Death of the Black-Haired Girl, by Robert Stone

This 2013 novel begins disappointingly, matures into a thoughtful literary work, and then eases itself at the end into a simple portrait of life. As Claire Messud writes in her New York Times review, Stone, “demands an attentive reader as he explores, through superficially familiar narratives, substantial themes.”

The novel begins with an affair at a small, elite university in New England between a married university professor, Steven Brookman and his smart, attractive student, Maud Stack. And my reaction is: how trite can a novel get? It is truly a “familiar narrative.” Maud is the black-haired girl of the title, an aggressive, opinionated student who allows herself to be seduced and convinces herself that this man is the love of her life. One reads on, unable to relate to her (or to the selfish, womanizing professor), simply because one is curious about how she is going to die.

That death does become a mystery, but this is not a mystery novel. Maud is killed by a hit-and-run-driver outside the professor’s house, when she argues with him and then turns angrily away. What matters to Stone now is what happens to the people who knew her and were left behind. Theirs will be a tale of accountability, and the pursuit of absolution. But unfortunately, we get to know Maud on only two superficial levels, her mad infatuation with the professor and her violent, over-wrought defense of abortion. We do not get inside her, to learn about her relationship with her father or her faith.

Instead, we get to know her through her banter with her roommate Shelby, an older girl but not one wiser in the ways of men. Indeed, Stone allows getting to know about Maud and her affair to take up the first third of the book. Only then do we get to probe more deeply into various characters. Moreover, Shell herself will play no significant role in these characters’ concerns about accountability. Only her estranged husband John Clammer will play a role—that is, be raised by Stone as a suspect, as will also a local madman and the mysterious vision of a priest. Except, these are nothing more than the MacGufins that appear in many a mystery novel, which this is not.

More important is Maud’s father, Eddie Stack, a retired policeman in New York who has lost his wife and now loses his only daughter. He asks if this is retribution because of past cooperation with a corrupt brother-in-law. He is distraught, ridden with guilt, now compounded because he and his daughter have gone their separate ways. And so he seeks a kind of atonement by asking to bury his daughter beside his wife in a church crypt. But a conservative Catholic priest is reluctant to do this, perhaps because of the scandal of her affair but more significantly because she has spurned her Church and has written a pro-abortion column for the university newspaper.

Equally significant is the impact of the girl’s death on Professor Brookman and his newly pregnant wife Ellie. He is filled with guilt for the affair and the disrespect he has shown to his wife. And all he cares for now is to ease his conscience, and to control how his wife will react to the affair.

Outside looking in is university counselor Jo Carr, a mature woman whom everyone leans upon for advice. She was once a nun in South America, and lost her faith after witnessing the evil fostered by a priest who identified with the poor. Also present is Mary Pat, the wife of the university president, who has connections in the Church hierarchy and works to have Maud buried in the church beside her mother. The author himself was raised a Catholic, and here he offers a balanced interpretation, not often seen in the literary world, of the conflict between the beliefs held by the more conservative hierarchy and those by more liberal lay Catholics.

It is the impact of this girl’s accidental death on these people that matters to the author, and it represents the richest portion of this novel. As Messud writes, these “are certainly Christian narratives, but they’re ultimately examples of our human need to find meaning in what threatens to be incomprehensible events.” Basically, the unexpected death of Maud.

The impact of her death extends even to a local policeman, Lou Salmone. He once shared with Eddie Stack a New York beat. The major suspense of the novel is whether or not Stack will take revenge on Professor Brookman for the death of his daughter. And both Salmone and Jo Carr will take steps to prevent this. It is here, in the concealed emotions that impact all these characters, that the heart of the novel lies.

And so, will he or won’t he? That is, Stack take his revenge. The novel builds to his confrontation with Brookman. Whereupon we follow all these characters into the future, some impacted more than others by Maud’s death. But life continues on, the author seems to say. People adjust. This is what our existence brings. Moments of drama. Tragedy for some. And the accommodation to reality for others.

Michiko Kakutani sums up Stone’s intentions with this novel: “It explicates its characters’ hope that life is not completely random—‘people always want their suffering to mean something’—and their contradictory awareness of the dangers of religious certainty; their understanding that choices have moral consequences; and that innocents frequently are tangled and hurt in the crossfire.” All true, but not conveyed, I believe, felicitously by Stone. His work is too encumbered by the set-up that takes one-third of the novel. As well as by the complex emotions of Brookman, Stack, Jo Cobb, and policeman Salmone. Perhaps it would have been better to have concentrated only on Brookman and Stack, and gone still more deeply into their desire for redemption and absolution.

