Monday, September 7, 2009

Angels and Insects, Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

The second story in Angels and Insects, "Conjugal Angel," is sort of the obverse face to Byatt's earlier novel Possession. The heart of Possession is the love affair between two Victorian poets that Byatt invented. One of the attractions of that book is her pitch-perfect mimicry of poems she invents for her characters, and the analysis she has her literary detectives perform on the poems.

All this falls flat, though, in "Conjugal Angel," when she takes the game a step further and concerns herself with the real poet Alfred Tennyson and the real poem "In Memoriam." Now, instead of giving us a whole new poem, she only gives snatches (since, after all, one can read the real poem anywhere), and gives the analysis to Tennyson himself and his sister, which just feels tendentious. Underneath it all, there's a nice romantic story trying to get out (just as in Possession and also in "Morpho Eugenia"), but here it's too buried in all the Tennyson details.

Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by Gordon Dahlquist, takes an intriguing idea and chracters, and pulls them until they're spread paper-thin, which is a pity. The novel, set in Victorian England, gets off to a good start when Miss Temple gets a letter ending her engagement to Roger Bascombe, and she decides to follow him and see why he might have broken the engagement. Dahlquist writes wonderful scenes, and is great at imagining derring-do and hairbreadth escapes. But, at the end, it just didn't amount to very much -- a simple adventure doesn't suddenly become deep just because it's been stretched to 800 pages.

No comments: