The Critic in Novels: Cultured or Caustic?

Critics have a bad rap.  We picture them as cruel little men (somehow not women) who savage the books and movies we love.  “I never agree with the critics,” my mother used to say.  I seldom do myself, but I read reviews and discover good books by reading between the lines.  Personally, I have never known a critic.  I have known book reviewers, who are a milder bunch. But suddenly, last month, critics kept cropping up as minor characters in the twentieth-century novels I was reading.

In general, they were an unpleasant bunch.  I chortled over a scene in Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, set at a literary society meeting.   Jane, a middle-aged minister’s wife and writer of a collection of essays, attends the meeting to “absent herself from parish duties.”  Her old college friend, Barbara Bird, a novelist, chats about the good reviews of her latest novel.  She is pleased by the turn-out for the meeting.

“Better gathering than usual,” said Miss Bird; “quite a few critics.”

“Such mild-looking men,” said Jane, seeing one of them taking his seat near the front.  “Perhaps they compensate themselves for their gentle appearance by dipping their pens in vitriol.”

Later, Jane has an accidental encounter with a critic while conversing with Miss Bird.   “Oh, yes,’ agreed Jane enthusiastically, stepping backwards into a critic and causing him to upset his coffee over himself.”

Pym getting back at the critics?  But did Pym ever receive a bad reviews?


Critics are useful to writers, as we see in Some Do Not…, the first volume in Ford Madox Ford’s stunning tetralogy, Parade’s End.  Mrs. Wannop, a brilliant novelist and freelance writer, arrives unannounced at a brunch and immediately corners a critic.    “…Mrs. Wannop was a woman of business. If she heard of a reviewer within driving distance she called on him with eggs as a present.”  Ford is very comical about her, but, believe me, she needs the press, because she and her suffragette daughter are almost starving.

I am a great fan of Pamela Hansford Johnson, and recently reread the second in her Dorothy Merlin trilogy,  Night and Silence, Who Is Here?  Dorothy’s friend Matthew, an aristocratic playboy, is lionized by an American college after Dorothy bullies him into writing articles about her. “Since he mildly liked her work, he saw no reason why not to; and as her total oeuvre consisted of twenty shortish poems and four slim verse-dramas, the labor was not demanding. He had all the luck of those who find themselves, by accident, first in the field. He was immediately accepted as the world authority on Dorothy Merlin, because he was literally the only one.”

In A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s 12-novel masterpiece, the critics are difficult people, sometimes not quite of the writer/narrator Nick’s class.  He went to Oxford with Mark Members, a savvy social-climbing poet and critic.  In the fifth novel in the series, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, we meet Maclintick, a bad-tempered music critic. He is not entirely unsympathetic, but comes to a bad end.  Nick describes him as follows:

…Maclintick belonged to the solidly built musical type, a physical heaviness already threatening obesity in early middle age.  Broad-shouldered, yet somehow narrowing toward his lower extremities, his frontal elevation gave the impression of a large rectangular kite about to float away into the sky on the fumes of Irish whiskey, which, even above the endemic odors of the Mortimer and the superimposed insistence of Mr. Deacon’s eucalyptus, freely emanated from the quarter where he sat.  Maclintick’s calculatedly humdrum appearance seemed aimed at concealing bohemian affiliations.  The minute circular lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles, set across the nose of a pug dog, made one think of caricatures of Thackeray or President Thiers, imposing on him the air of a bad-tempered doctor.

What is the source of these satiric portrayals of critics?  Why do we recognize them?  Perhaps I first read about a critic  in one of the novels of Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point, or a satire by Evelyn Waugh?

I do remember a critic in Sebastian Faulk’s relatively recent novel, A Week In December, published in  2009.  I loved the large ensemble cast, and wrote in my book journal:

My favorite character is the terrible but funny Tranter, a book reviewer who lives to eviscerate novelists. He seems to be right out of the pages of Anthony Powell….   He lives off a number of freelance review assignments, combined with gigs running an upscale women’s book group and editing teachers’ comments on reports at a fancy private (or public, as they say in England) school.  Reading the newspaper, he focuses on the book review pages.

