The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Valedictory for the Year

This may not be the last post of the year--la Caterina and I are planning a quiet and restful New Year's Eve, and, if anything sparks, I'll probably have time to add one last thought for the year. It's been a strange one, 2016. I was born in a year ending in 6, and for the last three decades, those years have signified major change in my own life. 1996 and 2006 were two of the toughest years in my life.

2016--well, keeping things in the "I" as they say in EFM, and leaving outside forces and stories aside, it has been one of change, as were its predecessors, but far more positive.

My own life in the law and in the church have taken me in different directions than I anticipated. In my legal role, the unexpected departure of a great leader and friend led to me taking his place. In the last six months, I have been challenged, engaged, and genuinely touched. I could not be more grateful for the chance to try to make a difference.

Likewise, my ministry at St. Barts has been a revelatory experience. In this first full year of ministry, I have had the chance to preach, teach, and to create a protocol for Eucharistic Visitors. ("Create" is unduly generous. Make that "cobble up from the work of others"). Here's fun fact: my best source of several fine ones for the protocol came from a diocese that I know, but where I probably could not get licensed, due to my pro-same sex marriage views. It was interesting and humbling to encounter those with whom I strongly disagree in a context where I learned greatly from them. It's a good reminder to me of what C.P. Snow called "the virtues of the other side."

Normally, I do a conspectus of the blog at year's end. But I think I want to quote one post on just this theme tonight:
Blog mascot Betty the Anglocat has taught me many lessons. And this morning, as she lay next to her old adversary Elspeth P. Kitten, I thought how lucky I am that these disparate animals who make up our herd of cats live in (relative) peace.

Later in the day, I reflected on what a gift the people we disagree with can often be to us. Oh, I know--we can get into shouting matches, flame wars, succumb to obsessive "comment wars" because someone is wrong on the internet. La C often uses this cartoon to call me out. And she's right to. Because sometimes they teach me things I need to know and even offer me comfort when I need it. The trick, I am slowly realizing is to shut up and listen. Not just hear, listen, and try to see why we disagree, and to disagree respectfully.

It doesn't mean caving. It means respecting the person with whom I disagree enough that I make the imaginative effort to see through his or her eyes, and to grasp their perspective emotionally, not just logically. It makes disagreeing much less disagreeable when I don't leap to the conclusion that disagree with me is clearly done in bad faith or lack of thought. (I know; I'm turning 50 this year--you think I'd have learned this sooner.)

Another example: I just this past week bought a devotional book that is privately published, kept in print as a labor of love. The person who curates this work is someone with whom I am at variance on several issues significant to us both. I wrote directly for a copy, and received an email that was warm and gracious. This person has enriched my life; if we had met in a different context, we might have seen each other as caricatures not people with much more in common than might otherwise be thought.
I still use that devotional book, for certain seasons of the liturgical year--

--Side Note: For the rest of the year, I pray the Daily Office, using the Daily Office Book. I mention this because here's another point of connection with someone I often disagree with, sometimes on his blog, sometimes here. Regardless, I do agree with Dreher on the power and utility ritual, liturgical prayer (versus spontaneous, extemporaneous prayer). And, by the way, it's not either/or--you can make room for spontaneous prayer within the liturgical framework of either the Office or the Breviary--

We still have Elspeth; we still have Betty. They coexist. And so, at the dawn of this blog's tenth year, it's still Betty's blog, I'm still Anglocat, and we'll go on prowling into the future.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Maturity is Sort of a Stoic Response to an Endless Reality"

Well, that's what she said:

The late Carrie Fisher was so much more than Princess Leia, or even General Organa; she was funny, effervescent, a script doctor, a novelist, and an unblushing, uproarious memoirist.

Here she is, in a justly famous bit, skewering George Lucas and bitterly praising him:

What a brilliant, funny, fiery spirit. We lost her too soon.

