Because I’m listening to M.C Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth mysteries and being mesmerised by Graeme Malcolm’s beautiful, subtly inflected reading and by the author’s loving evocation of the Highlands, and
Because Friday night, I led a discussion of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Careful Use of Compliments. Re-reading this novel, I was enraptured all over again.
I love Isabel Dalhousie, ethicist and intellectual. I love the mixture of elements in her: brainy one minute (and not averse to showing it off), passionate the next; possessed of an insatiably curious nature and yet at times preferring solitude, and the possessor of a heightened aesthetic sense that makes her exquisitely responsive to poetry, music, and art.
I was especially taken this time around by the by the poetry quoted and alluded to in this novel. W.H Auden is a great favorite – Isabel calls him her poet. While she and Jamie are bathing little Charlie, she finds herself reflecting on one of Auden’s best known poems:
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
(I was ready to identify the artist as Pieter Breugel the Elder; however, a Wikipedia entry claims that this attribution is now considered to be highly doubtful. I tried in vain to find additional information about this controversy. The work resides in The Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels – aka, ‘Musee des Beaux Arts.’)
As she and Jamie exclaim over Charlie’s perfect little body, the poignant “Naming of Parts” comes to Isabel’s mind:
LESSONS OF THE WAR
by Henry Reed
To Alan Michell
Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria
I. NAMING OF PARTS
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.
Later in the novel, when Jamie exclaims that he is falling in love with Jura, their vacation destination, Isabel quotes the following, again from Auden:
Love requires an Object,
But this varies so much,
Almost, I imagine,
Anything will do:
When I was a child, I
Loved a pumping-engine,
Thought it every bit as
Beautiful as you.
Click here to read the poem, “Heavy Date,” in its entirety.
I had trouble finding the full text of “Heavy Date.” Tracking down the other poetry referred to in the novel turned out to be even more of a challenge. I was so determined to locate Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Island Funeral” that I am now the pleased owner of this book:
In this edition of MacDiarmid’s works, “Island Funeral” is eight pages in length. Here’s an excerpt:
“They are weather-beaten people with eyes grown clear,
Like the eyes of travellers and seamen,
From always watching far horizons.
but there is another legend written on these faces,
A shadow–or a light–of spiritual vision
That will seldom find full play
On the features of country folk
Or men of strenuous action.
Among these mourners are believers and unbelievers,
And many of them steer a middle course,
Being now priest-ridden by convention,
But not one of them betrays a sign
Of facile and self-lulling piety,
Nor can noe seee on any face
‘A sure and certain hope
Of the Resurrection to eternal life.’
This burial is just an act of nature,
A reassertion of the islanders’ inborn certainty
That ‘in the midst of life we are in death.’
The poem concludes with these lines:
“The cornet solo of our Gaelic islands
Will sound out every now and again
Through all eternity.
I have heard it and am content for ever.
I have not had the chance to read the other poetry, but “Island Funeral” was powerful and moving and well worth the cost of the entire volume.
When the scheming yet superficially congenial Christopher Dove comes up to Edinburgh to confer with Isabel concerning his upcoming assumption of the post of editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, a post cherished and heretofore admirably filled by Isabel herself, she must struggle to be civil to the man. He mentions that he’ll be returning to London on the sleeper train, an experience he has previously enjoyed. “‘Norman MacCaig didn’t,” she responds, and goes on to quote the following: “‘I do not like this being carried sideways through the night.'” I love that line, especially the rhythm of it, imitating as it does the actually rhythms of riding on a train. Research revealed that the poem is entitled “Sleeping Compartment.” I have not yet obtained the full text.
During the bath scene, the Auden work puts Isabel in mind of yet another poem:
“‘There’s a poet called Alvarez who wrote a lovely poem about angels appearing overhead. The angels suddenly appear in the sky and are unnoticed by a man cutting wood with a buzz saw. But [she adds] then it was in Tuscany, where one might expect to see angels at any time.’
Oh, dear, off to the chase yet again! I’m thinking that the Alvarez in question is A. Alvarez. Years ago, I read a powerful book by this author, a meditation on suicide entitled The Savage God. I have not been able to find the poem alluded to above. The final puzzler is a poem by an Irish poet “which suggested that we could all be saved by keeping our eye on the hill at the end of the road.” No title is given or author named.
I’ve concluded that this novel should come with a concordance!
