jonathan Coe writes ""It will consume you entirely, transforming your whole inner life for the time it takes to read". The keyword here is consume - it's a fire that brings Judith and Olivia to life, that of a burning passion we know won't last but that we enjoy eyeing greedily because we still believe in it, despite everything.