Rest in Peace

Monday, December 26, 2016

Facing the Raven

When I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Training for the diaconate, the vagaries of my schedule, the location of the hospital I was assigned,, and the available transportation options meant that I tended to work fewer but longer shifts. My choice, not any requirement put on me. But it did mean that, on the occasional breaks and lunch times, I needed a fair amount of reading. As it happened, what I felt I needed, and what I read, was something fairly light, with a hint of darkness. Well, more than a hint, in fact, but not Bierce level bitterness.

For a good part of my time, I read Simon Raven's two linked novel sequences, Alms for Oblivion and The First-Born of Egypt (the latter have not been collected in omnibus edition, though the series is available on Kindle). (Pro tip: between the two sequences, two novels, The Roses of Picardie and September Castle introduce some new characters, and revivify--hey, it's good enough for Bram Stoker--some old characters.) Raven's cynicism and wit had drawnly attention in watching his 1975 adaptation of Trollope's six political novels, The Pallisers, in which he darkened some characters (Phineas Finn) and excavates hidden depths in others (Dolly Longestaffe). My interest was piqued.

So, as I went on this extensive--though by no means comprehensive--journey through Raven's works, I didn't really absorb as much I am doing now, as I am re-reading at least Alms. Oh, I got the main points--Raven's self-hatred and anger at what he, at some level, deemed his wasted potential (his authorial stand-in is a handsome young man who, after his first appearance, in which he betrays his own true love (another schoolboy), is coerced to join the Army, where he gets his face quite literally shot off, and spends the bulk of his appearances (barring flashback novels) as a grotesque) view with his job de vivre, resulting in a curious mixture of rakehell and moralist.

And Raven's finding honor in his outsider characters--physicist Daniel Mond, Indian officer Gilzai Khan, a prostitute named Masie--while his more "honorable" characters often lack it (Captain Deterring, the Marquess of Canteloupe, politician Somerset Lloyd-James). And yet, the failures sometimes do come through--authorial stand-in Fielding Gray, more often than not fails to show courage, but he stands by Mond when it's dangerous to, he pulls off one quite thrilling James Bond-like escape in The Judas Boy that probably explains why he got hired to write "additional dialogue" for On Her Majesty's Secret Service (hilariously, Raven's credit comes before the screenwriter's). But more often than not, Fielding, despite his essential decency, disappoints.

That's because Fielding, like almost all of Raven's characters, betrays those whom he loves and cares for. He has principles, but often fails to live up to them; he fails his friends by seizing a chance to redeem his early tragedy. And all around him are like him--corrupted by lust, whether of the flesh or of power, or for gold, Raven's people are in a sense doomed--their lives are being frittered away chasing that which is already lost. The betrayals meant to seize that which they hope will bring them joy itself deprives them of what they seek. So in Places Where They Sing, Tom Llwellyn (that rarity in Raven, a sympathetic socialist), regrets the death of his marriage, which was founded on his worship of his wife Patricia until intimacy cut her down to human proportions, revealing that he has no real love left for her--and the lack of love wears her away. Critics often write about Raven's wit but the cynical humor is founded on tragic sensibilities.

I can think of one exception, though: The adroit way Raven depicts the seemingly ill-assorted, but actually quite well suited couple, the publisher Gregory Stern and his upper-class wife Isobel is most interesting, because they probably enjoy the one fully functioning, healthy heterosexual relationship portrayed with any depth in Raven's fiction. There are many well realized unhappy relationships, along the way, but the Sterns are each attentive to the emotional needs of the other, and until Gregory's death in First-Born, they are devoted to each other, in their own idiosyncratic way.

No, the piece I missed out in my first reading is how well Raven had laid out the architectonic scheme of the thing long before the later novels were written. A story glancingly told in Sound the Retreat frames all of First-Born and dominates the last volume, The Troubadour.

