Monday, April 27, 2009

Writing for grown-ups (Books - The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble)

I have never read any of the work of Margaret Drabble, author of 13 novels and 2 biographies, editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, as well as being known for her personal connections as the sister of novelist A. S. Byatt and the wife of biographer Michael Holroyd. There is a wonderful portrait from the New York Times of Drablle and her husband here. Perhaps I am stalling since I have only read about 60 pages into The Peppered Moth and it really does take its time in revealing all the plot's secrets. So far, Dr. Hawthorn, geneticist, has come to Breaseborough in Yorkshire to address the town's people. They seem to have been part of a study he has done on their ancestry. Bessie Bawtry is one of those people and to tell that story, Drabble returns to Bessie's childhood.

The structure of DNA had not been discovered when Bessie Bawtry crouched under the table and brooded upon flight and murder. Genes were not then the fashion, as they are now. The Oedipus complex, in contrast, was already much discussed, in Vienna, in Paris, in London, if not yet in the South Yorkshire coal belt. (The son of a Midlands coal miner was even then writing about the Oedipus complex, but his works would not reach Bessie Bawtry for some years.) Both parent-murder and genes, however, had been around for a very long time, awaiting formal recognition. The revolutionary discoveries of molecular biology and digital electronics would, in a matter of decades, brings Dr. Hawsthorn to his Start Button, as he waited to impress the wonders of genes and genealogy upon his patient audience. Bessiet Bawtry could not forsee this future, or this past. But under the table her infant molecules yearned and jostled and desired. Or so we may, retrospectively, fancifully, suppose. Something had set her apart, had implanted in her needs and desires beyond her station, beyond her class. Will Dr Hawthorn diagnose and analyse the very gene that provoked her to attempt mutation? And will she succeed in her escape? To answer those questions we must try to rediscover that long-ago infant in her vanished world.

And so, the book slips back and forth, in and out, of Bessie's old age, childhood, teenage years, trying to make some sense of how our makeup, in the biographical as well as the genetic sense, makes us who we become. I cannot tell whether the genetics is going to be used literally or more as a literary device (since desiring to advance beyond your class would in no literal sense be contained in a single gene), but as genetics has entered the zeitgeist and at least a cursory knowledge of genes as the seeds of ancestry is possessed by most anyone with a high school education, they have also done double-duty as a metaphor, much as Freud's theories once did for theater and literature thirty yearas earlier (as Drabble points out).

Two of my favorite novels (The Gold Bug Variations and Hopeful Monsters) speak much to the influence of genes and genetic mutation upon the progress of individuals and their civilization and that is, no doubt, where this book is heading as the peppered moth of Drabble's title is often used as evidence of Darwin's natural selection played out in nature. So I am hopeful. I am enjoying two things in particular so far in Drabble's writing. One is her no-nonsense sentences.
Mrs. Bawtry, if asked, would have said that she loved her daughters. But she would not have expected the question, nor would she have liked it, and indeed in all her life it was never to be put to her.
The second is the way she slips this narrative in and out of times past and present, I was going to say 'furtively,' but actually that is not true. Her writing is the opposite of furtive. It puts everything out in the open. If Drabble is going to move the action from one period of time to another, her narrator says that is what she is doing and then she does it, much the way George Eliot uses narrative. She directs your attention where she wants it to go and makes no bones about jumping six years, from Bessie's childhood bout with the flu of 1918 to her high school years while referencing Dr Hawthorn in the novel's present time frame, upon whose slide presentation, we all wait with bated breath. In other words, Drabble writes for grown-ups. No magic tricks, no cuteness, and so far that is just fine with me.

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