I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors while perusing the books other passengers have left behind in shipboard libraries. While cruising in Alaska, I discovered Michael Frayn and couldn’t stop until I had devoured all of his novels and then looked around hungrily for more.
Spies is perhaps my favorite. A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village, where he tries to make grownup sense of things that happened there so many years ago, while he and his boyhood friend hid in the privet bush pretending to be spies. The dual perspective of middle age and childhood, as well as the contrast between the WWII setting and the “present” of 30 years later makes the book particularly evocative, and the mystery of what actually happened drives the story.
Frayn’s books often present a tone of detachment and loss, as expressed in these opening lines from A Landing in the Sun:
On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.
These hands, and the crisp white shirtsleeves that lead away from them, are the only signs of me in the room.
The separation of the action performed by his hands from his intentional, sentient will is also reminiscent of the book-burning fireman, Montag, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Montag . . . glanced to his hands to see what new thing they had done.” Both authors use synecdoche effectively to suggest the protagonist’s looming split with authority and his attempt to regain control over his life.
A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village.
It was on a cruise ship traveling around Australia and New Zealand that I discovered the historical novelist Tracy Chevalier. Her Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which she creates a compelling and poignant backstory for the supposed model of Vermeer’s famous painting, had recently been made into the film that launched Scarlett Johansson to stardom; but the book that hooked me was Fallen Angels, a name that refers to the memorial stones in a local graveyard but also to the fallen characters within the story. Beginning at the end of the Queen Victoria’s reign, the book’s multiple storylines focus on husbands and wives, friends and lovers, ruling class and servant class, and a gravedigger’s son.
From the moment I entered Chevalier’s world of shifting narrative perspectives set in turn-of-the-century England, I didn’t want to leave. I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century. Similarly, while viewing Manhattan from across the river in one of the books I review here, a character observes, “You wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.” That’s how I felt while reading many of the books I’ve mentioned in this review — I wanted to approach the end, but never quite arrive there.
This past month I was cruising the western Mediterranean when I discovered Rules of Civility by the talented author Amor Towles, whose fresh metaphors and unexpected developments delighted and surprised me. I had barely finished reading it when, craving more of his elegantly crafted sentences and trusting his storytelling skills, I downloaded his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, to my Kindle for the long flight home from Europe.
I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century.
The title Rules of Civility refers to George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a dog-eared copy of which is discovered by the narrator, Katey Kontent, on the bedside table of the central character, Tinker Grey. Towles’ book is a novel of manners set in 1938 Manhattan and framed by a 1966 photography exhibition. As the book opens, a middle-aged Katey spies two candid photographs taken of her long-lost friend Tinker at the beginning and the end of 1938. This chance sighting becomes the catalyst for her recollection of that year, a year that became a turning point in her life as she navigated between boarding houses and mansions, trust-fund kids and dockworkers, the upper West side and the lower East side, in her journey to define who she would become.
Katey begins 1938 living in a women’s boardinghouse and working in a steno pool. She and her roommate, Eve Ross, meet the posh and elegant Tinker Grey at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, and he becomes the direct and indirect catalyst for everything else that happens that year.
Like the original “novels of manners,” set in manor houses and often populated by governesses or impoverished heiresses who make satirical observations about the ruling class, Rules of Civility contains biting, cogent cultural commentary. Katey is paid well as a secretary, but when she decides to move on to a job in the literary world, she must accept a huge cut in pay. She wryly observes, “A secretary exchanges her labor for a living wage. But an assistant comes from a fine home, attends Smith College, and lands her positions when her mother happens to be seated beside the publisher in chief at a dinner party.” I worked under an executive director who landed her position in the same way, and it was just as galling. Katey also notes, after guests at a dinner party heap praises upon the hostess at the end of a fine meal, “This was a social nicety that seemed more prevalent the higher you climbed the social ladder and the less your hostess cooked.”
Sudden changes in tone or circumstance permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer.
Katey is a philosopher by nature, and her thoughts begin to resonate with the reader. As she looks back on 1938, she recalls, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course . . . shouldn’t come without a price. I have no doubt [my choices] were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”
Sudden changes in tone or circumstance — in this case, from the bright optimism of making right decisions to the mournful grief of cutting oneself off from other options — permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer. Consider the span of emotion in moments like these: “I tore the letter into a thousand pieces and hurled them at the spot on the wall where a fireplace should have been. Then I carefully considered what I should wear.” And: “Something fell from my jawbone to the back of my hand. It was a teardrop of all things. So I slapped him.” And this cautionary reflection: “In moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”
Katey wants everything to be neat and orderly and open. As a secretary, she “suture[s] split infinitives and hoist[s] dangling modifiers,” and she wants life to be as simple as that, with rules that allow no ambiguities and people who are who they say they are. But soon she realizes that “it’s a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon, a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact . . . there are tens of thousands of butterflies, men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings — one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage — and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.” Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.
Katey is not well-bred, but she is well-read, and her running references to such books as Walden, Great Expectations, Washington’s Rules of Civility, Agatha Christie novels, and others add depth to the story. I especially like the way she combines insights from Thoreau and Christie to deliver this:
In the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. . . . For the most part, in the course of our daily lives we abide the abundant evidence that no such universal justice exists. Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christie promises.
We all have turning point moments in our lives — moments that occur during the years when we’re deciding who we will be and making decisions so profound that they change our course completely and irrevocably. They often seem insignificant at the time, and the people who influence us most profoundly move on from our lives. Although we may never see them again, we think of them frequently. I have one such friend from my childhood who moved on from my life when we were 11, yet much of who I am today comes from the experiences I shared with her during the three profound years we spent together, just as Michael Frayn’s narrator in Spies is forever influenced by the events he experienced with his childhood chum.
Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.
Towles suggests the importance of these so-called minor characters when Katey begins reading a Hemingway novel from the middle rather than the beginning: “Without the early chapters, all the incidents became sketches and all the dialogue innuendo. Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way.”
And Katey learns to read life that way too — paying more heed to the side characters who influence us unexpectedly. Eventually she discovers that “when some incident sheds a favorable light on an old and absent friend, that’s about as good a gift as chance intends to offer.” Reading Rules of Civility gave me cause to reflect on many an old and absent friend, and that’s one of the many good gifts of this book.