Tuesday, July 26, 2011

In Praise of Ivory, Part II: Bliss and Bale

Of Bliss and Dance, Judith Ivory's duet of books (published respectively in 1995 and 1996), there's so much to say that any short assessment is bound to leave out much more than it gets down. That caveat in the front of my brainbox, I've decided to split my post on these books into two parts, the first of which will deal with the earlier novel in the series, Bliss.

I ended my last post on Ivory by talking about how much I admire the way she builds character from cultural particularities specific to the time and place in which she's working (again, France in the first years of the twentieth century). In Bliss, some of the most conspicuous of these particularities are art, money, and drugs. 

When Bliss opens, Bernard "Nardi" de Saint Vallier, cadet son of an old French family, is a failure and an addict. The former wunderkind of the Parisian art scene, he has given up sculpture for ether and "Celebrity, [his] old darling" for "Intoxication and Notoriety, old bastard girls that they were, strictly for the sake of their being half sisters to the one whom he loved who had left him behind" (131). His terminally respectable older brother Sébastian has confined him to a cabin not far from the falling-apart chateau that has historically belonged to the de Saint Valliers. (A building, Sébastian observes, not unlike Nardi himself.) Now, however, the family has fallen on hard(er) times financially; they are an old name without the old money to back it up and Nardi's extravagant gifts, which once promised to be a benediction, are now a distant memory. The former child of precocity and light has dedicated his life to drinking ether, spiting his brother, and, failing these distractions, the occasional idle chiseling of a tombstone.

Like mythic Achilles, Nardi has chosen to burn twice as bright for half as long. And, in a sense, Bliss is largely the story of a man half-dragged, half-crawling from the anesthetized fog of his mistakes. (Ether isn't an idle choice--it speaks quite eloquently of fashionable decadence at the end of the nineteenth century.) Although this arc might seem familiar, what lifts it out of the ordinary is the incredible attention to the details of the world. Firstly, there's Nardi's art. (Descriptions of it have always reminded me of Rodin's work.)The innovations--or is it insults?--of high modernism are still in the making, so we can forgive Ivory the dedication to representational sculpture--Nardi himself is having a crisis of representation that mirrors the one going on in the early twentieth century. That is, he's wrestling with some key modernist questions: What's the relationship of art to what it represents? Does it make a difference or is it completely pointless? How do I make it new? Are skill and virtuosity really that important? How can I make the art outside my head match the world I see from inside my head? What do I do if people say it's ugly? Does beauty matter anyway? 

Unlike many other Heroes with Talents, Nardi cannot be divided from his craft; his relationship to art isn't window dressing, it is, rather, the defining measure of his character. Even Nardi's addiction (his other defining characteristic) is secondary to his identity as an artist, if only because it is predicated on his failure as an artist. It is the skill that has taken the place of that other skill: "The first time you turn your backs, I will have a pint of ether down my gullet with another pint in my pocket! I can play this game blindfolded--and straitjacketed--because, you see, getting ether may be the only thing I do well, but, by God, I do it with practiced, predictable proficiency!" Nardi's preoccupation with line and form, his unerring faith in his own virtuosity, aren't present to us in the direct action of the novel. We can see the ghost of this youthful Nardi, the enfant terrible, the prodigy, not through flashback or extensive expository speeches but through his art, which is intimately connected to his fascination with the heroine. For instance, when Hannah Van Evan, the aforementioned heroine, finds an old sculpture of Nardi's entitled The Separation, Ivory describes it as one statue that appears to be two. The artwork depicts a pair of lovers: 

"not 'these' de Saint Valliers but 'this' de Saint Vallier. It's a single work, cut from a single stone . . . If you face them toward each other, each set of empty arms reaches out to the other set, with what might be disconsolate longing. But when you put them together . . . they embrace  . . . It's very difficult to do . . . to control the break so completely, then use it properly, and he did it in Paros marble, a stone particularly susceptible to cracking" (192).  

It's very telling, this little statue. In fact, it seems to serve as a metonym not only for Nardi's character--also "particularly susceptible to cracking"--but for his relationship to Hannah as a whole. An American secretary to an ambitious assessor and critic of art named Amelia Besom, she is a salvager of lost, fragile things. (Nardi is in the habit of making and then breaking them.) She recognizes value when she sees it and isn't afraid to insist on her share. (She demands a portion of the sale price when the statue goes to auction.) It only matters that the stone lovers fit so well together because the delicate substance of which they're made shouldn't allow it. The lovers are small and breakable. They can so easily be divided and sold off. The Separation describes in miniature the feat Ivory's book hopes to achieve--a union of creatures at once hard and soft, friable and flexible, appealing and impossible and rare. It's one of many mischievous, playful gestures in her writing. (The frequent use of epigraphs is another.)