Near the novel’s end, Isabel attends a concert in which Jamie, a professional musician and music teacher, is playing the bassoon. The second half of the program is to consist of the works of contemporary composers: Peter Maxwell Davies, Stephen Deazley, and Max Richter. There’s a piece by Peter Maxwell Davies that I really like, though I haven’t heard it for quite some time. It’s called Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, and there are bagpipes at the end, which is probably why I’ve never forgotten it.
The Requiem by Gabriel Faure comprises the first part of the program. These are Isabel’s reflections on it:
“It was not complex music, with its cautiously developed melody and its utter resolution; it was a lullaby really, and that, she thought, was what a requiem really was. If one were to be taken up to heaven, then it would be Faure who might accompany one….Grant them rest, rest everlasting; they were such kind words, even in their finality, and the music that accompanied them, as in this requiem, should be gentle.
Not a believer herself, she nonetheless concedes that “this was music which might, for a few sublime moments, nudge one towards belief…” – belief, she means, in some kind of afterlife.
The following are excerpts from the Requiem:
Sanctus, performed by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge
The concluding movement, In Paradisum, performed by the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Carl Marie Giulini.
I first encountered this music when I sang it with the Chorus of my alma mater, Goucher College. From it I have received both exaltation and consolation all my life, and yes, Isabel, I hope it sees me off into the next!
Now art, of course, is the springboard for the plot of The Careful Use of Compliments. Alas,the group felt that the intrigue, such as it is, surrounding the fate of painter Andrew McInnes is the least interesting aspect of the novel. I couldn’t help but agree with them. Far more compelling are Isabel’s efforts, which seem at times almost desperate, to keep the dominant elements of her life in some kind of harmony. There’s her much younger lover and all the insecurities entailed in that relationship, despite the fact of their having a child together. The intensity of feeling is stronger on her side, and she knows it. To further complicate matters, she is also far more financially secure than Jamie.
Then there’s her niece Cat. Each is the other’s only near relation in Edinburgh – in all of Scotland, for that matter. But Cat is a mercurial, rather shallow young woman who is capable of spiteful and injurious behavior toward Isabel, despite the latter’s kindness .
Finally there is Isabel’s position as editor of The Review of Applied Ethics. Isabel does not have a “day job; her inherited wealth relieves her of the necessity of shouldering that particular burden. But her work for the Review is a labor of love, one that keeps her connected with her chosen field of study and with colleagues from all over the world. When that position is threatened – by the oily Christopher Dove no less! – her first instinct is to acquiesce with as much grace as she can muster. But then another instinct arises within her: the instinct to fight.
Isabel decides to use her vast resources in order to save her position and the Review itself from further interference by potential adversaries. But she has qualms about doing this. Is she using her money in an arrogant, unscrupulous manner? Eventually she overcomes these reservations, and once she has made her move, does not look back.
The group did not have a problem with Isabel’s actions in this case, but in some of the book’s ticklish social situations, we felt she could have acted with more tact. Showing up at Cat’s flat with Charlie in tow seems a particularly egregious act, especially considering that young woman’s prickly nature and extreme sensitivity regarding Isabel’s relationship with Jamie, her own former lover.
Although the mystery surrounding the painter Andrew McInnes does nor engage the reader as it might have, it does nonetheless provide motivation for the journey Isabel and Jamie make to Jura in the inner Hebrides. McCall Smith’s description of this windswept island make you want to go there immediately. Approximately 170 persons currently live on Jura, while the population of red deer is about 5,500.
(I was delighted to read about the Paps of Jura, as they immediately reminded of the Grand Tetons. This, then, is the second time I’ve encountered mountains named after that portion of the female anatomy!)
Included in this portion of the book is fascinating (and factual) background on George Orwell, who stayed at Barnhill, a house on Jura, while he wrote 1984. And here’s news for all you intrepid vacationers: you can now stay at Barnhill yourself! But you’ll need a Land Rover to get there…
My reading of the Dalhousiee novels has awakened me to the rich heritage of Scottish art. I acquired this fine book:
In its opening pages, I discovered an object which I loved (and wanted to hold) instantly: the mysterious Towie Ball.
Here are some portraits by Scottish artists:
And here, a cityscape I find immensely appealing:
With one exception, I had the feeling that group members were not quite as enthusiastic about The Careful Use of Compliments as I was. For one thing, they had not read previous titles in the series, and I think that proved a disadvantage. In particular, they lacked the back story of Isabel’s ongoing and rather tortured relationship with Cat. Even so, I think we all agreed that the conclusion was pure poetry.
Just before drifting off to sleep, Isabel and Jamie are sharing a few intimate thoughts. Then:
” Isabel closed her eyes. There is a sea of love, she thought. And we are in it.”