Friday, February 21, 2014

Five Margaret Drabble Short Stories

Collection: A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman
Author: Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble's writing is delicate brushwork. Fine details, nuances of feeling and thought, and in her best stories you hold your breath as the bigger picture emerges from all those little strokes. She writes with a real sympathy for people and how they make meaning of their lives in the face of so much that feels futile or ridiculous to them.

In her weaker work, there's a messiness to the characters and the story structure that feels lazy, like she applied her brush with indifference instead of the focus and care seen in her better writing.

These five stories stood out for me:

Crossing the Alps
A man and woman go off on an adulterous getaway. He's in a failing marriage. She's raising a disabled child on her own (after her husband walked out on her and the kid). They plan their little vacation to the Alps with a feeling of excitement, nervousness, and disbelief in themselves (will their relationship really go anywhere?) They want to do the kinds of things that people in a whirlwind romance are supposed to do, but each of them is practical. They know that what they're doing is in part just play-acting.

During the trip, the man falls sick. He can no longer play the part of the strong man whisking the poor, overworked single mom off on the romantic getaway of her life. She winds up taking care of him, a role that makes her stronger, more self-assured; she's in her element, taking care of another and making the best of a hopeless situation.

With the mountains looming around them, they wind up connecting with each other through a sense of smallness and mutual sympathy. They both know their relationship won't last; they're together briefly, two small people in a vast world, and they find solidarity in that. Were they to stick around long enough in each other's lives, they might have to watch their relationship slowly fall apart; they might become ruined in each other's eyes. What they'll have instead is a relationship that never becomes real enough to be ruined; they'll have some memories to draw a little warmth from years later.

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman
She's got her act together; she's a devoted mom and a popular media journalist who loves her work and is good at it. Her days are carefully scheduled, and she's been skating over the ugliness in her life, tuning it out. Other people, including those close to her, may be petty and hateful. At any moment she may be struck down. But she's able to power through life with grace. A smiling woman.

Until one day, needled to the point of rage, the mechanism in her head that helps her see the world optimistically breaks. It's no longer tuned in to the right set of signals. People aren't bright to her eyes anymore; she sees their shabbiness, pettiness, and corruption, when before she was able to invest them with an optimistic glow. Along with this mental break, there's something else that may be broken in her, an illness she's been ignoring.

Will she survive?
"She felt her spirit tremble, as it prepared to launch itself across this dizzy gulf: had it the power? Would its wings carry it to the other shore or would she fall, here, now, forever, into the darkness?"

How will she survive?
"Those who do not love, die, and they are forgotten, and it is of no account. But those who love as I have loved cannot perish. The body may perish, but my love could not cease to exist… my love is stronger than the grave."

Hassan's Tower
A wealthy couple is on a honeymoon in Morocco. Already they seem disenchanted with each other. The husband is jaded. He wonders if anything in life will rouse him from cynicism and boredom. At some point, he started relying on other people for his cues of what to accept or reject; he sticks to guidebooks, and he reminds himself that his wife is beautiful by recalling what other people have said of her. Ultimately, she manages to renew his connection to other people and to life itself by showing him a different perspective; she insists on going off the map, to check out a place known as Hassan's Tower, even though visiting such a place makes her nervous. Maybe when he's there, he'll remember that he's human, and that other people are too.

The Merry Widow
For years she's been married to a man whose protracted illness sharpened an already nasty personality; being an invalid gave him an excuse to openly condescend, belittle and attack her. But shortly before they plan to go on a vacation to Dorset, to a rented cottage, he dies. To the surprise of his friends (she hasn't any of her own left), she goes ahead with the holiday.

Fed up with her kids and grandkids, tired of other people's demands, she anticipates a peaceful, solitary vacation. She'll be cut off from the world for a while and do as she pleases. There are beautiful descriptions of the cottage, and a paddock on the property, wild and beautiful, where she can retreat to read, sleep and study flowers. What she doesn't expect is the appearance of a gardener who slowly trims away the wild growth in the paddock.

She doesn't tell the gardener to leave. (Why not? Because she's just renting, and it isn't her land? Because she doesn't want to offend him or disrupt what he's come to do?) She watches with a kind of sickness as he neatens up the wild beauty of the paddock. She fears losing herself again (maybe she's already lost) and dying. It struck me that she's reliving her years of marriage - no place of her own to retreat to, just getting cut down all the time. But she discovers, at the end, a way to triumph. She rediscovers the importance of naming things and defining them for herself, and this gives her hope for renewal.

A Voyage to Cythera
I love how the story starts:

There are some people who cannot get onto a train without imagining that they are about to voyage into the significant unknown; as though the notion of movement were inseparably connected with the notion of discovery.
I feel this way about trains, even long rides on the subway (if part of the ride is above ground). I romanticize trains.

I also understand the main character here. She's an outsider looking in. There's a poetry in not knowing too much about people. The narrator here can make them symbols, figures in a vision of happiness, delight, and domestic comfort (or actors carrying out intrigues). As long as they retain their mystery, they can bring her joy or make her feel more alive.

"She knew nothing and could therefore believe everything, drawing faith from such a vision, as she had drawn faith from unfamiliar cities."
This is her intimacy with people. If she comes any closer, will she be disillusioned? Will she discover that it's possible for people to be very close, even share the same house, but still be strangers to each other? But the alternative, not to not get close at all… wouldn't this lead to a brittle life?

At the start of the story, she's on a train. A man joins her, and asks her to address and post an envelope for him. It seems to be part of an adulterous communication. The rest of the story has her considering what his request could mean, and the address he sent the letter to. She goes to have a look. She remains a solitary and fragile traveler, on trains and in life.