The Peacock’s Eye – by Frances Oliver
I’m starting below another of my gradual real-time reviews. And it is of the novel entitled ‘The Peacock’s Eye’ by Frances Oliver (Secker and Warburg 1986).
All my previous real time reviews are linked from here: http://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
Jacket Illustration by Amanda Hall (website)
I have read the first 16 pages of this novel, where Dr Stone – the first person narrator and grand-daughter of the Countess Maria Aurora Bilderheim-Traun – is persuaded to write a biography of her grandmother with new gossipy items – otherwise someone else with less scruples would be given the job. Within a rather Proustian feel we hear her debates with the publisher and with herself as she prepares the ground for him and, then, for our direct benefit, starts writing this biography, one that promises to deal with fin-de-siecle and 1st & 2nd World War matters in (I believe) Vienna, full of real historical people. We are feeling the way here with things that seem to have ‘happened’ beyond the biographer’s capability to know as well as with things known by the narrator’s direct experience in later times … and with the suicide of a previous biographer by the name of Joshua Prescott. It is a piece of music with which we seem to be grappling amid (so far) oblique events. Dr Stone writes herself into the part? Her name is Maria Aurora, too. Fascinating. Like being eyed from the wings of a stage. (19 May 10)
“My mother is reading to me from a book of fairy tales; my grandmother is there too, my beautiful illustrious grandmother, a bundle of shawls and blankets propped up against the stove from which sometimes emerge a patrician but runny nose and a hoarse imperious voice.” (20 May 10)
pp 16-22. As if trying to pin a donkey’s tail on a donkey while blindfolded, the narration of the biography (eventually arriving in 1944 Vienna?) plumps for identifying the narrator’s mother and, then, her mother’s mother (the biography’s official subject) arriving out of the blue with a young waif and stray from the war called Janka… We learn much. As we now wield clumsiliy a peacock’s tail towards an unknown target without yet hitting home. The house itself has its own waifs and strays of the novel’s characters. Let’s keep close to the narrator. Trust her. Little else we can do in this Proustian dream. For the time being at least. Loving every moment as a reader, meanwhile.
“Of course I do not really remember this conversation word for word. It is a reconstruction, like everything else, a report of what I think they said, and what my mother said they said…” (20 May 10 – two hours later)
“…it sometimes seems there is nothing left of me but my scepticism – that lack of faith which can sustain an existence as surely as faith itself?”
pp 22-28. Gradually we are able to focus more on the Grandmother here in 1944 – via the would-be-biographer-narrator’s sometimes sharp-shuttling vantage points of duration and amid dangerously swirling war-time miscegenations of race and religion – and the grandmother’s intermittently exhibited ‘treasures’ (including a peacock fan) and Janka’s slavish attentions of care to her and her alone… The narrator (as a child) meanwhile yearns for company even to the extent of encouraging unresponsive Janka to make friends despite the difficulties of language between them…
I now intend to have my own sharp-shuttling vantage points upon the book itself as I travel through it picking up clues. Varying between size of text-lengths reviewed and in what detail of treasures found within the emerging plot and at what intervals of present real-time … (20 May 10 – another 2 hours later)
“We make up our lives as we write them; …”
“(…The world that Grandmama came from was not noted for its tolerance.) The young officer did not know, of course, about her letters to Franz Kafka. But then, at the time no one did. Perhaps not even Grandmama herself.”
pp 28-40. In many ways the subject of this ‘biography’ resembles my own beloved Grandmother (born 1899) – an imperious ‘rough diamond’. Meanwhile, Janka’s mere presence in the biography’s household threatens danger as neighbours frown at her apparent lack of ”purity’… and Felix, the narrator’s half-brother, comes home, expelled, lively – together with hints that the other biographer (Joshua Prescott) is also somehow a threatening ‘presence’ as well as someone who may have had different slants on the story to be told … affecting the very outcomes of the plot itself? We, the readers, wonder if our own reality is secure as a reality…. (20 May 10 – another 3 hours later)
“We are what we say; and I think I know enough about what we were to imagine quite well what we probably said.”
