Thursday 9 June 2011

The Passions: A Nemirovsky vs. Peters Cage Match

I’m probably the first person (and will likely also be the last) to compare the novels of Irene Nemirovsky and Ellis Peters. They are really nothing alike – while Nemirovsky wrote incredibly gorgeous, ruthless, and painful literary studies of the darkness that lurks in the heart of man(kind), Peters wrote (among other things, but this is what she’s most famous for) formulaic, homely, comfortable, reliable, and grammatically correct murder mysteries, whose mysteries are not usually very mysterious at all.

I am a fan of both these authors precisely for what they do; they appeal to very different parts of my reading soul. Having recently read a novel apiece of theirs (Nemirovsky’s Fire in the Blood and Peters’s 14th Brother Cadfael mystery, The Hermit of Eyton Forest), I was struck by how very differently these two authors (born just ten years, but unbridgeable worlds, apart) address the issue of human beings’ messy, inconvenient, and socially unacceptable human passions.

Fire in the Blood positively revels in adultery and murder, memory and regret, while The Hermit of Eyton Forest deals with treason, betrayal, robbery, and murder. For Nemirovsky, the fire that boils human blood from within is selfish, glorious, and liable to emerge or re-emerge at any time; the passions – sexual lust, especially – are unruly, messy, and containable by no human – or even probably divine – force. I recall reading in a book once, and I have no idea which one (which drives me crazy) that when it comes to marriage, it is always the dangerous time, that lust and adultery and boredom can kick in at any moment, with the full complement of extreme and disturbing consequences likely to accompany. I didn’t read this in Fire in the Blood but I may as well have, for that’s what it’s about - the absolutely primacy of the bodily passions.

Peters acknowledges such passions exist, of course, for murder generally arises from some variation of extreme human desire for sex, food, power, prestige, money, etc. But not only is the mystery in her novels always solved, but justice is always done. In the case of The Hermit of Eyton Forest, the man who dared betray the besieged Empress Maud is murdered by one of her loyal retainers – and not simply allowed to get away with it, but praised for making the betrayer pay the price! Almost no one suffers needlessly or in a way that doesn't have meaning.

There is a murder to solve, of course, but Cadfael has, again, helped a young couple who have become smitten with one another at first glance come together in socially appropriate and restrained ways; this is as necessary a piece of Peters's medieval whodunnits as the "dunnit" and "who" parts of the formula. Peters glories in the lust of youth, but only as always and ever tending towards one thing – legal, civilized, and contented matrimony. Those who experience unruly passions in Peters’s novels either die or are murdered – or both. But almost none suffering from the kind of uncontainable impulses so fearlessly invoked by Nemirovsky are allowed to live, even when they don’t act on their roiling impulses (I’m thinking of the poor lust-tortured, and of course murdered, brother in The Rose Rent)!

Peters’s world is defined by neatness, and Nemirovsky’s is defined precisely by the lack thereof. To recall, again, Amateur Reader’s assertion that all fiction is fantasy, what are we to make of the extreme dualities I’ve been confronted with by reading Nemirovsky and Peters almost back-to-back? That everything we imagine about what drives and regulates us is also fantasy? That our lives are neither as neat nor as sordid as either author would suggest, but some boring and inconvenient middle point between the two? Perhaps we read to engage in fantasies both of an easy regulation of our very human impulses, and the freedom to let them rule us...

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