So do you know of any critics in novels? Who are your favorites? And why do they have such a bad reputation?

Calumny in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Redux & Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not…

parade's end folio society PND_p1

Lovely editions: I do not, of course, have these!

If ever a young woman read too many English novels, I was that young woman. I  read so many Victorian and modernist classics that I believed the English must behave like characters in English novels. (Americans do not behave like characters in English novels.)  I spent many happy hours with Emma Woodhouse, Jane Eyre, Esther Summerson,  Christopher Tietjens, and Mrs. Dalloway, who inhabited a glimmering fantastic England unimaginably far, far away from the Midwest.

You only read like that when you are young:  perhaps no one ever really behaves like a character in a novel.

Nonetheless, these books are far from cozy.

When I recently reread Trollope’s Phineas Redux and Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not…, I was astounded by their dark contemporary relevance.  In these two novels, the heroes must confront the savagery of defamation of character.  Slander, gossip, and libel threaten the reputations of Trollope’s Phineas Finn and Ford’s Christopher Tietjens.

Calumny is the stuff of daily newspapers and gossip, right?

Libel, slander, rumor, gossip…

Parade's End ford madox ford 51TxQjZ6-TL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In Some Do Not..., the first novel in Ford Madox Ford’s modernist tetralogy, Parade’s End, Chritsopher Tietjens, an Edwardian gentleman and a brilliant statistician with a complicated code of ethics, must deal with calumny.  His cruel wife, Sylvia, has left him with her lover, but people say she left Christopher because he was promiscuous.  They think Valentine, a suffragette, the daughter of an old friend of his father’s, is his lover..  They are in love, but they are not lovers.   Christopher cannot divorce Sylvia, who is a Catholic.  He does not think it is right to involve the much younger Valentine.

Some do not…

This is just the first book, set on the eve of World War I. .

But Sylvia returns and continues to spread scandal about Christopher  She spreads the rumor that Christopher’s lover is Ethel Edith, his friend MacMaster’s wife.  One of Sylvia’s banker boyfriends manages to queer Christopher’s account and credit rating by some clever fakery that make it seem he is irresponsible and overdrawn.

Ford describes Chris’s feelings so well.

He considered that he was dull-minded, heavy, ruined, and so calumniated that at times he believed in his own infamy, for it is impossible to stand up forever against the obloquy of your kind and remain unhurt in your mind.”

Phineas redux trollope 41gfICLC-IL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_That feeling of helplessness:  how can Christopher stop the talk? Occasionally he finds a way to disprove some of the lies, but people are altogether too eager to believe calumny.

Trollope is a far from cozy writer, though that is his reputation (perhaps people have seen too many costume dramas?).  In Phineas Redux, the fourth in his political Palliser novels, Phineas Finn, an Irishman, returns to politics.  Chosen and backed by English friends to stand for a liberal seat in Parliament, he wins a tough, corrupt election.

There is prejudice against the Irish.  In addition, Phineas has two powerful enemies hindering his political success: Mr. Bonteen, another liberal, baits Phineas publicly and influences the Minister against him, and Quintus Slide, the editor of a tabloid, the “People’s Banner,” opposes Phineas politically and is determined to bring him down.

One of the strongest weapons used against Phineas is his attractiveness to women.  A scandal is made of his loyalty to Lady Laura Standish Kennedy, an intelligent woman who has left her mad husband, Robert Kennedy, a wealthy landowner who will not divorce her.  Lady Laura is living with her father in Dresden, partly to evade the scandal, partly so Kennedy cannot force her to return by law.  (The marriage laws are cruel.)  When Laura invites Phineas to visit them in Dresden, he feels he must, because he is obligated to them for helping him financially and politically.  He has a complicated relationship with Laura:  she turned down his proposal of marriage a few years ago, but is actually in love with him. He is not in love with her.