Raven's flirtation with the supernatural (deepening in the last volumes) is normally held in tension with his extreme realism about the seamy side of life and his sad recognition of the fallibility and capability of pretty much everyone. He ends Alms in The Survivors with a poetic conceit that
I set out nearly 3 years ago, and which feels even more timely and poignant now:

In the last novel, The Survivors, at the memorial service for one of the few steadfastly moral characters in Raven's opus, Daniel Mond, all of the compromised, blackguardly, roguish, and even occasionally good characters are gathered together in Venice. As all of the characters stand about, exchanging witty banter, seeking to advance their own interests, or find a partner, Raven writes, "a curious thing happened." He provides capsule descriptions of the various conversations, involving all present, except for Piero, a young Italian prostitute, and adds:
while all this was going on:

A dark stain crept up the creek towards the landing stage, at first just a trickle of black, then spreading until it covered the entire width of the creek, coming fast and strong with the tide as more and more poured in behind it, lapping against the banks where the birds nested, lapping round the shining boats, finally coming right up to the steps of the landing stage and settling there, barely an inch below the bottom rung, silent, filthy and opaque.

And yet nobody noticed except Piero, who was staring down from infirmary window and saw that the black stain was all over the lagoon, whichever way he turned his eyes.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Man of Mercy A Sermon on Matt 1: 18-25 Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, December 18, 2016

Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth will proclaim your praise

Ever since I was a teenager, there’s been this musical that’s pretty much always running on Broadway. Maybe you’ve heard of it—Les Miserables? No?

The best thing it did for me was get me curious enough to read Victor Hugo’s novel, which is about 1500 pages long (you might want to skip the 100 pages describing the Paris sewer. You won’t miss anything, honest. You’re welcome.)

So this 1500 page long baggy monstrosity of a book could just possibly the best exploration of Christianity in fiction. Because what Victor Hugo does n Les Miserables is gives us two heroes, not one. You all know about Jean Valjean, the thief who stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children and spent nearly 20 years as a galley slave. After he’s finally released, he breaks his parole—because no one will give him work, shelter or food if they know he’s a convict—and is taken in for a night by a charitable old bishop. After Valjean tries to steal from the bishop and gets caught by the police, the bishop pretends that Valjean’s lie that the silverware that he stole was a gift is true. He gives the matching silver candlesticks to Valjean, and sends him on his way, asking him to make a good life for himself.

The other hero is normally thought of as the villain, but watch how you label people. Inspector Javert—we never know his first name; for all we know he doesn’t have one or remember it—is a firm believer in two principles: “respect for authority and hatred of rebellion." He is "absolute," in his belief; Hugo calls him a "fanatic." But his fanatical absolutism allows him to find a "straight path through all that is most tortuous in the world."

Not very promising hero material, really.

But he’s honest. He doesn’t break the rules he enforces, and when he thinks he is wrong in accusing the local mayor of being Jean Valjean (he actually is Jean Valjean, so Javert’s not stupid either), he submits himself for punishment after confessing his error to the Mayor. He’s brave, too; he infiltrates an uprising led by students, where he runs once more into Valjean. When Valjean asks to execute him for the rebels, Javert is ready to die bravely—and astonished whe Valjean uses his knife to cut the ropes that bind him, and lets him go.

Valjean’s gone into the brewing rebellion to rescue the man his adopted daughter, now grown up, loves.

In the musical they pretty this bit up. Valjean sings that the young man “is like the son I might have known/if God had granted me a son.” In the book, Valjean can’t stand the jumped up little aristo. And he’s going to steal his daughter! But he goes to rescue the wounded boy, and, after carrying him through the Paris sewer—runs smack into nemesis: Javert.

But Javert isn’t quite himself. He lets Valjean bring the boy home, and when Valjean returns to be arrested, Javert has left.

He’s let him go.

He’s not proud of it; he’s ashamed of this, his finest moment the moment when he realizes that “the rule might be inadequate in the presence of a fact, that everything could not be framed within the text of the code, that the unforeseen compelled obedience.”

He gets it enough to show mercy to Valjean, but can’t stretch to show mercy to himself. And so he kills himself, after writing a report of abuses by his fellow officers.

Today's Gospel reading though is about a man who also knows that "the rule might be inadequate in the presence of a fact, that everything could not be framed within the text of the code, that the unforseen compelled obedience." A man of mercy.

Because for me, the main action of today’s Gospel happens before the Angel shows up. Joseph has discovered that Mary is pregnant. Now, as Joseph and Mary were betrothed, any sexual relations between her and another man was adultery.[1] And as explained in Leviticus, if a man has relations within the walls of a city with a maiden who is betrothed, “you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death.” (Deut. 22:23)

Later, the adult Jesus is asked to approve the stoning to death of the woman taken in adultery, so we know that penalty remained in effect in his lifetime.[2] And perhaps we understand something of the root of Jesus’s quick-witted mercy shown to that woman: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone saved her life.

Maybe we’re too used to the story of Joseph and the Angel to see it in the round as it’s read to us. Remember that Joseph was a man of royal lineage, but in the same gospel we’re reading, we’re told that he is a craftsman, a carpenter (Matt 13:55). Joseph lived in an honor culture, and any indiscretion on Mary’s part would bring shame not just on her, but on her betrothed, in whose honor and social status she had become embedded.[3]

Joseph could have reduced the injury done to his honor by enforcing the penalty against Mary. He didn’t.

“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly,” we are told.

Unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.

That didn’t let him off the hook, though. He would bear the disgrace, the loss of honor.

Joseph’s mercy here is especially powerful and moving because the Angel hasn’t shown up yet—he has no reason to believe that Mary is innocent. He has no reason to believe anything of her except that she has betrayed him.

He forgives her anyway.

We don’t know why Joseph doesn’t assert his rights, other than the brief description of him as a “righteous man.” What’s surprising about this is that Joseph’s righteousness isn’t in following the Law. In fact, he flouts the Law—he denies it its prey.

A more typical definition of righteousness from Joseph’s time, or Jesus’s, would be to follow the Law, to enforce it.

Like the scribes and the Pharisees who drag the woman taken in adultery to Jesus, and try to bully him into approving their killing her, as the Law requires.

By the standards of their day and their culture, they are being righteous. It’s the righteousness of Inspector Javert, but it’s none the less a form of righteousness.

They’re thwarted by a new kind of righteousness, one they’re not able to recognize or see as righteous. So Jesus outfoxes them, and saves the woman’s life.

Some three decades earlier, Joseph is preparing to do the same thing. He’ll divorce Mary quietly, avoid the scandal to the extent he can, and take the rest on himself.

But Joseph is living this new kind of righteousness that Jesus lives later. Joseph’s righteousness is not that of the Pharisees. Like Jean Valjean, he sacrifices his own good for the sake of someone he has no selfish reason to protect. Why? Maybe it’s because he knows that “the rule might be inadequate in the presence of a fact, that everything could not be framed within the text of the code, that the unforseen compelled obedience.”

According to novelist Roberston Davies, Joseph is unofficially the patron saint of the betrayed. I like that, because of what his example tells us about how to respond to the people who we love, and may even love us, but who let us down, even break our hearts.

Respond with love. With forgiveness. Put aside the anger, and ego, and try to minimize the harm. In a very different context, writer Steven Moffatt summarizes Joseph’s response to what he understandably sees as betrayal: “Do you think I care so little for you,” he asks, “that betraying me would make a difference?”

We can’t always perfectly live up to that high a standard of love. But God can, and does. And Joseph does his very best to return God’s love with his own loving merciful response to what he thinks is Mary’s crime. He doesn’t plan to remain married to her. But he does try to protect her safety and even her good name as much as he can. He shows us how it’s done, and maybe passed that lesson on to that baby Mary brought into his life.

And all this before the Angel says a word.


[1] “Mary in the Gospel of Matthew,” in Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Minneapolis, Fortress Press,1999) at 40.

[2] See also WF Albright & CS Mann, The Anchor Bible: Matthew (Garden City, Doubleday & Co. 1971) at 7-8.

[3] David A. de Silva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove: IVP Academic 2000), at 33.

Monday, December 12, 2016

"Wheat. I'm Dead,They're Talking About Wheat."

Beyond the fact that Love and Death introduced me to Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite, its sly takeoff on Russian novels, and the films of Ingmar Bergman got me when I was too young to get the references. As I grew older, my affection for the film only grew.

There's a wisdom under the humor, though, that is very evocative for me. Allen's film is funny throughout, but it's profoundly humane, with its delicate, gawky send up of heroism, its affectionate malice to overwrought classics in print and film--a simple joy in life.

In a fraught time it's easy to forget that. And I should remember.

I had a charming encounter at the Second Avenue Deli yesterday. I was in clericals, on my way up to Albany after my last service of the day, and the Starbridge book study I have been leading, and la Caterina was driving me from St Barts to Penn Station (we were to grab lunch en route).

Anyway, traffic was murderous, so we stopped at Second Avenue Deli for pastrami. As I waited for one of the two countermen to get to me, I was engaged, just a little shyly, by a youngish (I'd say 30s) man and his wife. They kept kosher, so he was ordering with care. But when the counterman gave them each a hefty sample of pastrami, they gestured toward me. Teh contemn sliced me off some, and we all exchanged smiles.

"You have to live a little," he said.

"It may not be good for you every day," she added. "But when it's good pastrami--"

Her husband joined in--

"Then you have to live a little," they concluded.

"You never know," the husband added, with a little subfusc humor.

"I'm optimistic," his wife pertly replied.

The white haired, rubicund counterman, beaming, said "Every morning, I thank God for giving me my life back from the night."

The husband chuckled. "Seriously?"

"Seriously," the counterman replied. "What a gift--and it never gets old."

Just as well I hadn't preached that day. I can't compete with that mini-sermon, seasoned with a generous free sample of pastrami.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Sort-of Brief for the Partial Defense: Neville Aysgarth

In the course of the book group meetings St. Barts is hosting on Susan Howatch's Starbridge series, we've reached Scandalous Risks and Mystical Paths, up for discussion on December 11.

In discussing the books, I was asked why I had any sympathy with Neville Aysgarth, the "liberal Protestant Modernist" who is dean of Starbridge Cathedral in 1963, and who --

Ok, Spoiler Alert.

As Elaine Kendall summarized the plot:
"Scandalous Risks" is told in the first person by Venetia Flaxton, a peer's daughter who falls hopelessly in love with the venerable dean of Starbridge Cathedral. No matter that Dean Stephen Aysgarth is past 60 and Venetia a mere 26; less matter that he is her father's closest friend, husband to the neurotic Dido and parent of adult children, a man in a highly conspicuous and vulnerable position, a bit overfond of the bottle and at chronic odds with his Bishop--he's still irresistible to Venetia.

When the book opens, Venetia is a jaded woman in late middle age, revisiting the scene of her youthful indiscretion. Her voice is brittle and wry as she recalls the consuming passion that dominated her life; Howatch will maintain this tone throughout her witty, literate but essentially didactic book. The time is 1963, just as the waves of social change are lapping at English shores. The Beatles are still fresh-faced boys sporting Dutch bobs, skirts hover at a respectable fingertip length, and a Church of England bishop has just published a revolutionary treatise called "Honest to God," in which the gospel of love is taken far beyond its traditional limits. This radical volume has not only caused considerable turbulence within the established church, but provided Dean Aysgarth with justification for his dalliance with Venetia.

That romance is the sum and substance of "Scandalous Risks." Because the lovers must be so exceedingly cautious in the cathedral town of Starbridge, much of the love affair is conducted through letters. Venetia and her dean (whom she calls by his given name, Neville, because his wife calls him Stephen) write to each other daily, arranging their weekly trysts in his car and their more casual encounters on a bench in the churchyard. Because the logistics alone would hardly make riveting reading, they discuss church matters and debate the provocative issues raised by the author of "Honest to God."

They also make love, though not in what Howatch delicately calls "the ordinary way," because the dean has promised his wife that his adventures will never degenerate into technical adultery. Unsatisfactory as this restraint may be, Venetia stoically endures it, abstinence only serving to make her heart grow fonder. Non-consummation combined with Howatch's formal, elegant prose style lend the book its 19th-Century quality, a mood reinforced by the minutiae of church activity. During the course of the love affair, the dean is embroiled in a controversy involving an avant-garde sculpture he's commissioned from another attractive young woman; the work of art is considered unsuitable, if not downright pornographic, by his ecclesiastical superiors.
NB: To be fair to the late John A. T. Robinson, that's not quite the point of his book; a much more nuanced and helpful critique by N.T. Wright is a good counterbalance (though Howatch has Charles Ashworth give some good counterbalance in the novel, as well, Wright is more charitable).

