Monday, August 13, 2001

A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John

I want to talk to you today about an exceptionally good little book by an author who is new to me; her name is Madeleine St John, and the book is entitled, A Pure Clear Light. Ms. St John was short listed for the Booker Prize for an earlier work of hers, The Essence of the Thing. Now that I have read the one I am reviewing today, I intend to read her other three novels as soon as I lay my hands on them.

The last time I talked to you I was reviewing Jamaica Kincaid’s superb novel, The Autobiography of My Mother. The obvious political and moral undercurrents in that book made it an obvious choice for discussion on this program. It had universal relevance to issues of economic oppression, racism, and sexism. The importance of St John’s book is much more difficult to pin down. The characters are undeniably upper middle class, and while the author is very skillful at portraying the cool, rather flippant language of a sort of liberal but not very informed or politically active group of what might loosely be called members of the artistic community in England, it is not easy to care much about the lives of the characters. Nor is it clear that St John thinks the reader should care about them. None seem to be particularly deep or thoughtful.

Still, this is undeniably a morality tale. It is a book about fidelity, loyalty, deceit, and betrayal. It is as if Ms. St John sets out to do a kind of phenomenology of infidelity. Heidegger claims that phenomenology is a description of lived life, and this is certainly a minute description of lived infidelity. The couple in question, Simon and Flora Beaufort, appear (at least at first glance) to be an uncommonly devoted couple with two children and a busy but comfortable life. The only even potentially serious issue between them is one of religion. Flora, a self-described lapsed Catholic finds herself tempted back to some sort of religion, while Simon, the happy and unrepentant atheist is quite happy to have left it behind. But even their disagreement over religion seems to be mostly glib banter, with perhaps just a hint of unresolved existential questions on Flora’s part. She supposes, somehow, that there must be more to life than the comfortable existence they lead.

Simon is not a typical womanizer. By his own account, he is too happy with his life and family, and at any rate much too busy even to think of beginning another relationship. And in fairness to him, he does seem simply to stumble into a liaison with a young accountant whom he meets, Gillian Selkirk. He has elected, because of work, not to accompany his family on their summer holiday, and several of the couples with whom they associate think it incumbent on them to invite the poor man to a home cooked meal. Simon is certainly not looking for a woman; indeed, he relishes his time alone because he hopes, finally, to do something really artistic and important, certainly more important than the kind of popular television programs he directs. He has begun to think that his work, perhaps even his life, is trivial, and that he may be at a point in his life where he must produce something important or condemn himself to a cycle of mediocrity. He supposes that it is the demands of work and family that have kept him from this more important writing. He would not say that he is suffering from a kind of mid-life crisis about the meaning of life, the significance of his personal life, but then he is not really very self-reflective anyway.

Alas, at one of the dreaded duty-dinners, he encounters the cool young Gillian whom he spots, at once, as one of the new autonomous women. She has decided that until she is autonomous both emotionally and financially, she will simply dabble in relationships. No strings, no emotional scenes, simply some sex here and there to relieve the tedium of work.

She gives him a phone number, though he certainly has no intention of calling, and when he does, it is on impulse, half hearted. He asks her to a movie; she accepts. “So it was as simple as that. There was nothing to it, nothing. Ask and it shall be given. And so Simon began falling into the abyss, in all its black, fathomless depth.”

I have to say that at this point, I was still not prepared to see much in this book—more the stuff of television drama than of substantial fiction. But St John knows so clearly what she is about. She understands so acutely just how deceit snowballs, and how much it affects the deceiver even if and when he is not found out. She understands the ways in which guilt destroys intimacy and communication, often enough even when that which one feels guilty about is not all that important in the whole scheme of things.

Flora, the deceived wife, is far and away the deepest of the characters in the book, and she knows from early on that something is wrong. Indeed, she suspects that something is wrong even before the actual infidelity begins. Simon’s midlife crisis sends him first to a desire for real work, real substance in his life, but is diverted quickly into a relationship. Flora, probably experiencing much the same sense of something missing, lack of meaning and purpose, thinks that perhaps religion holds the answer.

What Simon cannot admit even to himself (much less to Gillian) is that he falls in love. Iris Murdoch loves to remind us that most of what gets called romantic love is not love at all, but a kind of self-consoling fantasy. Real love, she insists, is the desire to see the loved one as s/he really is, rather than simply through the veil of ones own cares and concerns. But she also reminds us that falling in lust, so often called love, can (and probably will) happen to many (even most) of us at sometime. And, it is those who deny the possibility who are most lost when it strikes, for to feel lust/love/fascination is one thing, to act on it another. If one boasts that it could not happen, and it does, then it seems so important, so demanding; it seems one must act on it. Murdoch insists, to the contrary, that one can well admit the feeling (in passing), but very much needs not to act on it.

Simon, describing his own state in a very Murdochian way:
He had entered a realm beyond right and wrong. He had stepped—simply in the natural course of events, without seeking to do so—into a world where there was no need, and no place, for such questions: where one simply acted. It was a benefaction, which he done had nothing—that he knew of—to deserve; it was simply a piece of luck, beyond reason or justice.
I am perhaps already giving away too much of the story. What is so incredible and skillful about this novel is the way in which St John uses short, one or two page chapters, to jump from Simon to Flora, occasionally to some other character, each chapter providing a vivid snapshot. And while the presence of the insightful author is there in each scene, her presence is not heavy-handed or obvious. She is so deft in drawing an entire canvas with these mini-views, these snapshots.

The reader knows in a general way what is coming throughout the book, but knowing, or feeling the impending, is a large part of the fascination. What is clear is that this man really does love his wife and family, really cannot even conceive of losing them. He supposes that he can, at any moment, step back from the abyss, that so long as he does not use the word ‘love’ to describe what he feels, to describe the power this new relationship has over him, all will be well.

I think this little novel is about as compelling as anything I have read in the past year or so, and I have to think it is the wisdom of the author that is so compelling. Perhaps she names me, but you will not find yourself anywhere in her pages. You will have to read it find out.

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