How did you first read Gaudy Night?
I misunderstood: is this a mystery novel? Is it a romance? I was one of those people, back in 2006, who went in with no idea what to expect and came out with no idea what had happened. What is this? Is this Latin? That's how this is ending? Five hundred pages and I don't even know what they're saying?
Well. Too early, I suppose, although even then I was no spring chicken. (I like that, spring chicken: just a hint of internal alliteration, those clacky consonants. I trust someone's using SPRING CHICKEN as a blog handle. Some urban farmer, probably.)
Three years later I tried again, having found a way in through a play I adored and an actress I trusted. (No spring chicken, she, which was entirely in her favor.) Aha! thought I, working my way through her back catalog, recognizing a title, maybe it'll finally make sense. If anyone could explain to me the charms of Gaudy Night, it would have to be Harriet Walter.
Well, baloney. The leads are perfect but it's a terrible film, isn't it? Poorly paced, badly directed, dark, weird, didactic, dodgy. Half of a mystery, half of a romance, unsatisfactory as either. Yet there are clearly moments when it wants to be more—say more—surely those 30 seconds on the river, when she watches him, when he glances up at her, when she quickly looks away and he smiles, confused, my god, there must be something there, something feeding the intensity of that, something the actors knew about the characters that the script omitted.
What it did was drive me back to the book.
There are those who maintain that you can’t demand anything of the reader. They say the reader knows nothing about art, and that if you are going to reach him, you have to be humble enough to descend to his level. This supposes either that the aim of art is to teach, which it is not, or that to create anything which is simply a good-in-itself is a waste of time. Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards.
— Flannery O'Connor, via Sympathy for the Art Gallery
So a year ago I sat, and I read and I read and I read, and when I finished, I went back and read again. So much to read! For a reader, such a gift. How did I miss this before? How was this the same story? It's a book of micro-climates, you know? Constant readjustments, temperature shifts, mood, point of view, hiding behind clouds. So much of what isn't said, so much suggested. "So, thought Harriet, it has happened." What? What's happened? Oh. That. Of course that, and it's tucked away in a fleeting thought. You have to stop for it, even as she pushes it aside. You have to see what she won't, the balance she doesn't consider. So much faith in the characters and in the reader, such respect for my patience and my intelligence and yes, my perseverance. "Placetne, magistra?" "Placet." A mystery novel and a romance and a character study, a question and an answer, and Dorothy L. Sayers, waiting for me to grow up. (Summer chicken? Does that work?)
And who do you thank for a gift like this, when the author herself is long gone? I thanked Harriet Walter, who owed me nothing but who signed a 1936 hardcover copy for me at the stagedoor one night anyway, signed it "Harriet Walter (Vane)," because she understood—and here I'm just guessing—what it means to stand in front of a person you admire and ask them to bless something you love.
David Foster Wallace, in his commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005: "You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship."
(My thanks to Dillon for asking.)