This visit inspires  Kennedy to send  a truly mad letter to Quintus Slides’ newspaper, vilifying both Lady Laura and Phineas.  And though Phineas’s lawyer manages to slap a cease-and-desist order on the publication of the letter,  Slide viciously prints so much other scandal about Phineas that even some of his fellow politicians believe it.  And when Phineas is accused of murder, many believe he is guilty.  It is his women friends who keep him from hanging.

The power of Quintus Slide helps us that the power of the press can be for good or ill.

Reading these two novels reminds us that gossip can be a bitch.

Both these novels are remarkably well-written, and not only good stories but  curiously contemporary in their treatment of age-old problems.

Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End

parades-end-ford-madox-hardcover everymanYes, Christopher Tietjens is my favorite character in literature.

He is the hero of Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s elegant Modernist tetralogy about World War I: Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up–, and The Last Post.

There is no one like Tietjens, not in my life, nor in yours. We’ve all had smart, witty boyfriends and husbands, but is there anyone as honorable as Tietjens?  Not in the twenty-first century.  He is thoughtful, ethical, chivalrous, philosophical, decent, a brilliant statistician, almost soldier-like in his morality.  His society wife, Sylvia, a beauty whose son is probably not Tietjens’, though he is Tietjens’ heir, has affairs.  He declines to live with her, but because  Sylvia is Catholic, there can be no divorce.  He gives her money and the run of the estate, Groby.  And he enlists in the Army even though he is over forty (as Ford Madox Ford did), partly because he knows he can be a good officer, partly because there is no life for him in England.  Parades’ End is partly autobiographical, the critics say.

In the second novel, No More Parades, we see the extent of Sylvia’s depravity and viciousness:  she wants Tietjens back so she can humiliate him.  She ruins Tietjens’  reputation in the Army by lying about his politics (she says he is a socialist) and by claiming that he is having an affair with a young woman (she is the one having an affair, cruelly, with a man under Tietjens’ command). A general who is in love with Sylvia ships Tietjens to the front, believing he will die there.

In the third novel, A Man Could Stand Up– (which I have just finished), Tietjens waits for the war to end so “a man could stand up.” He is tired of crouching in the trenches, but standing up can get people killed.  The account of a day in the trenches is harrowing.  He is first in command by default, much loved by the men, but he has shell-shock and is afraid of going mad.  But he wants to keep the command for the money.

…Damn it, he was going to make two hundred and fifty quid towards living with Valentine Wannop–when you really could stand up on a hill…anywhere!

Parade's End Ford Madox Ford vintageBefore the war Tietjens met and fell in love with Valentine Wannop, a suffragette.  But he would not make love to her, because she was the daughter of his father’s oldest friend,  and he could not  marry her.

Valentine, however, looked at it differently and was insulted.  She muses about the fact that no one has ever gone mad for her freckled, sandy, snub-nosed looks.

A Man Could Stand Up begins with Valentine’s consciousness, and ends by alternating her point-of-view with Tietjens’.   Valentine hears from Lady MacMaster, a woman who is indebted to Tietjens because he chivalrously did work for her husband that MacMaster took credit for, that Tietjens is back in London, mad from the war and asking for Valentine.

And so Valentine thinks about her relationship with Tietjens.

She had never–even when they had known each other–called him anything other than Mr. So and So… She could not bring herself to let her mental lips frame his name…. She had never used anything but his surname to this gray thing, familiar object of her mother’s study, seen frequently at tea-parties…. Once she had been out with it for a whole night in a dogcart!  Think of that!… And they had spouted Tibullus one to another in moonlit mist.  And she had certainly wanted it to kiss her–in the moon-lit mists a practicality, a really completely strange bear!

A Man Could Stand Up– is a remarkable, harrowing novel about love and war.  In a different, modernist style, Ford’s book is as moving as War and Peace.

Ford considered himself an Impressionist writer, according an article by Max Saunders, Ford’s biographer, in The New Statesman (Sept. 7, 2012).  There is action, dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness punctuated with dashes, ellipses, and exclamation points.