This is a predictable novel by an author nearing the end of his career. It is a kind of summing up. About life. About family relationships. About our trust in one another. But mainly about our faith and the meaning of our lives. It is also not a complex story, one that challenges the author intellectually or structurally. Thus, while he uses the structure of a mystery, with a death and a police investigation, he does not write a mystery. He examines, instead, the impact of the death of Maud on all the people in her life. Indeed, the “death” in the title re-enforces this intent. (April, 2017)

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

This is a superb translation by Francis Steegmuller of Flaubert’s famous 1857 novel. One is quickly impressed by the details that make the setting and the era come alive, details that are so appropriate to the mood of each scene that they also bring the characters to life. Interestingly, the novel begins by presenting a young Charles Bovary, not his future wife, and this through an unknown narrator. Is this because he is to be an unknown cypher to her, and a negative presence as well to the reader?

Their meeting is a natural one. Charles grows up to become a doctor, visits the Rouault home to treat the father, and is impressed by daughter Emma. She, in turn, frustrated by a provincial life at home, quickly identifies him as a possible suitor and an escape into what she considers the real world. And so they marry. But Emma soon finds she has married a dull husband and is now living in another dull home no better than the one she has left. One might note here that Charles’ life has been narrated from the outside, while we absorb Emma’s life, her thinking, her emotions, from within.

Emma becomes so despondent that Charles moves them to another town. There, she encounters a young clerk, Leon, who intrigues her, but he is too shy to show his feelings, and she is too well-behaved to reveal her own interest. Whereupon, another suitor, a cad, Rodolphe Boulenger, pursues this beautiful, ripe, frustrated wife who needs consolation and is waiting to be swept off her feet. And she is, because she is a romantic, and this is the first man who has made her feel beautiful and wanted.

And when her seduction culminates in one phrase, “she gave herself to him,” this reader stepped back to mark how the literary world has changed. In Flaubert’s time, as in ours, one knows what this phrase means. One doesn’t need the details spelled out to understand the release of Emma’s emotions. Which is what the literary world is all about. The physical details we read about today do not make the act of love any more convincing. Nor the characters, by their actions, more richly portrayed.

Such a reaction will never, of course, change today’s literary world. The cat, so to speak, is out of the bag. And it’s a big commercial cat. But Flaubert’s era understood where literary propriety should lead one—to the characters emotions rather than on their physical exertions. Lurid descriptions, I feel, even distract the reader today from the author’s purpose. That is, the “freedom” authors seek to express themselves can get between themselves and the reader, can divert the reader from the novel’s emotional, philosophical, or psychological objective.

Emma’s own declarations of love are, of course, futile. You cannot oblige a man to love you when what he seeks is only physical. Flaubert makes this clear. And as he does so, he is deepening this portrait of a woman who is a dreamer and a product of her era. She is unfulfilled and lives for her emotions, is otherwise insecure, and will become a victim of the next man who declares his love.

On the other hand, critic Victor Brombert, acknowledging Baudelaire, writes that Emma, “is the only dignified and poetic figure in her small world. Her feverish yearnings experienced in the context of the most banal daily existence and in the most mediocre provincial setting, reaffirm the powers and prerogatives of the imagination. She not only towers over her lovers…but positively gains in stature as she approaches her doom, always in pursuit of an unattainable ideal of love and happiness.”

Yes, we relate to her and sympathize with her pursuit, but it is all a little too baldly stated for modern taste, especially when she collapses after the inevitable rejection by Rodolphe. This is somewhat exaggerated for a modern reader. She even asks herself if life is worth living. But it soon is, when Charles takes her to Rouen to hear an opera, and they encounter a mature Leon who has learned much while studying in Paris. Now, he does pursue her, and again she succumbs to a man’s intentions.

There is a clear pattern here, a portrait of this woman who comes alive only when she is loved, who perhaps reflects the women of her era whose lack of an internal fulfillment must be satisfied by the male society around her. Otherwise, a woman is incomplete, and Emma is desperate to become a complete woman. Whether she will or not becomes unclear. She does make an effort to control her husband’s finances, but this seems simply to provide an excuse for meeting her new lover, Leon.

Emma is still a dreamer, and the bloom is eventually off this new rose. She is also naive, and soon gets into hot financial water, frustrating her even more. The words “death” and “suicide” surface, as the author begins to prepare the desperation she will soon feel. Indeed, what is interesting here is that the emphasis is now not on her emotional frustration but on her financial straits. It is a shift by Flaubert to a more realistic approach to Emma, rather than on an emotional weakness that male critics then, and all readers today, might find difficult to relate to.

Now we come to the ending. It is a dramatic scene, I grant. It involves an act of desperation, and then a drawn-out, very realistic death. But the novel continues. And Charles, for the first time, becomes human and quite sympathetic in his grief. Indeed, his prominence at the end balances his prominence at the beginning of this novel.

