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Summer 2009

Table Talk

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Thomas Rayfiel

When I was growing up, they were always on my parents' shelves. From time to time I'd take one down and try it. The titles were intriguing, all the same and yet different, Brothers and Sisters, Elders and Betters, Darkness and Day... The only problem was they were incomprehensible. I could rarely make it past the first page. It was like trying to eat pebbles. They didn't even seem to be books, in the ordinary sense, more like talismans. But something kept drawing me back. Then, one day, magically, the impossible became the indispensable. I devoured every one of Ivy Compton-Burnett's novels that I could get my hands on, without understanding even a quarter of what they were about. I struggled just to keep a grip on the action, who was talking, what had taken place, which awful deed was being contemplated, and with even less certainty tried to appreciate the hysterical wit of its speakers. Her books were a compulsion and, like most compulsions, as engrossing for the demands they made as for whatever rewards they offered. They were, I see now, looking back, an aspect of adolescence, or my reading of them was. I was searching for clues to a world that existed beyond my powers of perception. These books seemed to hint at such a world, at a way in, despite the fact that they all took place in Victorian manor houses among members of a long-vanished class, the landed gentry. They held the promise, the seductive threat, of what was to come.

Just a few years ago, as befits someone in middle-age, I took a more scholarly approach and read the whole oeuvre in order, all nineteen volumes. If anything, the experience was even more overwhelming than before. You would think that a repetition of the same themes—power, how it does not exist until it is exercised to its utmost; human nature, how it cannot fully express itself until it has sampled every corner of human depravity—all told in the same way, almost exclusively through dialogue, always in the same time and setting, would begin to pall. On the contrary, the bracingly bleak outlook and diamond-hard sheen of composition spoke even more urgently to me in this time of life. Yes, the action is often absurd, referring to the melodramatic trappings of the three-decker novels and popular theater of Compton-Burnett's youth. The point isn't what happens. Her plots are preposterous but her syntax never. You leap from ledge to ledge, higher and higher, slip, catch yourself, look down and discover the human race miles below, seen from an airless height, all hard edge and animal lust. And comic. I've never laughed harder than when reading these books, but it's freezer-burn humor, it sticks to your flesh, takes some with it when it goes. What gives the work its life, saves it from being mere exercise, is how terrifyingly close the author comes to identifying with her tyrants. There's no moral intent here. One is complicit with the artist's indulgence in her vice, executed so skillfully, argued with such convincing intelligence, you find yourself nodding in unwilling agreement with rapists, torturers, murderers whose actions are justified by arguments that seem, in the context of what she has created, incontrovertible. This can't be happening, you think. This can't be happening to me. Then the last page turns and you are reintroduced to a world superficially resembling the one you left but with all its relationships starkly outlined in terms of strength and weakness, desire and repulsion, a world flayed of the soft lies we employ to get ourselves through the day. Your life appears in unwanted clarity.

Will I do this again, once more, in old age? Read her in yet a different way? If so, I wonder what I will find. Surely it's the mark of a superior novelist to appeal so forcefully—against one's own will, even—at multiple times in a reader's life.

The funny thing is, when I recommend her I'm almost never thanked. It's true, by the conventional rules of fiction she falls flat. The particulars— characters' names, for example, the absurd reversals and discoveries, even the titles—fade away. I can't tell you which of the novels are my favorites. They quickly become indistinguishable. As for quoting her, that's almost too easy: open any book at random and you'll be drawn in, one réplique leading inevitably to the next. There is, it's true, a nihilistic glare to the proceedings. The effect is strange, unlike any other I've felt in literature, and not to everyone's liking. What is it, then? Something stays with you, the angle of attack she employs, the monomaniacal fervor with which she carries out her alien mission. You put one down. You reach for another.

Thomas Rayfiel is the author of the Eve Trilogy, which consists of Colony Girl, Eve in the City, and, most recently, Parallel Play.

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