Monday, August 29, 2011

It ran out of my arms and eyes like lightning

First, let me say that this is my favourite of all NYRB Classics book covers to date. The image (Susan Bower, Downhill in a Pram) is wonderfully eerie and funny and wicked all at once (kind of like the novel itself).

I'd love to recommend this book — The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer — but, honestly, I haven't the foggiest to whom. I suspect that those people who would find it engaging and relevant are also likely to find it emotionally difficult, and I'm not sure I want to wish that on anyone.

I took my time with this novel; 222 pages but it took me a couple weeks. Having reserved it for my commute (A Dance with Dragons is a bit cumbersome to be lugging about on the metro), I read it in 15-minute spurts here and there, and since I've spent several days working from home lately because of my knee injury, well, it took even longer. This book bears the distinction of having ruined my day, on at least two occasions. I'd come home fuming: I can't believe Jake, what a jerk! So it's a book that manages to spill its emotions over into real life.

We never know the narrator's name. She's on her fourth marriage and has a lot of children — we don't know how many, and Dinah's the only one of them with a name. And she wants another one.

The novel starts off on her therapist's couch, and through flashbacks and choice glimpses of her day-to-day, Mortimer touches on not only (obviously) marriage and motherhood, but also depression, (in)fidelity, sexuality, abortion, sterilization, death, fulfillment (all kinds), and the Cold War. Throw in some complicated relationships with her own parents. Oh, and the nature of happiness. Heavy stuff, but the voice is honest and witty.

Bear in mind that The Pumpkin Eater was originally published in 1962, and it still feels a bit scandalous. It reads a lot like Doris Lessing, and maybe a little bit like Sylvia Plath (but without so much hysterical exuberance).

I realized that for the first time in my life I could make love without danger. Danger? For the first time in my life I could make love. It was an amazing thought, as though I suddenly had the gift of tongues, the ability to fly. I could hardly contain my love, it ran out of my arms and eyes like lightning. "Be careful," Jake said, "You'll hurt yourself." I laughed till the tears came and it really did hurt. "You're crazy," Jake said. "What's the matter with you?" "Nothing. I love you. I've been such a fool."

This novel asks what more do people want — from marriage, from life, from other people. What more can you possible want when there isn't any more? This is it, it's all there is. Some people derive happiness from that; others...

It's said that we're born alone, and that we die alone. The fact of the matter is that ultimately, no matter how many lovers or children, or friends or parties or marriages, we also live alone, though some of us by our natures feel it more keenly than others, and some circumstances make it more keenly felt.

– Daphne Merkin's introduction to the NYRB Classics reissue, in Slate

I learned from Emily that this novel was made into a movie. The introduction confirms this (I tend to save these for last, as I've been burned a couple times, by if not exactly spoilers then too much information), and informs me that the screenplay was by no less than Harold Pinter. I'm betting it's worth looking up.


Emily said...

The film is definitely worth checking out. Anne Bancroft does kind of a disturbingly good job, and there's a delightfully weird if brief role for a super-young Maggie Smith as Philpot. It's interesting that so much of the book is internal to the narrator, as in the movie the main character was often a bit of a cypher. But Jake's jerkishness definitely still comes through.

I'm curious about the book!

Isabella said...

Yeah, Philpot's a weird little chapter.

You know, the narrator's a cypher in the book too. Even though it's somewhat internal, she doesn't understand her own behaviour or know what she wants or how she feels about things, so it sounds like the film could be quite a decent adaptation. The novel's ending, in my view, is ambiguous; even though it appears to be a "happy" ending, I think she's still ambivalent about it.