Equally telling is that, when Nardi finally gets around to sculpting Hannah, he remakes her statue out of a poorly reviewed sculpture from one of his old exhibits. The sculpture is of a woman chiseling herself out of stone--Nardi's compliment to Hannah's stubborn, persistent self-fashioning. For if Nardi has a legacy of prima donnaism and substance abuse to overcome, Hannah also has a past to outrun back in Florida, where an ambiguous sexual incident has left her with no references and the questionable nickname "Miss Seven Minutes of Heaven." Hannah's arc has much to do with her learning to trust her own judgement, her own taste, her own body--and Nardi is the catalyst for many of these developments but never (thankfully) their architect. Hannah likes money and comfort and bright, loud petticoats and pretty men and sex--and for most of the book she is trying with all her might to override these instincts. She has good reason; these "weaknesses" have made her nearly unemployable and she has felt their stigma in other ways, too. And for this reason, the conflict feels entirely legitimate and entirely organic. But what I love most about Ivory's framing of these issues is how she allows Nardi to argue (not disinterestedly; he wants to sleep with Hannah very badly at this point) that pleasure and virtue aren't mutually exclusive, a lesson about women's sexuality I wish a lot more romance novels would take to heart. Nardi (losing command of his rather rudimentary English): 

"Sacredieu, you are good . . . You are, ah, érotiquement . . . eh, charnelle . . . carnal, tu sais, you understand carnal? . . . These qualities  . . . do not prevent that you are also pure and good. The one does not contradict the other . . . You must understand. There are times when it is good to be wanton. With me, par example [sic] . . . Now" (276). 

A lovely instance of what Evangeline Holland would call Ivory's Gallic frankness! It's also a more charming way than most of evening the sexual playing field. (There's no getting around the gendered fact that, for women in heterosexual historical romance, the stakes of an erotic encounter are almost always going to be higher than they are for men. Sure, the carpe diem pitch is seductive but it's also unfair as hell.)  Indeed, much of what I love about Bliss has to do with the way Ivory manages sex. There's not so much of it (other books have many more--forgive me, I just can't say love scenes--sex scenes) and yet sex is everywhere. Each scene in which an explicit erotic event occurs is heightened by the way in which these sequences reveal something about the conflict between Nardi and Hannah--in the passage above, it's two very different ideas about how to be mature about sex that create the...uh...friction that powers the scene. Another way of looking at Bliss is an evolution of desires. In the first part of the novel, bliss is chancy, destructive, explosive, immature: it's about wanting things that aren't good for you, whether it's a pint of ether or acclaim or a fling with your fiancée's best friend. The bliss of the latter half is, perhaps, no less risky or dangerous. The best you can say of it is that it's adult. It is, to use one of my Ivorian watchwords, sophisticated. It's a knowing kind of bliss, one that recognizes that any desire fulfilled comes at a cost--whether that desire is erotic, emotional, artistic or economic. As Nardi puts it (in one of my only favorite epilogues):

 Unjust criticism is not nearly the problem unjust praise is. I underline this, for, you see, though the critics disliked the show, the Vatican loved the statue of St. Joan and has asked me, in language that exudes wonder and admiration, to do the monument at the Duomo in Florence. I can't of course . . . but I blush at how flattered I was. I couldn't eat my breakfast once I'd opened the letter. I only wanted to read the words over and over. I wonder if I shall ever understand this about myself, why I am so needy. I am like a beggar on the street--throw me anything--when it comes to the good opinion of strangers. 

  --From a letter to his wife in Paris, 
    Bernard de Saint Vallier, sculptor, in Rome,
    from the Sébastien de Saint Vallier translation,
    The Collected Papers, Bouvier: Paris, 1933 (373)

Bliss ends not with an admission of strength but an admission of a vulnerability that looks to be permanently scripted into the HEA. (We know it's an HEA because 1) Nardi's writing these things to Hannah and 2) his relationship with his brother has been repaired to such a degree that Sébastian has been granted permission to translate and publish his famous brother's letters.) I find this epilogue moving and effective precisely because it maintains its claim that bliss is a hard won and not at all comfortable thing, that happily ever after is process, not product. The epigraph (drawn from Henry James) with which Ivory begins the book sums it up best: 

No themes are so human as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connexion of bliss and bale.

