The Englishman is slow to mate

Not that anyone would dream of asking me, but my advice to any ambitious young British writer would be to change her name to Penelope. Not one but two Penelopes (Fitzgerald and Lively) have won the Booker Prize. How many Penelopes can there be who have ever even written a book? I suppose boys could try Odysseus, or maybe notions of gender have become flexible enough that they would be better off with Penelope too.
Penelope Lively’s Cleopatra’s Sister left me with a surprising sense of estrangement, surprising because many aspects of its world are familiar.  The main characters, nerdy scientist Howard and trendy journalist Lucy, are of my generation and are culturally similar to people I knew in grad school or in my software engineer days (the story was written and takes place in the early ’90s).  They are non-religious city folk who sometimes move in with their boyfriends/girlfriends, as one did in my day (kids these days seem to frown upon cohabitation).

Fitzgerald’s ideas are also familiar: she seems to be a big fan of Stephen Jay Gould, and I too enjoyed much of his work, though perhaps she could have been more subtle in her use of his ideas.  I can even take pleasure in recognizing the Brit lingo of A-levels and bedsits, thoug I had not realized that “pot plant” means “potted plant.”  That could lead to some awkwardness, rather like my Irish acquaintance who told a cop he was out for a bit o’ crack (craic is ‘social fun’); he had some ‘splainin to do.

So it comes as a surprise when the characters suddenly turn out to be totally alian:  Howard and Lucy have met and fallen in love, unfortunately while being taken hostage by an evil North African dictator.  As they sit in the courtyard of the former convent school where the group of hostages is being detained, they confess their love for each other, and then:

He said, “I should very much like to kiss you.”
“I’d like that too,” said Lucy. 
“But if I do there will be twenty people looking on.”
“And there’s absolutely nowhere we can go.”
“No,” she said, “there isn’t.”
“It will have to wait, then,” said Howard.

WTF?  Yes, they really do refrain from kissing and cuddling for the remainder of their captivity, though they permit themselves to hold hands.  Apart from the fact that they could easily find a closet or empty dorm room to make out in, can the restrictions on PDAs have been so ferocious in their world, even under rather special circumstances?

I think (I hope) that we are seeing generational slippage; Ms. Lively was not 30 but 60 when she wrote this, and perhaps she is imposing on the younger generation the more draconian prohibition on PDAs that applied to her own.  (You can see the opposite effect in moves of Jane Austen novels.  For example, in the film Persuasion, Mr. Right puts a big strings-and-cymbals smooch-and-grope on the heroine right in the street, which would have made him Mr. Dead Meat in Austen’s world.)

Another locus of alienation is religion.  I would expect to find common ground with the secular Lucy and Howard, and indeed I can imagine myself in the scene where the child Howard explains to his Mum that he won’t go to church any more.  But he’s lost me when they have been kidnapped and are being taken they know not where , and he is angry that some nuns are praying at the back of the bus.  Not trying to lead the others in prayer, just doing it amongst themselves.  Later when they are imprisoned at the ex-convent, he is outraged by the sight of religious art on the walls, “simpering” Marys and gory Sacred Hearts, and is tempted to smash them.  Now my atheist cred is pretty solid, but this strikes me as over the top and rather disturbing.  (In case you’re wondering, their captors are not Christians, so far as one can tell.)

There are several possible explanations: first, perhaps Lively is actually a Christian whose image of the secular young generation is distorted (just as I think she’s failed to grasp their notions about sex).  On the other hand, it could be that European atheists are more intolerant than American ones (certainly in a busful of American hostages, a lot of people would be praying and the rest of us would be ok with that unless they wanted us to participate).  I think the most likely explanation (which might be combined with the first) is that Howard is mostly anti-Catholic rather than anti-religious.  He isn’t too bugged by American missionaries, but the nuns and the Sacred Hearts really get his goat.  It always surprises me how much difference there can be between a Protestant atheist, a Jewish atheist, and a Catholic atheist (which I guess is what I am); we don’t believe in quite different Gods.

I suppose that we have here a temporal example of the general jarring phenomenon where the reader is closer to some aspect of the fictional world than the writer.  Writers must find it daunting, for instance, to write dialogue for characters from other countries or regions…well, some of them apparently don’t find it as daunting as they should.  Has there ever been a British writer who realized that Americans do not say “My family are angry” or “My network are interested”?

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6 Responses to The Englishman is slow to mate

  1. Mary Evelyn White says:

    “It always surprises me how much difference there can be between a Protestant atheist, a Jewish atheist, and a Catholic atheist (which I guess is what I am); we don’t believe in quite different Gods.” Priceless!

  2. Ann Foxen says:

    I suppose this means that there was no suspense for you in 2008 when the short list for the Lost Booker Prize of 1970 came out. You would already have known that Rachel Cooke and Katie Derham could just settle down and forget about it.

    I couldn’t find the statistics for the most common male name among winners; I only wish it could be Odysseus.

    • Roy says:

      I’m afraid I don’t get the joke about the lost Booker. I looked it up, and I see that Cooke and Derham were two of the three judges (the other being Tobias somebody), and the award went to J.G. Farrell, who had also won a normal Booker but whom I have never otherwise heard of.

  3. Roseann Foxen says:

    Never mind! I read carelessly and thought you had said the Penelopes were the only female winners. Or that Puerto Rico should be made a steak. I was distracted by your bringing up Penelopes at all because I’d just finished reading an article in the Post about the “purple prose” posted on-line by a man who’s wanted for the murder of an AU professor. In a tribute to some yoga personage in New York he wrote: “Here was a man who had labored quietly in the corner like Homer’s faithful Penelope, and not cheap with time, had taken four decades to peel off the many layers of his ego, so that he could stand naked, luminescent, effulgent….”

    The article says that his alleged victim had been bludgeoned, but it doesn’t say whether the murder weapon was prose.

    • Roy says:

      OK, that helps, though I still don’t understand what Cooke and Derham had to do with it, since they were judges, not candidates. But whatevs.

      I wonder if the implication is that yoga dude unpeeled his ego during the day and then re-coated it at night in order to drag out the process, a la Penelope.

  4. beth mchugh says:

    Another great post, Roy! Loved the same line Mary did…read it out loud to Margaret and we both had a great LOL….Boodle

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