Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 1, 2009

Diane Setterfield, _The Thirteenth Tale_

I READ THIS because it was April's selection in the book club my wife and I belong to; it also happened to be the 2008 choice of the "One Book One Lincoln," our local community reading program.

So, I read it, but did I enjoy it? Hmm. Not much.

The novel is narrated by a youngish woman who works in a rare books store (owned by her father) and writes slender literary biographies of recherché subjects on the side. Vida Winter, legendary and revered novelist, contacts the young woman out of the blue with an invitation to become Winter's authorized biographer. Winter's past is famously mysterious -- what was the suppressed "Thirteenth Tale" removed from her very first book about? -- and she has been famously cagy and unrevealing with would-be biographers, telling each a different story. But now she will tell all -- but only in her own way, in her own sequence, taking no questions.

Interesting enough premise, I think. Touches on what I think are interesting questions: why do we care what an author's life was like? What assumptions about art imitating life, or vice versa, do we habitually make? Why do intriguing fictions lead us to think the experiences of those who compose them must be equally intriguing?

Unfortunately for me, none of these questions is pursued. The novel quickly settled in to Winter's telling of her story, which was a gallimaufry of situations and incidents from 19th century novels -- eccentric gentry in a vast mouldering country house, dark family secrets, foundlings, twins, madwomen in attics, the burning down of the house.

By the end, we know what the thirteenth tale was about, what injury left the mysterious scars. and so on, and are left with the feeling of having eaten a very large Victorian meal and plumped down afterwards in a very cushy Victorian chair.

On a fairly regular basis, some critic or other, usually James Wood, starts tub-thumping about getting back to the virtues of the old 19th century novel, Tolstoy and George Eliot, close observation and moral seriousness, sense of place and history, and so on, none of this metafictional gamesmanship and preciosity -- but really, most 19th century novels were more like The Thirteenth Tale than they were like Middlemarch, and I think the 19th century left behind a more than adequate number of them, thank you very much.

No comments: