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Wednesday
Oct222008

Notes on a Scandal

It would hardly be circumspect to avoid comparing this splendid novel to another English-language work.  Both feature a scandalous and sultry affair between an adolescent and a member of the opposite sex old enough to be the child’s parent, and both precipitate some even rasher decisions.  Most surprising of all, in each case it is the elder lover who loves more and who, unlike this poet, is not as resigned to the truism that equal love cannot be.  Books like these can only be written in the first person because they represent the narrator’s quittance with the world; an omniscient storyteller buoyed by such cynicism would rapidly drift into murky philosophical waters and, frankly speaking, come off as quite a boring old pessimist.  Its immorality notwithstanding, Lolita involves beauty that not everyone is allowed to see, hence the highly subjective first-person narrator and no small amount of pent-up anger after this beauty is lost to him.  Humbert is angry with a modern world that has reduced men of letters to impoverished and risible vagrants; angry with the gods that robbed him, at the tender age of twelve, of his one true love and, with her, his youth, his innocence, and his selflessness; angry at the Philistines who do not recognize his genius (and he is most definitely a genius) and try to make him one of them; angry at his bourgeois wife, her comforting colonel, and the kitschy materialistic values that these boors tend to espouse; and, most unfairly, angry with the young waifs he hires to forget Annabel Lee because they are not Annabel Lee.  Dolores Haze, for all her faults, is not a part of the world he wishes to escape.  For him she embodies the opposite of all that he hates, and so she becomes all that he loves.  The mistake here (which Nabokov brilliantly amends in this later novel as well as in a new English translation of a previous Russian gem) is to seek an apotheosis amidst tawdry and quasi-pornographic circumstances.  Humbert may love his nymphet, but theirs is not a love we can or will ever endorse.  Contemplating such a romance – the novel’s first half – may hardly be differentiated from a poet’s wild fantasies about his lost paradise; but its grunting consummation, the second part of the novel, ushers a few disgusting characters into our theater who proceed to ruin the rest of the performance.  

This is not to say that British writer Zoë Heller, in her second novel, patterns her text on a classic.  Rather, she seems to grasp the age-old concept that you cannot sublimate something intractably earthbound.  The core of a literary work, its banner so to speak, must be a worthy theme: love, death, intellectual curiosity, nostalgia, remorse, happiness, remembrance, and so forth.  It cannot and should never be corporal gratification, however much emotional power such a connection to another human being often produces.  Heller's narrator must then be an old Romantic gazing upon a  princesse lointaine from some secluded nook, maybe simply the other corner of  a teacher's lounge.  She also wisely understands that, to improve the formula, the child should be older (Steven Connolly is fifteen), the first-person narrator should report such an affair instead of experiencing it herself, and, most importantly, the novel should mirthfully slip into satire.  A satire, one might add, of the simplest mold: that of society’s hypocrisy in the face of scandalous private affairs.  These small changes (apart from an older and female narrator) are brilliant enough to cause a seismic shift in perception on the part of the reader. 
 
Officially, the narrative belongs to Barbara Covett, a high school history teacher who, now in her sixties, has never been married.  There have been, she tells us, many special “friends” in her life, but she has chased them all away with her combination of neediness and arrogance.  Barbara does possess a superior intellect and writes alone and confident in a library surrounded by the best of modern English literature.  Her vocabulary’s expanse and acuity of observation are rarely beheld outside the literary arena, and for that reason (among many others) she feels that she cannot relate to anyone the way she relates to her wonderfully blank, wonderfully malleable diary.  It is in this diary that she begins the odyssey of Sheba Hart – 41, haute bourgeoisie wife, mother of two, and soon-to-be adulterous teacher – and Steven Connolly, 15, the working-class boy whose supposed learning disabilities are soothed by a teacher’s caress.  If that last sentence sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is ridiculous: Sheba and Steven are as unlikely a pairing, as oh, say, Sheba and Barbara.  Did I mention that these “friends" of Barbara’s were all women?  Or that Barbara’s text was driven by “an impulse that fell outside the magic circle of sexual orthodoxy”(6)?  

They (Humbarb and Sheblita) become friends at a local high school, but it is evident that neither one of them belongs there.  Barbara should be doing what she does most of the novel, that is, composing her salacious prose; Sheba, however, is not quite as artistic as her pretensions and trendy thoughts try to postulate.  Her husband Richard builds a basement kiln in their privileged residence for her to have a creative outlet, but Sheba ends up frittering away her time in naps and, literally and figuratively, half-baked projects.  What is interesting is how much Barbara, a brilliant psychologist of everyone except herself, demands of Sheba, a rather silly woman who has glided through life without too much countercurrent.  The most minor of Sheba's decisions are hot potatoes, and even her primary lusts are a matter of debate:
It is a nice question as to when exactly Sheba became conscious of having amorous feelings for Connolly or, indeed, became conscious of his having amorous emotions for her.  I have pressed her on many occasions for specificity on this issue, but her responses are maddeningly inconsistent.  At times she will insist that she was guilty of nothing more than maternal fondness for Connolly and was utterly “ambushed” when he first kissed her.  At other times she will coyly volunteer that she “fancied” him from the start.  I daresay we shall never know for certain the exact progress of her romantic attachment (51).      
Barbara’s queries for ironclad truth are not only stereotypically male, they evince the deep frustration of a scientist who has never learned to empathize with the creatures he studies.  It would almost be inhuman to begrudge Sheba her mixed feelings about such a risky venture.  But it is no surprise that the difference in age between Steven and Sheba is about the same as that between the two teachers, and Barbara, in asking Sheba how she feels about the boy, is essentially asking herself about Sheba.           
 
Barbara, Steven, and Richard are not the only ones who want her: there is another teacher by the name of Bangs who cannot stop imagining himself in Sheba's life.  One peppy day he confronts Barbara with this bit of personal ambition, thereby triggering the decisive series of unfortunate events.  Like all flirts who pretend to be unaware of their attractiveness but leave tangy tastes in their suitors' mouths, Sheba is hypersensitive to the opinions of others.  With occasional impulsive exceptions, she only wants to be wanted, but not pursued, or, God forbid, propositioned.  Rumors start that Barbara, now in wimpled guise, tries her best to squelch.  Well, maybe not her best:
Vulgar speculation about sexual proclivity would seem to be an occupational hazard for a single woman like myself, particularly one who insists on maintaining a certain discretion about her private life.  I know who I am.  If people wish to make up lurid stories about me, that is their affair.  I could not be sure, however, that Sheba would be offended, or enraged, or else horribly embarrassed.  After considering the matter carefully, I decided it was best not to tell her about the rumours (148).   
But writing about them at length – well, that wouldn’t do any harm whatsoever.  That the end is given full vent at the beginning of the novel helps the reader relish each well-chosen word, each delicate sentence, each felicitous combination of sound and syntax, without racing through what would otherwise be quite a page-turner.  And at the end, when Sheba’s former, changeless life is destroyed (like the tumult caused by her namesake) and her only friend turns out to be a duplicitous and lustful old woman, we sense remorse for, strange as it may seem, only Barbara.  She is, after all, unpleasant and self-serving, but she understands her limitations and parlays them into artistic achievement.  And Sheba?  Sheba is still napping on Barbara’s couch, a few pages into some novel she will never finish.

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