Monday, December 22, 2008

"According to Queeney" by Beryl Bainbridge

Typically, I'm falling in love with Beryl Bainbridge during a time when most of her books are out of print. It seems strange that this woman with a knighthood could be so unknown and so often passed over for awards, but that's probably part of her charm; if Oprah promoted her she'd seem a little less radical.

I read "Harriet Said" on a total whim, and immediately scooped up the few used copies of her books that I could find. I'm treating them like rich delicacies that I don't want to eat all at once, only reading them when I need to rekindle my enthusiasm for books.

After a maddening attempt at reading John McPhee's "Annals of the Former World" (which was like digging through a mile of shifting sand in order to find a few pieces of loose change and a rubber band) I desperately retreated to my Bainbridge stash: "According to Queeney," a 2001 novel about Samuel Johnson's relationship with Hester Thrale and her daughter Queeney.

I know very little about Johnson -- "The Life of Samuel Johnson" is next on my list -- but it seems like Bainbridge has taken various accounts of his life, mashed them up a bit, introduced the inconsistencies you'd expect to find in a wide selection of primary sources -- Queeney's after-the-fact recollections both clarify and obscure the events in the narrative itself -- and then hung a pall of doom over all of it. In the book, Johnson and his friends are obsessed with death, the macabre, and the grotesque, all the more disturbing in the otherwise pastoral setting. None of the characters seem able to get any pleasure out of life unless the events are tainted by bizarre tragedy.

I don't know if this is an established aspect of Johnson's life, but it certainly seems to be part of Bainbridge's general style. From the first "flash-forward" pages, with Johnson's corpse being dissected under a flayed dog which is hung from the ceiling, to the repeated motif of deformity, passive cruelty, injury, and missing buttons, you feel like you're facing 18th century fears as they really were, not as the glossy stereotypes that producers of historical dramas would present.

Visiting France in 1775, Bainbridge's version of Hester Thrale has these main impressions:
She watched the scarlet streaks flooding the darkening sky and thought of other things: of the Queen's gown made of gauze adorned with flowers and of the pearl bracelets on her wrists; of the French way of cruelly whipping their horses over the face; of the infants in the Foundling Hospital pining away to perfect skeletons and expiring in neat cribs with a bottle hung to its neck containing a milk mess , which if they could suck on they might live, and if not, would die; of the anniversary of her wedding day some two days past and of Henry presenting her wifh flowers and stammering she had been a good wife to him. That she had never been in love was not a great deprivation, for what one had never known was scarcely to be fretted over.
The darkness of Anna Kavan, but readable and superbly written. It doesn't make me happy to read "According to Queeney" but it sure makes me swooney.