Monday, May 25, 2020

Late In The Day by Tessa Hadley

It is always such a pleasure to stumble onto a writer previously unknown who absolutely commands attention. Tess Hadley is such a writer. Today I want to talk about her 2019 novel Late in the Day. I am so struck with her writing and her wisdom that I find trying to review her work daunting, and I’m not at all sure I’m up to the task. Like the great author, Elizabeth Bowen, whom Hadley deeply admires, Hadley writes primarily, even exclusively, about domestic scenes. While her characters may be more brilliant and creative than most people, what she tries to describe, carefully, minutely, are the everyday concerns of people living intimately together. 

Christine and Lydia have been devoted friends since their early twenties, and their two husbands, Alexander and Zachery, are nearly as close. Zach and Lydia own a small but well known art gallery. Christine is an artist and her husband Alex is a teacher and art dealer. The foursome are as close as any four friends could be, and are drawn even closer in that each has a daughter of roughly the same age who grow up together in the bosom of that extended family.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, when all four are in their fifties, Zach dies of a heart attack, and  in the aftermath of his death, Lydia moves in with Alex and Christine and the two daughters Grace and Isobel stay in Isobel’s flat. All agree that Zach is the most irreplaceable, the glue binding them together. At first, it seems that the loss of Zach will bring the other three closer together, and in many senses it does. But eventually, due to entanglements from their pasts as well as the different ways they cope with the loss, the relationships begin to fray.

The story is far too complex to simply gloss, and it is not really the story or its outcome that matter most to Hadley; it is the almost minute by minute transformations that she expertly reveals. I first started reading this book in 2019, but gave up on it after about fifty pages; it just seemed too complex, and I’m sure I moved on to something lighter and less demanding.  This is not a novel that can or should be read in small snippets of weeks or months; like another book of hers (The Past), it is best read in a sustained manner, not quickly, but with rather complete attention. 

In broad terms, suffice it to say that when Christine and Lydia first met Alex (who was himself already married), it was Lydia who became obsessed with him, who felt she must find a way into his life. 
But Christine felt how Alex didn’t respond to this charm [of Lydia’s] as he was supposed to. Lydia’s audacious frankness, her wide-eyed delivery, complacent like a purring cat, which had been so confounding to other men, didn’t impress him. In Alex’s presence , so perfected and adult, Lydia’s cleverness seemed flawed and home-made, embarrassing like a precocious child’s.
And so it is Christine who ends up marrying Alex, though as the story unwinds, it becomes obvious that the flame in Lydia for Alex lies smoldering through the years to come. 

There is much discussion among the friends and their little community of intellectuals and artists about the nature of art, of what constitutes great art, and with the question of whether women can be serious artists. 
Lydia put in her own remarks among the men, and they all deferred to her, but Christine saw that they didn’t quite take what she said seriously—not because they thought it was stupid exactly, but because her appearance blocked their attention, like a dazzle of sunlight in a reflection off glass. They were exaggeratedly solicitous and encouraging when the girls spoke, as they were with one another. There was a danger, Christine thought, that you might end up performing for them, like a curiosity—and Lydia was inclined to show off if she had an audience.
Eventually, the situation devolves into a love triangle, or perhaps I should say a love quadrangle. Angers and resentments boil up over many things. Zach comes into a great deal of money (which allows him to buy the art gallery and to begin to buy and trade prestigious artworks). Rather than being envious of Zach and Lydia’s wealth, it is Zach’s attempts to help the other couple financially that begins to cause rifts in their relationship.

Hadley is not one to tie things up neatly in the end; like real life, things are left dangling and incomplete. “Alex had said once that she (Christine) ought to give up her hope of wholeness, of a meaning, because it was na├»ve.”
Letting herself into the flat she was glad to be alone. Solitude and silence had begun to be sensuous pleasures for her. It would have been awful in that moment to give false explanations to anyone, perform the sociability she did not feel. Instead she slipped off her shoes before she walked around the rooms, as if she didn’t want to intrude even her own presence noisily.
Besides her four novels, Hadley has also published several volumes of short fiction. I intend to read all of her work. She is a rare find and a superb writer.

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