In any event, why do I have some sympathy (not all that much; he's the primary bad actor in the book, but some) for Aysgarth?

First, we have to remember that Aysgarth is exclusively viewed from the outside in SR; we don’t see his thought processes or into his heart other than through externals, such as his words and his notes to Venetia. Some of them are true, others are not. It's harder to assess his actions when we don't have full access to his thoughts and feelings, as we did in Ultimate Prizes.

In the 16 years since we last encountered him, Aysgarth has lived in a very difficult marriage with his notoriously "impossible" wife, Diana Dorothea, known as "Dido." Dido is emotionally unstable, eager to impress, clever, and dangerously receptive, in that she's infamously indiscreet. She loves her husband, but not in a way that he finds easy to accept. He has tried very hard, and been quite devoted to her throughout that time, refusing speak ill other, putting her welfare over his career. Aysgarth is sacrificing again and again to achieve his redemption, but over time, has forgotten his duty of self-care; he has mistaken submission to Dido’s whims with loving her (which he finds very hard to do). Just as he did with his first wife, Grace, Aysgarth doesn’t have the stomach to face the hard facts of life. He tries, but embroiders them, to make “everything lovely in the garden.” Denial is his key defense mechanism.

Aysgarth has been, prior to the events in the novel, pretty successful in trying to make the relationship with Dido work, despite all their incompatibility. There is nothing in SR or in the later novels to suggest that he has engaged in any similar relationship prior to Venetia’s crying jag on the vacation to the Hebrides. The relationship clicks into a place that has nowhere to go but disaster, but is, like that of his mentor Bishop Alex Jardine and Ashworth's future wife Lyle Christie before them, an attraction of people who are fundamentally very well suited but not placed so that they can marry. Jonathan Darrow, often Howatch's spokesperson, aptly uses Venetia’s car as a metaphor for the “transient” nature of their relationship.

Notably, Aysgarth has been deprived of some important truths by his mentor, Alex Jardine, who (in Ultimate Prizes) held out for him as an ideal the amitie amoreuse, but hid from his the disaster(s) it had fostered in Jardine’s own life. In other words, Jardine’s reticence leads Aysgarth to think that the kind of relationship he wants with Venetia when she is, to him, his Egeria, is easily attained and maintained. But in fact, it’s difficult, easily sliding into exploitation and folie a deux. This was true for Jardine (with Lyle, obviously, but also with Loretta, and, as we see in Mystical Paths (Nick has a psychic flash), with Lady Starmouth). Jardine may only censure himself for Lyle, but in fact, he’s been far more harmful than he can bear to face. Aysgarth follows his example with grotesquely naive expectations, because he buys Jardine’s “glittering image,” in part because, when he was dying, Jardine told him a lie to preserve it, while gaining Aysgarth’s assistance with Charley and Lyle.

John A.T. Robinson plays a role here; his book Honest to God reaffirms Aysgarth’s faith that he isn’t being exploitative, but rather that he is consecrating an unconsecrated love, and that he’s pursuing his vocation by doing so. As the gap between his ideals and half truths and reality gets wider and wider, he falls into the weaknesses Darrow warned him against: drink and denial.

It’s not that Aysgarth is a victim, it’s that the whole milieu of the early 60s colludes with his self-deception. The reality he has to face—that he must let Venetia go, that Dido is his for life, that he is hers forever—and not just legally, but in fact, emotionally-- and he must find a way to come to terms with that very difficult, but not necessarily completely bleak reality. Darrow tells Venetia that Aysgarth is "bound to [Dido] with chains of steel," and he's right. Aysgarth isn't trying to break free of Dido, but to make room in his life with her for Venetia. It's a doomed quest, every bit as doomed as Jardine's own domestic menage in Glittering Images was doomed. But these aren't evil men evilly chortling and choosing to do evil; they're both men who have failed to face reality and allowed their own gifts for rationalization and wish fulfillment to blind them.

