WWW Wednesday – 4-1-2015

It’s WWW Wednesday. This meme is from shouldbereading.

• What did you recently finish reading?

I just finished Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Views The Body, a collection of short stories of Lord Peter Wimsey’s detective adventures. Reading Sayers is like reading exceptionally literately written science fiction about an alien culture. I suffer an occasional outburst of republican annoyance at her class prejudice, for the central conceit of her mysteries is like the central conceit of Amanda Cross’s mystery series about the English professor and her copper boyfriend…that being well-born and well-educated fits one not only to be heroically useful to society, but to a just claim to an almost racial superiority. That’s all right. She does it very well, and it’s not as if the class she writes about has survived to annoy me today.

Every fantasy has two kinds of lies in it: the plot, which is a tapestry of lies, and the theme, which is a deep kind of self-delusion practiced by the author, sometimes consciously. I call this second lie the One True Lie of the Heart’s Desire. For example, the adventures of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum constitute the level of story lies, while the thematic One True Lie is that the whole world is a small town, and everybody knows everyone else or at least went to summer camp with his adenoidal cousin, and ultimately it is these deep yet ordinary ties that bind heroes and villains together and lead right to triumph against wrong. For another example, the One True Lie of Joe Haldeman’s Forever War is that the hero-soldiers are so expensive to train, and their experience so precious to the human race, that they are not allowed to retire from the war; whereas the real world truth is that the moment a soldier puts on his uniform he is, essentially, of no further use to society, and unwelcome if he chances to survive the war. And the One True Lie of nearly every fantasy about wizards is that the taller one’s pointy hat and the longer one’s long white beard, the better a wizard one is. If that were true, then tenure would be an infallible indicator of intelligence.

I do like what reading Sayers does to my sentences.

• What are you reading now?

Somebody said that something grows by the meat it feeds on, so naturally I’m reading Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. There’s a glancing reference to Wimsey paying a visit to the one woman who doesn’t roll over and beg for his attention (my wording), which hints that she may have written this book while planning Strong Poison, the story that introduces Wimsey’s leading lady for the rest of the series. I’m hoping someone will set me straight in the comments to this post.

What fascinates me about Murder Must Advertise is its portrayal of the work life of an advertising agency office. I spent years in the pink collar ghetto in Chicago, so I find the corporate culture of Pym’s Publicity charming, and Wimsey’s incognito invasion of same an instrument to illuminate the differences and similarities between modern office life and that of Sayers’ time and city.

I’ve just come upon the passage in which Wimsey, dressed as Harlequin, crashes a bacchanal at a drug-dealer’s spacious riverside abode, climbs a fountain, and dives faultlessly into the shallow pool at its base. Many years ago now, someone proved by comparing this passage with a similar passage from Dorothy Dunnett, describing the antics of Francis Crawford of Lymond at a similar party, that the indistinguishible voice and manner of the Dorothies and their descriptions of their heroes illustrate that Dunnett slavishly admired Sayers. Or something. Have you heard this theory? I definitely saw Lymond in Wimsey’s Harlequin. And that both Dorothies are in love with their heroes.

• What do you think you’ll read next?

Sayers’ Strong Poison. Then Gaudy Night, unless I decide to take the long way home and read all four titles in between Wimsey’s & Vane’s first meeting and “I will.” (Sayers really dragged out that romance before she brought it to happy conclusion.) As I recall, the annoying class thing happens quite a lot in Gaudy Night. I remember feeling ultimately alienated from Harriet Vane’s feelings, the last time I read it. My soul must bear the indelible stain of the coarse-fibered lower orders. We’ll see how the book affects me next time around.

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WWW Wednesday – 4-1-2015 — 28 Comments

  1. I don’t know about slavishly, but there is a lot of evidence that Dunnett admired Sayers. Their heroes are both second sons (their brothers holding the title as their fathers are dead), both take a certain amount of psychological damage because of war, though they become ultra competent; they both have smart mothers, then there are the little homages, such as the Somerville family being named after the college Sayers attended, and said later were the happiest days of her life. And so on.

    I’m no Sayers scholar, so can’t address the writing order or how the story evolved in her head, but in Murder must Advertise I find the depiction of the Bright Young Things interesting, for their restless, glittering emptiness. There is far less of the smug self-admiration of that group than you find in Mitford, for example, and also (at a single remove, but it’s there in the ‘birth will always tell’) in Georgette Heyer.

  2. Yes, MMA was written after STRONG POISON.

    I love the idea of the One True Lie. So many romance novels have the OTL that a marginally socialized (not to say psychopathic) man can somehow be transformed into a decent husband. Or (this is in PRIDE & PREJUDICE) that if you just hang tough someday you can achieve both money and love — this is why the book had to end before Kitty and Mary died spinsters.

  3. Dorothy Sayers has a way with words, doesn’t she? The scene that first caught my interest (cough*cough*) years ago was the exhumation scene in “Whose Body”. It’s possible that scene sparked my interest in World War I, since I have been besotted by that period ever since.

