The Massive Continuity of Ducks

Dearest CF,

I enthusiastically second your nomination of Harriet Vane for Odd Saint, maybe the oddest of them all. This morning I’ve been thinking about Rereadings—that delicious readerly indulgence that Anne Fadiman explores in her book of the same name—and about the particular pleasures of rereading Gaudy Night.

Why does it  reward revisitings so richly?  For one thing, Harriet Vane is an older, wiser, more contemporary and (dare I say it?) more interesting Elizabeth Bennet. Like you say, she’s prone to mistakes, lapses in control, the “strange organic disruptions that thwart!”

But she’s not the only one given to those organic disruptions–Sayers is too. The novel is full of ’em and they’re the greatest pleasures of the book. I’m thinking of those tiny reflective moments, those gems like the ones you mention that have nothing to do with plot. They feel like the equivalent of digressions in an Old English poem—sections that could be swapped around and added in depending on the audience.

Since there’s no bard making those decisions for us, we make them ourselves. The book hasn’t changed but we, the audience, have. This is one of many misunderstandings we have when we’re young, I guess: I thought I was underlining the book when I was actually underlining me.

Glancing through my grimy dog-eared copy of GN, I still find many of the same passages compelling.  Sometimes I remember the flash of blue lightning that made me underline the first time. Other times the older self greedily usurps the passage for its own uses.

I first read the book in a defiant and exhilarated mood. It came to me recommended by the only real “flame” I’ve ever had, the one whose back distracted me during exams and whose neck forced me to kiss it.  This was one of his favorite books. I know, therefore, that in underlining the following passage at the time, I was pointedly comparing someone unfavorably to him:

There was a refreshing lack of complication about Reggie Pomfret. He knew nothing about literary jealousies; he had no views about the comparative importance of personal and professional loyalties; he laughed heartily at obvious jokes; he did not expose your nerve-centers or his own; he did not use words with double-meanings; he did not challenge you to attack him and then suddenly roll himself into an armadillo-like ball, presenting a smooth, defensive surface of ironical quotations; he had no overtones of any kind; he was a good-natured, not very clever, young man, eager to give pleasure to someone who had shown him a kindness. Harriet found him quite extraordinarily restful.

Tragically, I no longer know who my Pomfret was. These days someone quite different comes to mind when I read this, and I find myself heretically wondering whether Harriet might not have been happier with Reggie than with Peter.

Not really, of course. Fiction transcends even our own immensely fascinating biographies. If Harriet’s a more complicated (or at any rate more modern) Ms. Bennet, Peter’s a vastly more interesting Mr. Darcy and there’s narrative justice in their ending up together.

And yet it’s in the ending that a worry niggles. If this is ultimately an effort to marry the detective story and the Shakespearean comedy–formulaic genres dealing in intellect and love–what is the argument that makes this all work?

The concerns about such a marriage are, after all, real. I can’t say it better than you did:  “That grapple with work and domesticity and power (Hrothgar’s dilemma) is what’s on the table here, and dear Harriet can see all the swords as they hang on the wall.”

Harriet’s worries are legitimate!! Recently Family Guy had a bit (not exactly an organic disruption, but definitely a digression) where a Career Woman runs around town arranging important meetings and therefore feeling stressed. She meets a man who says “Don’t worry, all your problems will be fixed by my penis.”

Now, obviously GN isn’t merely a rom-com–in the Shakespearean or the modern sense–or merely a detective story, where social order is restored in the end. And yet the solution, as much as it tries to answer all the questions plaguing the protagonists, seems oddly pat. Are we safe accepting its answers to the problems of marriage? I wonder what you’d think of the short stories where Harriet and Peter have children.

I stumbled across the following passage (heavily underlined in black ink):

Could there ever be any alliance between the intellect and the flesh? It was this business of asking questions and analyzing everything that sterilized and stultified all one’s passions. Experience perhaps had a formula to get over this difficulty: one kept the bitter, tormenting brain on one side of the wall and the languorous sweet body on the other, and never let them meet.

Bemusedly mourning that I no longer underline my copy of Gaudy Night, I’d secretly labeled it a time capsule of my younger, naive, questing self.  Nice to see one’s own trajectory, watch the urgency of once-terrible questions dissolve. Then I read this and was reduced to my core puddle of doubt. This very weekend I banished the languorous sweet body to let the bitter tormenting brain do its work. It has stopped occurring to me that such a collaboration is possible.

Does this problem ever go away?

While Harriet and Peter are enjoying a moment free of power struggles on the banks of the river, Peter says, “How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks. ”

So. What is our problem finally? A passion, or a duck?



(Carla Fran’s response, “A Delicate Balance,” is here. For more Gaudy Night or Harriet Vane-related musings, see “The Body and the Mind” and “Odd Saint: Harriet Vane.”)