Friday, July 14, 2017

Karleen Koen: Through a Glass Darkly (1986)

My comments on this sweeping historical romance (“the grandest love story ever told”) connect with what I wrote elsewhere about Katherine McMahon (2000). But anachronism is by no means so prominent a feature of Koen's method; you might say that Karleen Koen’s sense of the present is indistinguishable from her sense of the eighteenth century.


It is a vast book, and towards the end is plainly preparing for its sequel. The end of the grand love story is not the end. As it happens that accords with our persistent troubled idea that the love story is after all not quite grand, but qualified in manifold ways, its hero inappropriately old, an inconstant bisexual whose love for Barbara may not after all be his deepest (that may have been his love for her grandfather). There is no pretence that Barbara’s hopeful sketches play any part in his subsequent beginnings of Devane House – his gigantic dream, which she allowed herself to think of as “their dream”. He dies, it seems, hardly aware of her –- there is no sugary concord here. He is ruined and disgraced. Barbara’s happiness coincides with, but does not redeem, a profoundly corrupt Parisian milieu and the death of all her younger brothers and sisters from smallpox. These are not flaws. In Barbara’s tumultuous day-to-day experience everything co-exists, as in life.


You know what kind of a book this is, of course. Which almost blinds you to its unpredictability: to Philippe, Harry, Mary, Thérèse, the smallpox, the sodden father, the duel, the Bubble. No story goes the way it should. Everyone is a victim. The characters are effortlessly maintained, but the tie between character and destiny is intangible. Diana (Barbara’s whorish, mercenary mother) is an arbitrary exception – her stupid resilience pleases us in the end. She begins to assume, when nothing else can, the halo of comedy; a surprising discovery, the kind of thing that may happen when you write without bother about critics, knowing you will attract none (I don't count).


The story is well-laden with goods (Roger is very rich). One of Karleen Koen’s characteristic sentence-forms is the rushed list, separated by “and”s:


It was Christmas Eve. Saylor House was bustling with servants cleaning floors, polishing furniture and silver. Delicious smells of roasting capon and goose and turkey wafted from the kitchen. Various sets of small tables were being moved into the great parlour and the hall and set with heavy damask trimmed in lace and china plates and silver forks and spoons and knives and cups and salt cellars. It would be a late supper, at eight, and then the adults would stay up toasting the evening and watching the yule log burn...



This is 1715. Lest you doubt, turkey had been a popular Christmas dish in England since  around 1650. The author’s research throughout is fairly impeccable but the syntax proclaims that anyway all the detail is to be flown through in pursuit of the elusive tissue of a life that won’t stop going on. The other characteristic sentence-form is the one-word sentence, usually a name. Roger. Barbara. These sentences are like stabs, their meaning comprising whole passages of experience that are signposted as adequately though of course as drastically as we name a dot on a map as :-- London.


Her grandmother had saved the letter, giving it silently back to her; she read it and reread it until it tore along its creases. I am not a fool, he wrote, I know there is much to be explained between us. Philippe. Who smiled at her under the great dome of Roger’s pavilion of the arts. If Roger thought she would pack her trunks and rush headlong to London tohis waiting arms, he had another thought coming. (Besides, she had rushed headlong once, already, in the spring, and he had not even realized it. Rushed headlong into Philippe’s smile. Like running into a wall.) She would wait. She would let her heart tell her what to do, and she would not make one move from Tamworth until she was certain. Roger could wait  . . . as she had waited. She still had much to deal with. There were dark dreams of her father and of Jemmy. Of Charles and Richelieu, who opened their arms to her, but somehow she could never reach them. She had to understand it all. And herself. Roger, wait. As I have waited. Ah, Roger, the girl who loved you in Paris does not exist, and the heart of the one who does is so hard . . . it needs to soften. I need time to heal, to forgive and forget . . . 


It doesn’t much matter what Barbara’s heart tells her; unknown to her, Roger is already dying. Yet because we share Barbara’s experience we will continue to feel that what the heart tells matters totally. What other people may tell is nothing, it’s of no consequence unless the heart accords with it and absorbs it into its own telling.

This is what Roger says to Barbara in the last few months of his life, the last thirty pages of his life.

            ‘Behind,’ he whispered. ‘The French are massed behind . . .’



            ‘Barbara.’ He croaked out her name. ‘H-hurts.’



(After her performance in the Christmas play) Roger stared at her, his mouth compressed. ‘I hurt . . .’



            ‘I . . . love . . . you . . .’


This was Karleen Koen's first book, and at the time it set some kind of record for a publisher's advance to a new author. She has now written four books, all ,I think, set in the eighteenth century.



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