For some reason, however, the pharmacist, Homais, also rises in importance at the end. And seems to illustrate the perfidy of mankind. Steegmuller notes that his prominence is to emphasize the “bourgeois banality” of the provincial backwardness that Emma is rebelling against and that Flaubert is criticizing in this novel. Also, Brombert notes that this three-chapter epilogue makes the reader aware “that the real tragedy of the novel is the victory of existence over tragedy. Life simply continues, indifferent to tragedy; it continues, mediocre and unaware.”

Is this note of negativity intended to bring a sense of realism to this novel? For me, more significant is its negative tone. That the romantic Emma has simply been taken advantage of, first by two lovers and then by the endless debt she has incurred by signing promissory notes at the persuasive hands of Monsieur Lheureux. And that when Charles says at the end: “No one is to blame. It was decreed by fate,” he is absolving himself. And Flaubert is labeling her as an innocent victim of this provincial world.

My conclusion is that Flaubert did create an inevitable ending, and perhaps one that was quite original for his era. But his handiwork is visible in today’s terms. In the manner of her fate, yes, but even more in the negative social portrait he draws at the conclusion. No one comes off good here. No one. And I wonder if the author would justify this in the name of realism.

One must grant, however, that Flaubert has created here a real society, a provincial society, a society of various tradesmen with their wives and children. It is a society that does give substance to Emma’s role as a victim and a dreamer, as well as significant substance to the novel itself.

Brombert notes that a comparison has been made between this novel and Don Quixote. This is true. Like Quixote, Emma has been seduced by novels into becoming a romantic, into believing in a world, a way of life, that is long gone, that has no connection with her era’s own reality.

To sum up, these critics have helped me to better understand the context in which this novel was written. That it was ahead of its time. That the internal musings of Emma, so helpful in both understanding her and sympathizing with her, were new. That the reality which she dreamed of escaping was not itself new, but that both the expression of her sexual transgression and her financial rebellion against her society were new. And that with this novel Flaubert was breaking new literary ground, even as his world did not yet possess the literary tools for doing so.

This novel has survived because it is truly a modern novel—in its subject of an unhappy woman in a heartless world, in its themes of sexual desire seeking an outlet in a frustrating provincial society, and in its exploration of the internal thoughts and emotions of its main character. It is less successful than a modern novelist might be, however, because today’s novelists have the literary tools and training that Flaubert did not have.

As a result, for modern tastes, this novel is too obvious at times, such as when Emma’s passions arise so readily as she is seduced, when she collapses so completely when rejected, and when both she and her husband succumb so easily to signing promissory notes when they are in financial trouble. On another level, the negative portrait of this provincial society is also too obvious, extending the novel beyond its obvious end and leaving this reader, at least, with an unpleasant image of humanity. Which negates, to a degree, the sympathy for Emma which one should be left with.

Reading this novel provides an education about the world’s literary past, and an appreciation of the literary advances that have been made since. This is an imperfect classic in today’s terms, but it is a classic nevertheless in its portrayal of a lost, helpless woman. (April, 2015)

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

The reader is immediately eased into this 2013 successor to Mantel’s earlier novel, Wolf Hall, this world of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, and the new queen Anne Boleyn. As they discuss the complicated era in which they live, we enter a world of politics, personal rivalries, religious issues, and international relations. And it involves up to 70 historical figures, which are, fortunately, listed in five pages at the beginning of the novel—to which one must refer constantly.

First, we meet the King and Thomas Cromwell on a visit to Wolf Hall, the family home of the Seymour family. They toy with and debate each other over the ordinary issues confronting both themselves and the kingdom, and we listen like a fly on the wall. Then we get closer to Cromwell on a trip into the heart of England that gives us another feel of the era. During all of this, we observe Henry’s concern for succession and the future of his reign. This involves Lady Katherine, the king’s ex-wife who is dying, her daughter Mary (Queen of Scots), Anne’s daughter Elizabeth, almost a baby, and Henry’s desire to have a son as a successor.

We also witness the waning influence of Anne, her denial of it, the King’s early interest in Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s trying to balance his own interests with those of the King. Should the possible future queen, Mary, be allowed to visit her ill mother? Should Katherine be comforted by visits from friendly emissaries from Europe? Can Cromwell display human sympathy for her and also be loyal to his King’s political needs? And how can he serve the king while acknowledging Queen Anne’s determined use of her waning power—a queen Cromwell himself detests.

But after this absorbing beginning, the book slows down, and is filled with maneuvering. This is when Cromwell agrees to help Henry replace Anne with Jane Seymour. Anne is determine to hang onto her power, and particularly warns Cromwell not to oppose her. Meanwhile, the Seymour family, aware of Henry’s fascination with Jane, joins forces with a former regime, which includes Catholics, to regain power. Henry himself is concerned mainly with having a son, which he determines Anne cannot give him. And Cromwell, who depends on Henry for his power and who despises Anne, must maneuver carefully if he is to betray Anne but not betray Henry.