    • It is terribly and awfully notable if you go and read the authorized sequels — there are 3 or 4 of them. They are just not the same. No one could handle language like Sayers.

  4. I found that I could read Gaudy Night (at least the last time through, a few years ago) because I could understand Harriet’s confusion about most everything, and I could also understand the antagonist’s confusion, fury, and desire to “set things right.” But I do wonder that if I was among those retired from the world and teaching, would I have had the courage to be the gadfly constantly pointing out drily that the emperor had no clothes. Because that entire house of cards collapses if you fail to impress upon your children that privilege requires that you give freely and take care of those in your charge. That class forgot that when things grew very hard, and their way of life changed radically, and withered.

    Occasionally Sayers pointed that out, mostly indirectly. I’m thinking about Wimsey’s healthy children versus his brother’s children, for example.

    I tried one of the continuations of the Wimsey clan. It was the one written from the fragments. Sayers’ words leapt out, showing the others as serviceable but no more.

    Tried four Heyer mysteries, and liked only Envious Casca. I just need to like one person in a novel to enjoy it, and I didn’t like anyone in the other mysteries of hers I tried.

    • I do not feel that Heyer shows to the best in her mysteries. There is a reason why she is known for Regency romance — I hope you have tried at least one or two of those.

    • Cat writes:
      >Tried four Heyer mysteries, and liked only Envious Casca. I just need to like one person in a novel to enjoy it, and I didn’t like anyone in the other mysteries of hers I tried.

      Oh, the sadness, Cat! My favorites are No Wind of Blame and Behold Here’s Poison. The ample, vulgar widow and her daughter in NWoB just tickle me to pieces. And her svelte and menacing young gentleman-about-town appealed to me in BHP. But Heyer did have some duds, especially when she was trying to write Littratchur. I point here to Penhallow, full of very unlovely characters and very lovely writing.

  5. ” . . . it’s not as if the class she writes about has survived to annoy me today.”

    What makes you say that?

  6. Been a while since we had one of these. Since then:
    Read:
    The Uses of Diversity: A Book of Essays by G. K. Chesterton. Also All I Survey: A Book of Essays
    Marvels by Kurt Busiek
    Astro City, Vol. 4: The Tarnished Angel by Kurt Busiek
    Scout’s Honor by Henry Vogel
    Villains Inc. by Marion G. Harmon
    Bite Me: Big Easy Nights by Marion G. Harmon
    Young Sentinels by Marion G. Harmon
    Small Town Heroes by Marion G. Harmon
    The Truth by Terry Prachett
    Once More* *with footnotes by Terry Prachett
    Going Postal by Terry Prachett
    Making Money by Terry Prachett
    Interesting Times by Terry Prachett
    The Last Continent by Terry Prachett
    The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
    Reading:
    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
    To Read:
    Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

  7. It’s one of the things I love about Sayers, is that having set up the clearly ongoing Harriet Vane storyline in Strong Poison, she could step entirely away from it with Five Red Herrings, come right back to it in Have His Carcase – and then write possibly her two best novels, Murder Must Advertise and The Nine Tailors, each of which gives barely a mention to Harriet – and that obliquely and never by name, because no gentleman would raise a lady’s name in such circumstances – before whirling back to chase down that particular story in the books that follow (which may not be her best, but remain my favourites). It speaks not only to her own strengths but to the strength of literature, that it can bear such abrupt shifts and yield such perfect satisfaction.

    • I must point out that she stepped away from it as any writer might step away from a problem that looks insoluble, to work on something else in hopes the problem would “clear” as Harriet Vane put it.

      Her declared intention was to marry off Lord Peter and be done with him, but after two novels where she failed to bring about the union, she was getting frustrated.

    • Chaz, you have a literary soul. Me, coming from hacksville, I suspect that her editor said, “What’s this romance you’re stuffing into a highly successful series about THIS ONE GUY? Quit with that. You’re endangering the franchise!” and she had to talk the editor around to it…maybe bargain to get one Harriet for every two non-Harriet books. Just a suspicion.

  8. It is instructive to look at Harriet Vane struggling with one of her own characters, I think it was in HAVE HIS CARCASE. Wilfrid was being sticky and refused to perform his ordained plot function of complicating the life of the detective; Harriet had to go through and renovate him into an actual human being, which then forced the entire book up onto a higher level.
    This tracks precisely with how Sayers struggled with her hero. To get married with any integrity Wimsey had to become a real human being, and it took her several books to evolve him into one. Then she was able to take him back to Harriett and get them riveted.

    • (It has to be admitted at this point that I have always felt, from Sayers’ descriptions of them, that Harriet’s books just sound bloody awful. Even after the humanising of Wilfred.)

      • I think Sayers was deliberately doing that. Writer fun! (That, BTW, is one of the things wrong with the modern sequels. They are grimly serious, not a bit of whimsy in them.)

      • I have always thought that the awfulness of Harriet’s books was her sly comment on much of the popular fiction of that era.