Invisible Cages

Hmm, it’s been a while. Frustrating, that.

In the meantime, I’ve finished Anna Kavan’s A Charmed Circle. Lovely title, thanks, I think, to the unexpected way in which “charmed” ends up conveying anything but a lovely reality: this little family group is most definitely trapped in some sort of bubble of low-grade malevolence. Some power seems to be holding them all there, unable to make their respective and definitive breaks for existences less bleak—and also limits them to a pale unlikeability that represses any interesting or empathetic tendencies they may have just below the surface.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Elles (Alone), Wikimedia

It’s a nice change from those quietly victorious mannered romances, where 1) persistent adherence to “true morality” will save our steely heroine, along with the gentle facade that keeps her human; where 2) the tale’s evil or even merely shallow contingent will earn appropriate kicks in the pants from Justice; and where 3) characters are either sympathetic or not—as opposed to generally annoying, with brief periods that make you want to like a given individual, but know it’ll be an attempt doomed sooner or later to failure or willful ignorance of the facts. So although you probably wouldn’t want to hang out with any of this book’s characters (Christofferson may be an exception here), their failure to live up to some ideal standard or to commit themselves fully to the task of saving themselves is more true to life than any governess-makes-good adventure.

Part of this faithful reflection of humanity giving itself only half a shot is the skillful way in which Kavan portrays people’s absolute misapprehension of the impressions they’re making on others, or of the thoughts and feelings going through the mind of whoever’s right in front of them. Beryl’s and Olive’s inability to talk to each other; the latter’s and Will’s completely different ideas of what’s going on between them; Will’s and Beryl’s mutual frustrations with each other’s misunderstood reactions; the young men’s apparent cluelessness about their own feelings—and all of the confusion remaining hidden beneath each individual’s ineptly constructed surface: generations have passed since this thing was published in 1929, but stake out a group of “young people” today, and it might seem that only the clothing and the presence of electronic gadgets have changed.

And the “old folks” are just as culpable, fallible, and insufferable as the young souls they’re supposed to be guiding. A mother whom the author gives free reign to wish her kids would go away, and openly to express her disappointment in them; a father who tries to barricade himself into book-bound isolation? You might be hard-pressed even today to find a writer willing to be so honest (as opposed to merely dramatic or hip to the latest requisite display of angst) about the fact that those bonds that are supposed to come so naturally and unconditionally are often out-and-out—and maybe even dangerous—myths.

But here’s the interesting twist: a tenuous, possibly unrealistic note of hope at the end, at least for Olive and Beryl. But it’s just that: a glimmer, and one we’re not sure is deceptive, naïve, hallucinated, or truly justified. The only way that final adjective can be applied is if – and that’s a big if—both girls get off their upper middle class butts and assert the truths they’ve discovered about themselves: their degree, at least, of power over their living conditions, their attitudes, their emotions. 

Oprah probably wouldn’t approve of this story—what amounts to Kavan’s extended reminder that the will often prefers inertia and the unpleasantness of the known to self-fulfillment. I’m guessing that’s one reason I’m so appreciative of its quietly unflinching confrontation with the realities of a species that’s anything but perfect.

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