Sunday, February 10, 2013

Breathing life into a world of hoplessness and decay (Books - The Witch of Exmoor by Margaret Drabble)

I wonder sometimes if Margaret Drabble has it easier or harder as an author being the sister of one prolific, well-respected writer, and the wife of another.  But she herself has written 17 novels so it doesn't seem to have compromised her productivity any. I have read her memoir The Pattern in the Carpet (2009) which I wasn't crazy about, the novel The Peppered Moth (2001) which wasn't bad, and the novel The Needle's Eye (1972) which I thought was quite good. Recently, I picked up her The Witch of Exmoor (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and although I read it through, I found most of its characters irritating, its voice snide, and the foray into experimental magical technique in the final pages a stretch that didn't pay off, but that is not to say that it is not worth reading.  

Author Frieda Haxby Palmer invites her grown children to what she calls Timon's Feast.  This is a reference to Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, in which Timon, at a time when he needs money, invites the friends he has been generous to, and who have each refused him, to dinner and proceeds to show them what ingrates they have been in a graphic fashion.  At Frieda's feast, she announces that she will sell her house and pull out of her successful career.  She purchases an old, rambling ruin of a house perched on a cliff above the sea, and pretty well checks out of her old life. Her grown children don't understand what has motivated her actions and try, each in their own inept way, to rescue their mother, and by extension their inheritance, from ruin. Haxby Palmer, it would seem, is motivated by a sense of justice. She hopes with the power of her money to right a few wrongs, but these efforts are grandiose dreams and don't really come out as she had planned.

Two things really turned me off to this novel - the narrative voice and a general tone of bitterness. The omniscient and entirely-too-present narrator constantly spoke directly to me, as though I had my own private film voice-over.
Although it is no laughing matter, the thought of their mother sliding into the sea, on a dark night, has its comic aspects.  They elaborate, and I am sorry to say that they laugh.
Bitterness and loss of hope pervade the observations on plot and character.  Take this character description.  It's worthy of Lucian Freud.

Cedric Summerson's complexion does not boast of prolonged restraint....Cedric Summerson is not exactly fat, but he is heavy - stout, jowled, red-faced, ponderous. The colour and texture of his skin are unattractive.  It is mottled, pitted, veined, at once shiny and coarse.  Good living has sent him off like an old ripe cheese.  Runnels of decay thread his features.  He is turning bad before one's eyes.
It shows talent, but unlike Freud's paintings I don't really want to look at it.  It's rancor is excessive.  She could have easily stopped after ripe cheese.  I'm just left wondering whom she is getting back at.

The presence of the inevitable decay of living things is a recurrent theme, but too often it renders the book mean. One character displays an atavistic Jewish melancholy.  A gay character
...displays the essence of camp.  That was how she made her way through life so gaily.  That laughter, that tireless patience with all comers, the indiscriminate good nature. To her, all the world was one glorious joke.
Yeah, you've got it exactly, Margaret.  That's precisely what it is like to be gay.  The bitterness is so pervasive that I feel like the writer stops thinking and just reacts. If there is a character's point-of-view which is being expressed, then the narrative does not successfully make clear whose it is.  It just ends up reading to me as if our omnicient narrator, and by extension, the author was displaying some of that institutionalized bigotry the English have earned a reputation for, but that is to trade one ugly generalization for another.  Clearly, this is not the case.  At the novel's end, when Drabble imagines the future of each of her characters, she says of Will Paine, a young black man,
Let us liberate Will Paine.  Let the bird fly free.  Oh, there are many plots that could enmesh and entangle and imprison him, we all know that.  The police, the hard men, bad company, the dope, they all lie in wait for Will Paine.  Are there any plots that will let him free?  Not in this country, that is clear.  There is no place for him in the country of his birth. ...
This is a pained novel, pervaded by hopelessness in the face of decay and eventual death. In it, one bitter writer, Frieda, tries to save her family, as another writer, Margaret Drabble, from an apparently comparable state of darkness and vitriol, tries to - what? - imagine her way back to a place of hopefulness?  Laugh in the face of her hopelessness?  My frustration with this novel is, I was never sure of its action.  I found saving grace in one character - Ben - one of Frieda's grandchildren.  Ben, is at that point in psychological development when he believes he has magical powers.
Ben animates everything.  His power to breathe life into objects is supernatural, and they know it.  He says he can stare at a postcard and make its leaves shake, its rivers flow, its ships sail across the sea, its figures walk the streets.  They believe him.  He cannot do it when anyone is watching, for that destroys his powers, but he can do it.  At night, alone, he tells them, he can bring to life the paintings on the wall.  How does he do it?  He stares and stares until his eyes lose focus, he says, as one stares at a three-dimensional computer picture, and then the picture begins to move.  Can he get inside the picture, they ask?  No, he can never get inside.  He is always outside, staring.  His are the eyes that make it move.  He can never enter into his own vision.  He is for ever without.  But he has the power.  He has the Magic Eye.
Ben is a stand-in here for Frieda, which is presumably why she makes him her heir.  Frieda's children are themselves parents, as well as working as doctors, lawyers, utopian political pundits.  Each of them seems to believe that they can profoundly influence the outcomes in their world.  Their hope is beautiful, but the extent of their belief is deluded, as is Frieda's.  She may have wielded such powers upon the character's in her books, but she does not possess such control over the actions of other human beings and certainly not upon the inevitable decay of living things.  Drabble doesn't fail to animate the characters of The Witch of Exmoor, but I didn't end up liking them very much.  Was that her point?


Unknown said...

I've never read Margaret Drabble, though I've often been tempted to. I've even come very close to buying this very book. After your review, and the quotes you've selected, I'm much less likely to read her.

But I do want to say that I enjoyed your review. Excellent work, here.

Ted said...

Thank you, CB. You might enjoy The Needle's Eye - that's been the novel by Drabble that I enjoyed the most. But in this genre, I prefer Iris Murdoch.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I tend to like Margaret Drabble but I didn't get very far in The Pattern in the Carpet and The Peppered Moth is perhaps my least favorite. I just realized that I have been avoiding The Witch of Exmoor because I keep confusing it with The Witches of Eastwick. In fact I saw a copy of Exmoor yesterday which I didn't buy for that very reason. My favorite Drabble is The Seven Sisters. It even ranks on my favorite book list. I think I agree with your Murdoch comment above to CB.

Ted said...

Thomas - I'll add Seven Sisters to the list, as if I need an excuse.