Tuesday, May 12, 2009

We are where we come from, but that's not all we are (Books - The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble)

The multiple layers of Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth uncoil like the strands of DNA that are at its heart. The complicated story of who the women of Bessie Bawtry's family are - mother, daughter, granddaughter - reveal their code, but not their total meaning - which is inscrutable, as people are. Then they recoil themselves about you, twisting you into their helix so that their story swirls about you and it's not easy to escape.
Faro's DNA swab lies with many other Cudworth swabs in a laboratory. It is simple extract of Faro. But Far is not a simple person, and she too has been simplified by narration. We do not know much about Faro. Why, at her age, and with her beauty, is she living alone in a flat in Shepherd's Bush? Why, at her age, is she so obsessed by death...
And so it is with all of us, we are what we come from, but that is not all we are. That is the point of Drabble's novel in a nut shell. In her afterward she reveals that she was writing of her own mother. She may have felt that needed to be kept secret until the end so as not to simplify her motives but it was no surprise to me. Reading the scene with Chrissie taking in the death of her mother Bessie made it obvious to me the experience out of which Drabble wrote.
I wrote this book to try to understand my mother better. I went down into the underworld to look for my mother, but I couldn't find her. She wasn't there.
No wonder I was dreaming about Orpheus and Euridice and woke up with Gluck's music swirling about in my head! I had forgotten that I read that before going to sleep. In any event, reading Drabble's novel is more than a simple remembrance. The characters seem to exist in their own right - the world of the novel has an imaginative integrity that makes me want to read. Knowing the writer's process I could deduce from what this novel emerged and yet it was also more than that. My earlier feelings about this novel stand (here and here). With them, I will add that I particularly admire how Drabble writes character description (apropos for a book about who we are in the literary as well as the scientific sense.) These little summaries cut to the core of each person and the choice of words is idiosyncratic in the very best sense. I'll leave you with two.
Moira, who had lived upstairs, had not visibly improved with the passage of time - a pallid, whining, spiritless creature, a broken reed, a lower-middle-class misery, thin then and scrawny now, her face lined with endurance and forgiveness. She was wearing a prim dark-striped mannish suit, and her hair had turned a curious ancient tarnished yellow-green-grey, not unlike Auntie Dora's; it was tied back with a large black velvet bow which suggested a bisexual character from a historical costume drama.

Wow. I hope Drabble is far away when they write my epitaph.

Robert gave less obvious cause for anxiety: he was serious, scholarly, a little introverted. He was sent to a conventional prep school, then to a minor Yorkshire public school, well out of his mother's way. His progress reports were good. He plodded on, sharpening his critical faculties. His point hardened. Wastepaper baskets filled. He discarded, discarded. He was to become picky, pedantic. Even as a boy, he picked and pierced. He defended himself carefully, and protected his own core. Nobody could get near Robert.

Chrissie, in contrast, was emotional, female, flibbertigibbet. She veered and tacked and turned with the wind. She liked the wind. Like her uncle Phil Barron, she liked speed. She adored it. Yes, she took after the Barrons, not after the Cudworths and the Bawtrys, in her sporting skills. She could wack a rounders ball, serve an ace, dive off the top board and jump the long hump. She nearly killed herself when she was given her first two-wheel bicycle, a dashing little red Raleigh: she couldn't resist freewheeling down from Sowerbrigg Tops at thirty miles an hour, and ended up in hospital with a concussion and a split knee. This taught her no lesson: as soon as she could get back on again she did.
Drabble's narrative voice displays an omnicience so dry with wit that it crackles. I'll give you one example and then sign off for a day of neuropsychological assessments and paper writing.
Let's get back to Chrissie. Things may yet turn out well for her.

Chrissie, contemplating the choice between mustard-free ham sandwiches and lust, adultery and alcohol, was drawn strongly towards the latter package. Getting away fast and far was her plan.

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