Notably, Aysgarth is also without much support. Charles has Lyle, Darrow, and Alan Romaine to hold him together. Aysgarth could go back to Darrow, but has nobody else who is useful (Dido actually tries, Venetia and Aysgart's daughter Primrose can’t, his protege Eddie is too obtuse). Notably, his bishop—Charles—does not have a pastoral relationship with him, a fact that is in large part, but not exclusively, on Aysgarth. In Absolute Truths, we’ll see Charles come to grapple with his share in that relationship.

End of the Line: Curtain and Poirot

Curtain: Poirot's Last Case- Pledge Event Screener from Dennis Allen on Vimeo.

Now, when I was a boy unsystematically working my way through the stacks of the Floral Park Public Library, I plowed through the fiction collection, laying waste as I proceeded. Among other things, I read pretty much all the Hercule Poirot novels and a fair number of the stories.

As I grew up, I confess I lost interest in Poirot and Christie generally. She was too much a puzzle-setter, and the characters in her novels too often generic pawns so that could each equally be guilty, or not. P.D. James, herself a formidably great novelist operating in Christie's genre but decades later, limned the flaws of Christie and her Golden Age peers well:
Agatha Christie has said herself that she makes no claim to be an outstanding literary novelist but she knew precisely the limits of her talent and her style was lively, the dialogue good and the story never falters in the telling. It is easy to criticise her as a writer, but someone who could provide relief, entertainment and excitement to millions of people throughout the world, in peace and war, cannot be dismissed as negligible.

The novels of the Golden Age were particularly strong on plot and puzzle. The nuances of characterisation, setting and any criticism of social and class inequalities were sacrificed to the originality of the plot and the ingenuity of the murderer. Bodies were found in trains and aeroplanes, in church belfries, buried in an already existing grave, and were frequently found in rooms where door and windows were firmly locked. Victims were killed in a number of unique ways including being precipitated down an iron staircase and hit by a stone propelled from a catapult. The world these writers portrayed was one which readers shared and understood, and any sense of the world outside the comfortable confines of conventional English village life was absent.
True enough, although--and I think I'm right here--there are one and a half exceptions here. The half exception is Christie's first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and the true exception is Curtain, her farewell to Poirot, faithfully adapted as the end of the long-running series starring David Suchet.

Styles gets a nod because of the gentle air of melancholy that suffuses the book, especially in its opening chapters. It's not a great book, or a great mystery, but there's a desperation and a threadbare pride animating Poirot, who is at the time (during WW I) of the events of the novel a refugee from occupied Belgium. That alone is enough to prevent the proceedings from wholly lapsing into the spot of coziness James deplores in Golden Age mysteries--a trap Christie fairly often falls into. (Not always, though. And Then There Were None ain't deep, but it's loaded with atmosphere, and claustrophobic dread.)

But Curtain, ah, Curtain--the novel that shows just how good a writer Christie could be. Hastings, a lonely widower, struggling with his inadequacies as a parent and a younger generation he can't understand; the Luttrells, so caught up in their financial anxieties that they've lost sight of the fact that they love each other; and Poirot himself, desperate again, struggling with his own physical decay and grappling with an adversary who has found a way to kill and kill again, while remaining untouchable. Poirot is wracked with self-doubt, ethical qualms, and outright fear. It's as if Thackeray's 'dolls" as he called his characters woke up as Trollope's much more deeply realized, psychologically thick people.

So in Curtain, Dame Agatha transmutes her dolls into people. Her characters--at any rate, most of them--come to life, because there are stakes, and they are not pawns on a board.

Christie famously disliked her most famous creation, and in some of his outings, the insufferable Hercule is just that. But, oh, how he shines when his back is against the wall.

I don't want to stretch it further than it will go. Christie is no James. But in this last novel (not the last written, but the capstone), she pulls off a literary coup, she punches above her weight, and retires as the Queen of Crime.