Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Peacock's Eye - by Frances Oliver

My real-time review of 'The Peacock's Eye' by Frances Oliver (Secker & Warburg 1986) continued from here:

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 it 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 a two-way filter doesn'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: Betsy, 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 ...

Upon his return to the family hearth in Austria - amazingly as it turns out by my premonition of 'scrambled Shakespeare' above - he 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 "... my fanatical search for what are, after all, only approximations to truth is getting the better of me again." Approximations to 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)


This real-time review now continued here:

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