The inter-art subject was fun, but the constraint became too constraining (I was searching too hard to find perfect material). So this week I am moving to another subject—the gems acquired through random acts of reading.
I have always enjoyed wandering around libraries or my own library and picking a book at random (often with eyes closed), opening it wherever, and seeing what I get.* Perhaps this practice is a secular version of Bibliomancy, where a sacred book is balanced on its spine, allowed to fall open, and a passage selected with one’s eyes closed. My aim in this practice is not spiritual, but it is purposeful: I do these random acts of reading with the intention of finding some serendipitous truth or significance in the words I land on. As Swedish detective Kurt Wallender says in the marvelous PBS series “there are no coincidences.”
This week I enjoyed wandering around my neighbourhood, treasuring the last weeks of leisure (my new job begins July 18). We have at least three little free libraries in a five-block radius of our house.
I passed the newest and most elegant of the three mini libraries a few days ago and chose a couple of books. The following day, I dropped by the glass-doored cabinet and replenished the library’s supply with two books I have enjoyed and am ready to hand on: John Updike’s, The Beauty of the Lilies and Rachel Naomi Remen’s, Kitchen Table Wisdom.
One of the books I took was Anthony Trollope’s Early Short Stories. I enjoyed reading Trollope’s Barsetshire series in my twenties—they are highly addictive. But I didn’t know him as a story writer. As I am now writing stories, I thought I would explore his shorter fictions.
I opened the book randomly and started to read “La Mère Bauche.” I found the plot grim—a sixtyish stern mother (proprietress of a hotel) prevents her adult son from marrying his childhood sweetheart, and coerces the young woman (an orphan) to marry, instead, a fifty-year-old one-legged man. The young maid subsequently kills herself rather than submit to the man. The moral, I suppose, is that one shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of others: La Mère Bauche “never again laid down laws for the management of anyone” (90). Apparently Harper’s Magazine, who had commissioned the piece, hated it and never published it. I can see why.
As someone trying to learn the craft of fiction, I found more interesting than this nineteenth-century plot a physical detail of La Mère Bauche that carries symbolic weight. We are told in an early description of La Mère that “her eyebrows were large and bushy, but those alone would not have given her face that look of indomitable sternness which it possessed. Her eyebrows were serious in their effect, but not so serious as the pair of green spectacles which she always wore under them. It was thought by those who had analyzed the subject that the great secret of Madame Bauche’s power lay in her green spectacles” (66).
Madame’s green spectacles are referred to again at strategic moments. When the girl, Marie, beseeches her benefactress to consider her love for Madame’s son, “Madame Bauche’s spectacles remained unmoved; but not her heart” (72). Later, when angry with Marie, Madame is ready to carry out “all the threats conveyed by those terrible spectacles,” and an “angry fire glimmered through the green glasses” (p. 83).
At one point, those green spectacles take on a life of their own. When Marie closets herself in her room to weep after the wedding and refuses to leave, “twice did the green spectacles leave the room, covering eyes which also were not dry” (89). And Madame begins to wonder if she had perhaps done the wrong thing in insisting on this marriage.
Trollope uses the detail of the green spectacles judiciously. He doesn’t hammer away at the symbolism. Only much later did I wonder: If cheerful optimistic folks are said to see life through rose-coloured glasses, perhaps Madame’s green glasses illustrate her view of the world through the lens of jealousy and possessiveness. She must have her son all to herself and in clinging to him, she ruins four lives. If the glasses are the great secret of Madame’s power, they are also the secret of her tragic life. The glasses prevent her from following her compassionate heart.
This was a good story for me to learn about using character detail in a story. As David Lodge says, “all description in fiction is highly selective; its basic rhetorical technique is synecdoche, the part standing in for the whole” (68). Trollope’s careful use of green spectacles is a great example.
Trollope’s story had another message for me about the dangers of mothers clinging to their sons. I said good-bye to my youngest son on Wednesday. Two months shy of 22, he is off for an adventure, destination Halifax, with just a backpack and his dreams. For that good-bye, I put on my rose-coloured glasses and I am determined to keep them on.
*I was charmed to see that Ian Brown, in his memoir Sixty, enjoys the same practice of opening books, reading randomly, and finding treasure.
Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. London, England: Penguin Books, 1992.
Trollope, Anthony. 1859. “La Mère Bauche.” Early Short Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.