I cannot tell you if I am in love with Ford or Tietjens, since I have not read a biography of Ford.

But I assume it is Tietjens.

Whom Do You Love? Ford Madox Ford or Christopher in Parade’s End?

"Do you write on a typewriter or computer or with a pen?"  Silly interview question

“Do you write on a computer, typewriter, or with a pen?”

Did you ever fall in love with a dead writer?

It’s best not to bother with living writers,  even though Michael Chabon is handsome,  Jonathan Lethem is brilliant, and Dave Eggers is a political saint.

I’ve only read their books.

But even if you have a great conversation at a reading about HOW MUCH YOU LOVE A WRITER’S BOOKS, remember: He or she is dazed on a book tour and barely knows what city he or she is in. He or she is desperately hoping for a drink because he or she has given a reading, a Q&A session, and two interviews. And don’t despair:  he or she only wrote that very short thing in your book because the line was awfully long.

Writers are just people, if  more brilliant than we are.  We once had to chauffeur a couple of them around to some readings I had volunteered to organize.  (PR is not my strong suit.)  They often wanted a drink after the reading, just like ordinary folks.  If my husband and I didn’t have a drink with them, I assume they watched TV in their room until their plane left the next morning.

Nice, friendly people.  But, you know, not romantic.

Not like Ford Madox Ford.

Now where did I get the idea that he’s romantic?

Ford Madox Ford:  Not cute, but probably sexy.

Ford Madox Ford: plain but probably sexy.

He’s not even handsome, but, yes, it’s that dazzling prose.

He’s dead, but oh, well…

I read in the Guardian about Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s World War I tetralogy, Parade’s End, for a miniseries in the UK.  And so I decided to reread the book.  I just finished the  first of the tetralogy, Some Do Not…

And I am in love with Ford, or the hero, Christopher Tietjens.

Christopher has complicated mores.  He takes back his beautiful wife, Sylvia, who has been living abroad with a lover, because of his tortuous sense of honor, though he is not even sure if Sylvia’s son is his.  Sylvia won’t divorce him because she is Catholic.  Christopher won’t have sex with her anymore.  The immoral Sylvia, one of those beautiful women who looks like an angel, tries to foil his burgeoning affair with a schoolteacher/suffragette.  Christopher, who comes back shell-shocked on leave, tries to decide what to do.

And then I fell in love with Ford’s slow, erotic description of the evolution of Christopher’s romance with Valentine Wannop, a suffragette.

He meets Valentine when she and a friend demonstrate for suffrage at a golf course where important men play.    Some of the men chase and try to assault her friend, and she runs over to Christopher and asks for help.

“I say,” she said, “Go and see they don’t hurt Gertie. I’ve lost her…”  She pointed back to the sandhills.  “There looked to be some beasts among them….”

Noises existed.  Sandbach, from beyond the low garden wall fifty yards away, was yelping, just like a dog: “Hi! Hi! Hi!” and gesticulating.  His little caddy, entangled with his golf-bag, was trying to scramble over the wall.  On top of the high sandhill stood the policeman:  he waved his hands like a windmill and shouted.  Beside him and behind, slowly rising, were the heads of the General, Macmaster, and their two boys.  Further along, in completion, were appearing the figures of Mr. Waterhouse, his two companions and their three boys.  The Minister was waving his driver and shouting.  They all shouted.”

Parade's EndChristopher drops his golf clubs and throws his kitbag between the policeman’s legs to stop him.  And then he apologizes, though the policeman, who was reluctant to pursue the woman anyway, knows he did it on purpose.

Valentine and Gertie could have gone to prison.  Christopher saved them.

Then for the rest of the book the attraction grows between Christopher and Valentine.

Christopher finally asks Valentine to be his mistress.  She’s been fantasizing forever.

There are actually some quite erotic parts, though not much happens.

The next two books are about his war experiences.

I probably have mixed up Ford Madox Ford with Christopher.  Do I love Ford or Christopher?

And while I am reading, tell me this: Whom do you love?