As a result, there is considerable talk, as the various plotters seek out each other’s positions, each other’s goals, and plan their own strategy. But there is little forward movement, little action that prompts a reaction. The talk itself is interesting, and the revelations about each character are interesting, but it is mainly Cromwell trying to out maneuver others, and meeting little resistance. In the end, there is only occasional drama.

There is a moment of drama when Anne is arrested—her denials, her acceptance of her fate—and taken to the Tower of London. There is another when Henry is frustrated that the case has not been made about Anne’s adultery, and he rails against Cromwell, threatening him if he fails to make the case. There are also brief references to Cromwell working too much with those of the former regime in order to please Henry and take down Anne—and the suggestion that they will betray him when they no longer need him.

But the main concern of Cromwell as the book moves toward the end is to make the case against Anne, that she committed adultery with various men, and that this is treason—for which she can be executed. And so Cromwell conducts a series of interviews with her suspected lovers. One interview with an innocent musician, Mark, has a moment of drama, as Cromwell browbeats him psychologically until he breaks down. (One review says the scene recalls the McCarthy era and its red-hunting.) The other interviews are fascinating in themselves, as Cromwell tries to get each man (McCarthy-like?) to confess to adultery with Anne. But conversation is conversation; it is not action, as intellectually interesting as it may be. So while Cromwell believes he is successfully building his case, there are no substantial confrontations between equals that cause a new effect. It is more intellectual dueling.

One might note, in passing, that Mantel in this novel has recognized one criticism of her earlier novel. And so here she identifies her hero, when it is not clear that the “he” she is referring to is Cromwell. Another stylistic note is that again she writes this novel in the present tense. And, again, it does not concern me, even helping to achieve an immediacy for a content that, as I said, is often more an intellectual debate than a dramatic confrontation. Note, in fact, that the word “bodies” in the title refers to the prisoners, for, as they are about to be brought before the authorities, they are already being considered as guilty and executed.

If I am less taken by this novel than by Wolf Hall, I think it may be because that novel was about Henry separating himself from the Catholic Church, whereas this novel is about him separating himself from Anne, his wife. The former has far broader political, philosophical, and religious implications, while this separation is purely a personal one. Henry was once fascinated by, but now cannot stand, Anne. And his new emotional whim for a non-descript Jane Seymour has for me far less impact than duels with cardinals, popes, and a future saint. Whereas with Wolf Hall, I was interested in Henry, in his supposedly desperate motivation, why he was doing what he was doing, he has now turned into a typical shallow husband, claiming he wants to have a son but perhaps simply seeking a fresh woman for his bed. And the interest here moves primarily to Thomas Cromwell.

For her ending, Mantel makes the interesting decision of omitting any account of the trial of the four condemned men or of Anne herself. Perhaps because she sensed that after Cromwell’s individual confrontations with these men, nothing new remained about their situation or their denials that could be introduced at their trial. For her dramatic ending, she chose, instead, to describe in detail the execution of Anne, and it is, indeed, a powerful scene. And what she leaves us with, on the final pages, is a public suspicion of Cromwell in some quarters—that “if this is what Cromwell does to the cardinal’s lesser enemies, what will he do by and by to the king himself?” Presumably, it is a foreshadowing of the novel to come.

The major creation of this novel is, of course, Cromwell. It is Cromwell, not Henry, who drives this book, who creates guilt for men who may or may not be guilty. But who overpowers them with his wit and his intelligence. Just as he understands and anticipates Henry’s every wish, so does he the reactions of these possibly innocent men, an innocence of history’s merely rumored trysts with Anne. James Wood in the New Yorker sums up Cromwell concisely: “brutal, worldly, reticent, practical, unsentimental but not without tenderness of a kind, Biblically literate but theologically uncommitted, freakishly self-confident but perilously low on friends.”

And Mantel, who is in full command of this novel, has herself chosen to draw a remarkable portrait of a man whom historians have often presented as a cruel, heartless, and selfish villain. Whereas, she sums up one description of him almost poetically; indeed, as one would an interesting hero: “His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed.”

From now on, Henry’s story will likely become repetitive, as he seeks out new queens. Nor will his monumental ego any longer shake the world. It is Cromwell who will interest us now. We know from history that he will meet his fate in 1640, but we do not know how he will lose the power he has here. There are foreshadowings, yes; but how will it happen, since he is so intelligent, so clever, and so loyal to Henry? The third volume that Mantel has promised us reportedly will be called The Mirror and the Light. May its era be as richly presented as here, but may this new novel also probe the interior of a Cromwell now so sure of himself. May it probe his weaknesses, his second-guessing, and his doubts. And may it probe, above all, his conscience. (November, 2014)