Thursday, May 14, 2009

Chapter 2 (The Razor's Edge)

"The measure of your holiness is proportionate to the goodness of your will."--Jan van Ruysbroek.

To say that a character in a novel is only a stand-in for the reader, especially a narrator, is to start, a little tired, along that dangerous, razor's-edge-style interweaving of construction and content, yet what to make of our narrator in this chapter, as he constructs most everything from memory, save his last exchange with Isabel?  And the strange intersections in the narrator, of insider and outsider.  He has enough social cachet to warrant attention from Elliot, but is aloof enough to earn Larry's confidences regarding his lunches (he does, in fact, eat them) home (Montparnasse), and reading schedules.  He is a globetrotter to China, and also a careful observer of the Luxembourg, where he finds everything unchanged since his youth.  Plot-wise, he also foregrounds the permanent impermanence of things--the transient nature of existence, if you will--which sort of folds in neatly alongside his general absence from the specific events of the first half of the chapter ("and again I have to eke out my knowledge of what passed during the few weeks they spent there").  

Larry and, for that matter, fascination-with-Larry (those eyes!  that drawn and skinny face!), continues to attract the attention of everyone, yet I can't help but admire and want to argue that there is no "main" character/protagonist in this book, that while our admiring eyes may focus on Larry as he does and does not appear, that this is actually a book about Isabel, Elliot, Larry, Gray, and, eventually, Suzanne, and how the choices they make reflect the way they want to live.  This is way reductive, but, in this chapter, we learn of Isabel's diabetes, no doubt the result of many years of habitual over-eating and drinking.  Elliot loses a step keeping up with the Chicago crowd, but glosses over these absences with his still-formidable graces; how long can a grand man stay at the top?  Larry loses weight, learns French and Greek and Latin, reads a bunch (Spinoza, The Odyssey, the Flemish mystic Ruysbroek [just a guy Larry knew in college], Des Cartes), and loses Isabel for the pursuit of low-budget self-realization.  Isabel loses Larry for want of a proper wedding, social position, proper baby budgets, family pressure, and stubbornness.   Or is it Larry's stubborn expectation that's ridiculous--that Isabel fall in line in a way that he never would, as he continues to refuse Elliot's generosity, frustrate Louisa's ambitions to marry Isabel, loaf, read, decline to return to the United States, loaf and read more, and then more?

Yet--and this is one of the reasons I like this book so much-everyone seems to be getting what they believe they want.  Larry plows through several semesters' worth of close reading the Big Thinkers.  Mrs. Bradley feasts and converses with the best (albeit on Elliot's dime) all summer.  Elliot remains a nucleus of social exchange and interaction.  Isabel, no longer engaged, is charmed by a Rumanian [sic] prince...and yet, she is also completely unmoored as to whether she should follow her heart or Larry's, a moment nicely rendered in this exchange between Isabel and the narrator from a dog-eared page of my copy of the book:

"And yet at the bottom of my heart I've got an uneasy feeling that if I were better, if I were more disinterested, more unselfish, nobler, I'd marry Larry and lead his life.  If I only loved him enough I'd think the world well lost."

"You might put it the other way about.  If he loved you enough he wouldn't have hesitated to do what you want."

Isabel's uncertainty and self-doubt humanize her in a way that Larry, for me, remains too far removed from the world.  Yes, Isabel is precocious, exacting, demanding--but she also doubts herself, which humanizes her while Larry, dancing and loafing his way through nights away from the library, continues to seem just enough of a clueless, well, schmuck.  Okay, I'm being a tad combative.  Looking at this thing differently, we can say that Isabel and Larry are both rigid and certain in their pursuit of outcomes (Larry's life of loafing, Isabel's industrious insouciance) that seem to have no clear processes.  How to get Larry to love Isabel and come home?  How to convince Isabel that they can travel the world on $3,000 a year?  If the other would just take orders a little more easily, wouldn't it all be so grand?

And yet, our narrator gets it right at the end of the chapter.  Love isn't a good sailor and it does indeed languish on sea voyages.  Seemingly freed from initial constraints, we're well-positioned to watch, by virtue of our narrator's coming gap in years, the seeds and fruits of self-intensive scrapping and self-actualizing.


Linda S. Socha said...

Good grief. I find myself starting this read in my mind...alas...not much else. I may opt to just read where you are coming from on this John

Marcus said...

John, interesting that at this stage you find Larry to be a "clueless, well, schmuck." I don't think you're being combative--to me it's a fair assessment.

In the brief notes I jotted down for Chapter 2 (which are Twitter-esque compared to your fully formed essays) I observed that Larry's devil-may-care idealism seems exasperating and self-indulgent. If I'd read the book when I was 21 I would have wanted to be Larry; at 32 I want to roll my eyes at him instead. However, were I ever meet Larry I'd refrain from doing so, for two reasons: common courtesy; and a recognition that the First World War affected his life profoundly.

One more thing--Elliott's class snobberry is also something I read much differently now than I would have at 21. I can only imagine the impassioned term papers I'd have written at Northwestern railing against his uppitiness (likely causing some poor professor to roll their eyes.) Today I think his insistence that like stick with like is simply the way the real world works. Sad but true.