I’ve decided it is a mistake to continue itemising the plot details for fear of creating ‘spoilers’. Suffice to say that the narrator’s Grandmama is beginning to seem so real to me, I can feel her in my room. The end-of-war, end-of-Reich, end of a compos mentis as a scorched earth environment paralleling the characters’ own destinies amid a cross-current of various battling biographers (a pre-‘Possession’ (1990) or ‘The Biographer’s Tale’ (2000) A.S. Byatt fiction territory that might have influenced Byatt assuming she had previously read Frances Oliver’s ‘The Peacock’s Eye’ (1986)) … within a 20th Century spectrum’s moving feast of time and space as masterfully told by unreliable narrations and asides. It’s like falling off a bike. It is easy to be hurt, difficult to steer, even more difficult to brake or ring its bell…
“It is power I love, the puppet threads / Taut in my thinking fingers…” (21 May 10)
pp 63 – 68
“That was typical Felix. When he invented a lie, he persuaded himself it was true and even lived it out.”
A physically precocious young Mitzi (I now give the narrator and potential biographer her real name in the book) and her half-brother Felix alone together before thier mother’s mirror. I shall now lie to myself and say nothing happened, nothing even ‘implied’. The reader has become perhaps just another would-be biographer in this extrememly tantalising book through which the history of an era seeps via a competing language and style of character or scene, where dialogue is possibly invented to make the narrative more readable? Mitzi is the least to be trusted of them all, perhaps. The book is not so much the evolving biography in itself but the music played by the literary machinations that the biography’s evolving creates outside of itself. As if it is the main character, the main narrator with its own slant of lies? (22 May 10)
pp 68 – 69
Mitzi’s youthful struggling with awakening sexuality and other solitary yearnings in post-Nazi Vienna mixes with her visualisation of modern day negotiations with the publisher(Sir Henry) who is commissioning the biography of her grandmother …. (22 May 10 – another 8 hours later)
pp 69 – 73
This is a truly beautiful book in subject and style, one that is often a digression of a digression, a Schubertian leit-motif, with a fading mind in some, a focussing mind in others – transmigration and uncertainty and once unspoken carnal yearning of self and self’s relatives now spoken here: and a threnody of a post-war Europe (Russians in Vienna) – and Mitzi’s links with a future biographer who has been part of the narrative already, a present moment laced with a retrocausality of destiny…. (25 May 10)
pp 73 -75
I read that Mitzi is about to meet someone called Stefan. It is good — tonight just before going to bed — to put the book down without having met Stefan, but simply to have steeped myself in the plot’s landscape conjured up by a delightfully pastoral exercise in words, a landscape where she is about to meet Stefan (whoever Stefan turns out to be). This act of mine demonstrates the beauty of reading a book as compared with other entertainments. Tonight, you see, I alone read this book and can decide where I stop – tantalisingly – literally bookmarking real-time for later. My decision. My own pent-up sense of suspense. Even Mitzi willl have to wait to meet Stefan. And no doubt Stefan will have to wait to meet her. All because of me and my reading habits. (26 May 10)
pp 75 – 89
A new day. A new mind. And I have now met Stefan – and his implications for Mitzi – the sore or scar … or soar towards an immortality. We are now under no illusion of a biography of her grandmother being tried on for size here in this fiction, but a full-blooded auto-memoir of Mitzi’s own self taking sway. And moving on from a TB sanatorium’s gardener to the act of painfully kneeling on hard peas seems a symbolically fitting rite of passage. I shed a fictional tear or two at a fiction that makes me feel its is realler than reality itself. (As an aside, Mitzi (called by her real name Maria (ie her grandmother’s name) at the convent to which she’s sent as an example of an era’s disgrace) may have come into life from her grandmother via her mother but two-way filters don’t often work well in one of its directions). (27 May 10)
pp 89 – 99
“I have spoken much of deflating myths; in the last few pages I have indulged in a myth of my own.”
My own myth is a pretence that I can manage this book in a real-time review. Nah! It grows beyond my ability to summon succinct summaries of character and event. While some become faint, others become bright, but we only have the narrative viewpoint to trust which is which. Mitzi herself has admitted defeat – effectively – inasmuch as this book is nothing to do with her grandmother or with others who are shouting from the biographical sidelines to keep the plot in check. It escapes even the poignancy of hindsight. Felix’s bravado, Stefan’s iconicity, Mitzi’s mother’s ‘mating’ habits. This a Mahler symphony. Each note (or word) larger in meaning than simply itself. It needs re-invention, needs packing….