I will take my bliss and bale together, thank you, for the one means nothing without the other.

Next up: Dance


  1. This is such a lovely, lovely post and reminds me that I need to try more Ivory. I've read Black Silk, about which I had mixed feelings, but you make me want to read more.

    Also, I had to click the carpe diem link just to see whether it led to Marvell.

  2. I have mixed feelings about Black Silk too, part of why I want to write about it, I guess?

    Yep, Marvell! We do like our vegetable love 'round these parts.

  3. Wow, what a thoughtful and provocative meditation. This is my favorite of Ivory's books and my most re-read romance. I feel like it's the epitome of everything she does so brilliantly (and so singularly). You've pointed out some amazing moments I hadn't noticed, for which I'm profoundly grateful!

    I was particularly struck by your observations regarding the epilogue. Ivory is a such a...humanist -- her characters are living, breathing, imperfect creatures even after they find their happy ending. Indeed, as you suggest, their flaws are *crucial* to the precise form and flavor of their happy ending. What mastery it takes to transform a character's flaws -- the neurotic intensity of Nardi's self-awareness; his overweening need for praise -- into proof that we no longer need to worry for his romance with Hannah! But your post really highlights the subtle genius of the epilogue; it shows us that not only has he learned to manage what otherwise might have sabotaged his relationship, but that his very efforts in that regard have become yet another extension of his deep intimacy with Hannah, his witness and his support (as he is to her).

    much of what I love about Bliss has to do with the way Ivory manages sex. There's not so much of it (other books have many more--forgive me, I just can't say love scenes--sex scenes) and yet sex is everywhere.

    Word. I often think that this slightly gleeful, slightly depraved lushness (for lack of a better description) is what sets apart Ivory's work. She herself -- or some incarnation of The Author, an attitude or a mostly-muted voice of sly, droll, sophisticated, sexually frank enjoyment -- pervades the proceedings. It makes her narratives feel incredibly complex, and it engenders a different readerly attitude toward the proceedings; as you suggested in your earlier post, one feels like a far more sophisticated, worldly person when reading her.

    Thanks so much for this piece! I recall that you put Dance above Bliss in your personal hierarchy, so I'm vastly curious to learn what it was about that book that moved and impressed you so. Am hoping it will open my eyes, though I think I'd feel a physical pang if it persuaded me to relinquish Bliss as my all-time favorite. :)

  4. Gorgeous post. I blogged about this book myself some time ago. Several times because there was so much to talk about. The Ether, as Nardi's drug of choice is, as you say, no accident. Everything about him at the start of the book is etherised and numb and impotent until Hannah wakes him up. Actually, there's something rather Sleeping Beauty-ish about Bliss, on reflection.

    I look forward to reading your post on Dance even though I've never managed to get hold of a copy.

  5. @Meredith.

    Sorry for the delayed response--have been traveling in service of my Shadowy Obligations.

    In any case, thanks so much for reading! How fabulous to find some like-minded Ivory fans...

    Ivory is a such a...humanist -- her characters are living, breathing, imperfect creatures even after they find their happy ending.

    This, this! (More on that subject when I get to Dance . I love romances in which love is special and important for its own sake, not because it magically makes everything and everyone better.

    "Slightly gleeful, slightly depraved lushness" Oh! This is just right. It's a sensual delight in language that's practically unhinged .

    Thanks so much for this piece! I recall that you put Dance above Bliss in your personal hierarchy, so I'm vastly curious to learn what it was about that book that moved and impressed you so. Am hoping it will open my eyes, though I think I'd feel a physical pang if it persuaded me to relinquish Bliss as my all-time favorite. :)

    Hah, well, that was one of the funny things about writing this piece: it made me wonder all the while if Bliss wasn't secretly my favorite after all. Still not sure! It seems cowardly not to pick a clear favorite but maybe it's more accurate to say that each book makes me like the other better? They're such an object lesson in how to write linked books that actually justify the linkage!

  6. @Joanna

    Oh! I must have missed your post on it somehow. (I've not been following your blog long enough to get up close and personal with the archives. Nonetheless, I love your writing! Thanks for your kind words about mine.) Going to look for it right smartly...

    It's terrible that Bliss and Dance are so hard to get a hold of. I can remember paying ten dollars each for my copies and thinking it was the most I'd ever spent on romance novels. That was a couple years ago. Now, I think, they're probably even more expensive! It is very silly.

  7. Oh my posts were AGES ago - 2 years, I think.

    I wish Dance would be released as an ebook. It's not as if expensive second hand goods assist the author.