” ‘All you need to get rich is a new kind of zipper.’ (Soon after that someone did invent Velcro, but it was not Felix.)” (28 May 10)
pp 99 – 113
“…what you commit is what you feel you are committing.”
When earlier thumbnail-reviewing this author’s novel ‘Xargos’ I wrote: “The relentless scenes of sleep and waking and nearness within the claustrophobic expedition tents are absolutely incredible. The flutes of shepherds in lands of hot-steaming misbegotten wonder. The faces in rocks…” Here, in ‘The Peacock’s Eye” we have a startling scene involving the edges of sexual protocol: and “the rhythmic motion was that of glittering caravans crossing the purple darkness, going over the horizon in a blinding shower of stars…” I will not shatter that beauty with any potential shame – but the ‘faces in the rocks’ are the battling biographers for the soul of the biography that lies at the heart of this novel: now swirling around the wonderfully stylised portrait or conception of Felix’s ‘future’ wife: an American unscarred by the war, bubbly-fey, precious and with, no doubt, lovely legs and grasping hands. And scores to be settled by Mitzi across the years. (29 May 10)
pp 113 -122
“…if you behave outrageously with an air of behaving well, you are quite likely to get away with it.”
Or presumably so thought Mitzi’s amoral half-brother Felix. He even uses Grandmother’s senility to befog his tracks. Not for me to say, but I sense a bit of this in Mitzi’s own method of narration-of-reality. Not only is it Betsy who has a fast-moving ‘sincerity’ on tap to suit each moment! Dysfunction and dissembling as a method of autobiographical insulation.
“Felix reached over and heaped whipped cream onto Betsy’s plum cake.” (29 May 2010 – three hours later)
I have not yet resumed reading this novel today, but it has occurred to me – ‘tween dreams last night – that Mitzi and Felix are a version of Hansel & Gretel, and the witch’s oven is a sort of palimpsest of time-spans into which a Biography manqué is thrust – figuratively, a ‘scrambled Shakespeare’ that is being noisily typed for show instead of the ‘magnum opus’ it is boasted to be (Cf. Frances Oliver’s novel: ‘The Children of Epiphany’) … scrambled by time and self-deception?? But what of the trail of crumbs? (30 May 10)
pp 122 – 133
An amusingly satirical interval where Felix falls foul of dog-food during his marital sojourn in America … and, upon his return to the family hearth in Austria – amazingly as it turns out by my premonition of ‘scrambled Shakespeare above – assumes the mantle of writing a serious work of literature upon which he is about to embark.
Another writer (and American) – Joshua Prescott — of whom, from time to time in the narrative, we have heard mention ostensibly en passant (as it were, but possibly with the power of the chess move with that name?) from various angles of time and authorial omniscience as a potential biographer — is worth noting here as still a pervasive force. A force, but how strong a force? (30 May 10 – four hours later)
pp 134 – 142
” ‘…we only know our own sufferings, we only know what we feel ourselves.’ “
Joshua has arrived on a visit and “what are, after all, only approximations to truth is getting the better of me again.” Approximations of truth: Mitzi writing her autobiography as a part of someone else’s biography, Joshua planning to write a competing biography(?), the head-lease author (Frances Oliver) writing about Mitzi, Joshua et al, and me writing a review of all these tenants of truth via text and subtext….
Meanwhile, Grandmama, mixing up names between her various servants, Paula to Janka to Gordana, encompasses us all in her fading mind, me included. (30 May 10 – another 3 hours later)
pp 142 – 149
It may be my inattentive fault as a reader, but, until this section, I had entirely forgotten (in my conscious mind) that Mitzi limped following the handicap caused by the aftermath of the Stefan affair – but realising it here amid the relative happiness of being in the handsome company of Joshua, Werner, and Felix – made it so much more effective a realisation for me.
We hear talk of Grandmama’s papers. How many audit trails of reality can be found in private papers when compared to the faltering attempts of fiction as the ultimate truth, a fiction that created those papers in the first place? The sense of Joshua’s doom has been with us since the very start of this novel.
[Schubert is mentioned en passant – someone who died very young when his genius was already flowering – yet we now believe he was one of the greatest composers who ever lived. How many flowering geniuses were nipped in the bud?] (31 May 10)
pp 149 – 158
We reach some crux, following others’ girlish bigotries and Mitzi’s Mother’s misbegotten match-making, as Joshua’s only real love-match becomes the letters to Grandmama, (including Kafka’s and Freud’s?). It is as if Mitzi now bows out in favour of her older namesake. An autobiographical narrative that commits its own form of lexic self-destruction in favour of a different narrative based on perceived primary sources, or so I sense at this its early crucial stage. Poignant? Utterly so … in the context. (31 May 10 – three hours later)
pp 158 – 165
“I thought, this is Schubert and yet it is not Schubert, it is like no music I have ever heard before. The sensation was almost too great.”
I had no idea earlier that Schubert was to become more significant – the above from a letter to Alix (written to a friend or confessionally (schizophrenically?) to herself?) – one of the letters that will (via the biographers) make up the Grandmother (Mitzi’s Mitzi) – once such a revolving personality of the early 20th century age, now poignantly a ‘tabula rasa’ where she is dressed up by her latest servant girl like a Ligottian mannequin or re-created by others in a new age that is lost to her. This is exquisite literature. (1 June 10)
pp 165 – 172
“Oh, Mitzi, do not come in a fortnight, come at once, come even sooner. If you feel a tenth of what I do, there is no need for me to ask this, for you must already be on your way. / Hans.”
You know, I suddenly have a dreadful, truly dreadful premonition of what’s going on here… (1 June 10 – three hours later)
pp 173 – 183
” ‘It was an incredible period, well, actually two incredible periods, fin de siècle Vienna, Vienna between the wars. The beautiful rotting fruit, the blossom with a worm in its heart, the girls of Schiele with their tender breasts and tubercular ribs and death-filled eyes, a society so brilliant, so febrile, so sick and yet so creative that it haemorrhages art and glitter like a consumptive coughing blood. Oh, Mitzi!’ “
I am relieved that the narrative Mitzi has similar suspicions as I do regarding the ‘scrambled’ letters that underpin Joshua’s biographical career. However, they are thankfully unfounded suspicions. It’s a pity I have suspicions about the narrative Mitzi herself! And the men who with whom she interfaces either romantically or artfully or half-incestuously. Poignancy at its tipping-point between a wonderful human emotion and a sickness – a bit like the way Werner describes Vienna… (2 June 10)
pp 183 – 195
There seems something very appropriate that one of Grandmama’s servant girls (whose names Grandmama interchanges by the retrocausality of senility) casts a stone into the fictional ‘pond’ of reality – and demonstrates kinship worldwide of the wiles of the feminine creature. Joshua seems this book’s central core of destiny. (2 June 10 – an hour later)
pp 195 – 211
“I must never let myself get this old, never, never.”
But she did. She’s still alive for me today.
If Joshua is the core of destiny in this book’s world, then Felix is its misbegotten God. Felix marries a dancer from England. A beautiful soul perhaps to which all the other females in this book’s world aspire, even if they remain scarred by their attempts simply to be themselves in a Sado-Masochistic 20th century. I read it in the 21st century. Mitzi secretly (a secret she tries to keep even from herself) is overjoyed that, among all the interchanging female names in this book’s world, it is her name, Mitzi’s, that her half-brother speaks in his sleep. But which Mitzi, I ask? Suspicions remain about all those letters to and from 20th century luminaries that have been collected in one place. (2 June 10 – another 2 hours later)
pp 212 – 236
“…then it will be too long ago for anyone to untangle myth from reality…”
A perfect ending to a perfect book. Yet artfully imperfect in its way of disguising fiction’s correlations with truth.
I believe those letters were real in the same way as I believe that Mitzi believed, at heart, they were real and was therefore playing games with the reader when hinting that they were unreal. She was a tease. Still is.
Joshua and Felix had something in common, not only the way they died, but their unrequited loves. Just a hoot that Felix married a dog food heiress then an angelic dancer then a show-jumper who used her whip too much. An aside. But sometimes asides are more important than the central action. Like in true biographies.
I sense I am one of very few people in the world who has this novel on his bookshelf of favourite literary novels. That’s a shame – and a travesty.
I am just left with a random thought about a pregnant servant girl in a pond. (2 June 10 – another 3 hours later)